The residual power of Ammon Bundy

What’s it like when the West’s most notorious anti-government figure comes to your town?

Days after being evicted from their home by the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office in late November, the Nickerson family was perched high above the 50-acre plot outside Orofino, Idaho, that they still considered theirs.

Despite 10 years of nonpayment on their mortgage, a protracted court battle, foreclosure and the armed police officers who removed them from the property — called Peace of Heaven Ranch — the Nickersons assured anyone who would listen that they weren’t going anywhere. They claimed their eviction had nothing to do with mortgage payments. “It’s because we are Christian,” Donna Nickerson told me one cold afternoon.


Under a green pop-up shelter, the family of three men and five women had neatly set a long table for a dinner of chicken and potatoes roasted over a roadside campfire. They’d sleep inside a long white van with an American flag decal and a warning affixed to its side: “It Happened To Us. It Could Happen To You.”

This story — of religious persecution and a squabble over property ownership — rode on the fierce winds of social media until Ammon Bundy caught a whiff of it. Bundy, one of the West’s most divisive figures, hopped in a car alongside members of the Real Idaho Three Percenters militia to see what was going on for himself. He knew he had the power to get answers no one else could.

The 44-year-old is best known for his confrontations with the federal government: first, in 2014, when he helped lead an armed standoff against federal agents at his family’s Nevada ranch in Clark County; and then, two years later, when he led the occupation of the federally managed Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. In Oregon, Bundy was inspired by the story of Dwight and Steven Hammond — local ranchers, a father and son, who’d been resentenced to prison for setting fires on public land. (President Donald Trump pardoned them in July 2018.)

Supporters of the Nickerson family stand next to a smoldering campfire overlooking the ranch they were evicted from. The family claims the eviction was motivated by their religious beliefs.
Pete Caster/The Lewiston Tribune
In both situations, Bundy, his father, brothers and supporters operated from a belief that the Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to own land — a theory that has no legal basis. Despite this, a jury acquitted Bundy of charges for the Oregon events, and he walked out of jail a free man after the Nevada standoff when a federal judge declared a mistrial in January 2018.

In March 2020, Department of Justice prosecutors will make oral arguments to a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, asking for another chance to try Bundy and his family for the 2014 Nevada standoff.

If the government loses again, the family’s notoriety — and power — will only continue to grow. In the past two years, Bundy has inserted himself into squabbles over land ownership around the West, lecturing about federal overreach. “People contact me … expressing how their property rights are being infringed upon,” he told me. “So we go and we research it, just like we did with the Hammonds.” When he shows up in a town — from Whitefish, Montana, to Smithfield, Utah, to Modesto, California — his reputation precedes him. People wonder: Will my town be the site of the next big standoff?

“My staff (was) pulling their hair out. These people are calling, yelling at them, saying, ‘Let me talk to the sheriff.’ And (my staff would) ask to take a name and number, and they’d hang up.”

The Nickerson situation had the potential to be the right kind of tinder, and Bundy is an eager strike-anywhere match. “Get as many people as you can there,” Bundy urged his followers in a Facebook Live video. “Please respond. I think this warrants our action. Thank you.”

The phones at the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office started ringing immediately. Angry calls came from Texas, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Arkansas and every Western state. “My staff (was) pulling their hair out,” said Chris Goetz, the sheriff. “These people are calling, yelling at them, saying, ‘Let me talk to the sheriff.’ And (my staff would) ask to take a name and number, and they’d hang up.”

As Bundy and the militia members drove toward Orofino, Goetz steeled himself for the worst. “Once he did that first video that he was going to Orofino, the media requests came from across the West. All these people are interested because Ammon Bundy threw his name in there,” he said. “It’s real: The number of people that were on their way and were calling here because he said, ‘Go help these people.’ ”

Soon, Goetz’s phone rang once more. This time it was Bundy himself calling — just like he called sheriffs in Clark County, Nevada, and Harney County, Oregon, years ago. He wanted a meeting.

The sheriff knew he had to say yes.

Ammon Bundy at the New Code of the West Conference in Whitefish, Montana, where he urged audience members to take a stand in their own communities, as he has done.

WHEN THE MALHEUR National Wildlife Refuge standoff pushed Harney County, Oregon, into the headlines, David Ward — the county sheriff — was at the center, trying to keep the peace. Four years later, neighbors there are still divided over the federal government’s role in the county.

But in December, Ward put it all behind him: He resigned, because his department was underfunded. The standoff is “a closed chapter of my life,” he said. But perhaps more than any sheriff in the West, he can speak best to the unique sway Bundy has over people. “I don’t think he’s going to stop interjecting himself,” Ward said. “People probably reach out to them every time they have a grievance. He’s their knight in shining armor.”

During the Malheur occupation, people in Clearwater County watched closely as the standoff dragged on, said Goetz. Orofino’s an old mining town at the county’s edge, a small city bifurcated by the rumbling Clearwater River, attracting floaters and fishermen to its rugged beauty. The county is home to the Clearwater and St. Joe national forests and the federally owned Dworshak Dam. Malheur, Goetz said, “could happen here.” He called a meeting of local leaders to discuss, “What are we going to do if it does?”

It’s interesting to hear this from Goetz, who has aligned with causes many Bundy supporters would also agree with: In 2017, he supported terminating the law enforcement arms of federal land-management agencies, such as the Forest Service. (He does, however, believe those agencies should keep their investigative departments.) He’s a “Constitutional Sheriff” — part of a movement of sheriffs who believe their authority is the highest law in the land. But he’s not as radical as the sheriffs who’ve come to the Bundys’ side; he actually works closely with federal officials. “I support some of (the Bundys’) positions, but I don’t support their tactics,” he told me. “Taking over the refuge in Oregon? I’m not sure what they were trying to accomplish with that.”

