Cliven Bundy received a minute-long standing ovation when he arrived in the Old Paradise School on Saturday.
His family got national attention for its 2014 armed confrontation with federal authorities in Nevada. That standoff, and one at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, endeared the Bundys to many Americans at odds with the federal government.
Cliven, and his sons Ammon and Ryan, had charges related to the Nevada protest dropped on Jan. 8. Quick to return to their activism, they visited Paradise for an event entitled “Freedom and Property.” It was organized by Plains residents Dan and Roxsanna Ryan, whose son Jake joined the Oregon occupation, and a group called the Coalition of Western Property Owners.
The Bundy men were joined onstage by supportive speakers from Montana and elsewhere. With their recollections of their actions and charges of federal overreach, they kept a standing-room-only audience rapt for over three hours.
“Many want to call us anti-government,” Ryan Bundy said at the outset. “That is not true. We are very in favor of a government which operates properly.”
Flipping through a pocket-sized Constitution, he laid out his definition of a properly functioning federal government, one that respected states’ rights and land ownership.
“Everything we have comes from the land, everything ... [and] all wealth comes from the land,” he said. “Those who control the land and the resources control the wealth … and I believe that God intended for that to be in control of individuals and not of governments.”
Disputes over land ownership drove the Bundys to prominence.
For two decades, Cliven Bundy refused to pay fees required for grazing cattle on federal land in Nevada. When the Bureau of Land Management attempted to round up his cattle in December 2014, armed protesters came to Bundy’s defense, and federal agents eventually backed down.
Then, in winter 2016, Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in support of a local rancher’s quarrel with federal authorities. After one of the lead occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, was shot dead in an altercation with FBI agents and Oregon state police, the occupation ended.
Federal prosecutors charged the brothers, Cox, and other occupiers with conspiracy, gun crimes, and theft and depredation of federal property. Some convictions resulted, but Ammon and Ryan, Cox, and Anaconda resident Ryan Payne were all acquitted of the conspiracy and firearms charges in the fall of 2016. Another protester, Plains resident Jake Ryan, awaits sentencing on charges of depredation of government property, trespassing, and tampering with vehicles and equipment.
More recently, on Jan. 8, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed with prejudice the case against Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and Ryan Payne, for their roles in the 2014 Nevada standoff, after finding that federal prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have helped the defendants.
Ryan Bundy gave a broad perspective on their journey through the courts. “When our government becomes the violator of our life, liberty and rights, damaging it rather than protecting it, then they have become the true criminal.”
“That’s what happened to the Hammonds,” he said, referring to the Oregon ranchers whose actions touched off that protest. “That’s what happened to us.”
Later speakers elaborated on these events’ implications.
Billy Hill described how several decades’ worth of grievances with federal land management agencies had inspired him to form the Coalition of Western Property Owners to advocate for land users’ needs.
Chris Briels and Shawna Cox defended the Malheur occupiers’ actions. “I was out at the refuge lots of times, and I felt like my city that I lived in was way more dangerous,” said Briels, who resigned his post as the Burns, Oregon, fire chief to support the protesters. “I shook Ammon Bundy’s hand and I looked him in the eye and I immediately knew this is a real person, this isn’t some phony person — you can tell it right away.”
Cox gave a suspenseful account of her experience at the roadblock where LaVoy Finicum had been killed. From the backseat of Finicum’s truck, she filmed a widely shared video of the shooting.
“LaVoy gave his life to defend us, and he knew what he was doing was right.”
Andrea Parker honed in on the feds’ actions during and following the Nevada dispute. Parker’s husband, Eric, joined the 2014 Bundy standoff, during which he was photographed pointing a sniper rifle at federal agents. After a lengthy series of trials, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.
“We have a duty to elect people and hold them to a standard,” she said, adding that the same statement applied to the federal agents who, in her view, grossly mistreated Eric and his comrades during and after the protest.
State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, then gave a detailed account of federal actions before, during and after the Malheur protest. She read a petition she was preparing for submission to Congress and the president, asking that the actions against the Hammonds and Bundys be redressed, that the protesters from Oregon and Nevada be pardoned, and that federal prosecutors and law enforcement be investigated and prosecuted for wrongdoings they had allegedly committed during the protests and trials.
The Bundy family patriarch ended the night by re-focusing on the Constitution. Mentioning various proposals to restrain federal agencies and return land to states, he remarked, “We have a Constitution! Good heavens! This battle’s already been fought for us.”
“My 15-second defense is that I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land, and I have no contract with the federal government.”
Several legal experts have debunked the Bundys’ view of federal land ownership rights. Their actions and public statements — including that African-Americans had been better off as slaves — have garnered strong opposition, brought out by their visit to Montana. “We were receiving some calls and emails of concern from folks” prior to the event, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, on Saturday morning.
These concerns prompted the network and three other groups — Montana Conservation Voters