But quickly, Goetz saw how Clearwater County residents felt about Bundy. Just as soon as Bundy announced he was coming to Orofino, locals told him to stay away. “There were more people than I thought that said, ‘We know what happens when you show up,’ ” Goetz said. And that comforted him. “They had confidence that I’m doing the job.”

By the time the Nickerson story reached Bundy, Goetz had been dealing with it for months. He said the family set up a booth at the local fair where they repeated their message — “It Happened to Us, It Could Happen to You” — and told people they wouldn’t leave their property. “The Nickersons made numerous threats that they wanted a Ruby Ridge,” Goetz said, a reference to a deadly 1992 standoff. (Donna Nickerson denies the allegation.) “They told one of the court clerks that ‘we’re going to win either way; we’re going to stay there or they’re going to shoot us all and we’ll be with God.’ ”

“They told one of the court clerks that ‘we’re going to win either way; we’re going to stay there or they’re going to shoot us all and we’ll be with God.’ ”

When Bundy later repeated those words — “Ruby Ridge” — in a Facebook video, it was a not-so-subtle dog whistle to his followers in the Patriot movement, a call to lace up their boots. The incident on a remote Idaho mountaintop looms large in the hearts and minds of anti-government activists. After separatist Randy Weaver failed to appear for a court date, an 11-day standoff unfolded between Weaver’s family and federal agents. In the end, it left three people dead: one U.S. marshal, Weaver’s 14-year-old son, and his wife, Vicki — shot in the head by a sniper while holding the couple’s infant daughter.

“They said it enough times and to enough people I had to take it seriously,” Goetz said. “These threats got to the governor’s office, the senator’s office. The governor’s office was particularly worried about these Ruby Ridge threats.”

But when he sat down with Bundy and the Real Idaho Three Percenters in Orofino, Goetz showed them paperwork proving the Nickersons simply hadn’t paid their mortgage. They met for over an hour. “I had really researched all these issues. When they asked questions, I had answers,” he said. The meeting ended politely. Bundy seemed satisfied. And within hours, he made a new video calling off his followers: They needed to stand down. He said the Nickersons had lied to him.

All of a sudden, the phones in the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office went quiet.

Ammon Bundy outside a conference in Whitefish, Montana, last year.

BUNDY HAS WEIGHED IN ON several other conflicts, too. This fall, he was in Ravalli County, Montana, with the militia, investigating a fight over public lands and private property. They questioned, in a video, if it could be the site of the next standoff. And in January, Bundy turned his attention to an Oregon Child Protective Services case. “You will be challenged to the end,” he yelled, addressing a CPS worker in a Facebook video, “whatever that end is. … You can say I’m threatening. I don’t really care.”

People take him seriously now, Bundy told me. “The elected representatives open their doors to us, and the sheriffs and bureaucrats. In Orofino, we went to the county courthouse. They were as cordial and helpful as anybody could possibly be,” he said.

Peter Walker, author of Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur Refuge, thinks counties across the West closely watched the 2016 occupation and won’t stand for anything like it. “People in (Clearwater County) pretty quickly — and these are very conservative people — said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, this isn’t your community, go away,’ ” he said.

“I think that the entire Patriot movement is constantly looking for situations like this where they can create these standoffs.”

Still, Bundy has power he didn’t have before the 2016 occupation, Walker told me, particularly among people already inclined to anti-government sentiment. And David Neiwert, author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump and an expert on right-wing extremism, agrees. “I think that the entire Patriot movement is constantly looking for situations like this where they can create these standoffs,” he said. “It’s mostly a matter of being a situation where they feel like they can make a public justification for it ... and also it has to be one where they can actually succeed.”

In Orofino, a woman behind a cash register at a gas station said everyone in town heard Bundy was on his way. But “there was no trouble with the gentleman at all,” she said. He was there, and then he was gone. He looked into the Nickerson case and concluded they were “just a bunch of bums sitting up there.”

And so, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Ammon Bundy’s rush to save an Idaho ranch ends without a standoff.” That Ammon Bundy did not lead people to take up arms against the government again is now a newsworthy event. But what didn’t make headlines was the hypocrisy that informed his decision: How Bundy, in the past, has led two standoffs under the guise of a lie about the government, and yet chose not to indulge a new lie in the Nickerson case. And that says a lot about the source of his power. It comes from fear — a fear that he and the militia could strike anywhere, anytime. If the conditions are just right, if the lie is compelling enough and enough people want to believe it, maybe he’ll lead gun-toting people to take over your town, too.

But the Nickerson case wasn’t right. So there the family was: camping on the rocky shoulder of a steep mountain road. No snow was on the ground yet, but the November breeze cut like razors. Bare hands found their way into sweatshirt pockets, and the first embers of a campfire snapped. “(Bundy) spent just minutes with us. He spent all his time in town making deals? I don’t know,” Donna Nickerson said. “We are the victims here, but he tried to change that.”

The Nickersons continue to add new videos to their website. In one, the family, wearing jet-black fake beards and thick black eyebrows, sings a song about Chase Bank. “We’ll fight all the way for our home,” they sing. “Yes, we’ll fight all the way for our home.”

At the end of January, the Nickersons were still out there on the side of the road.

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

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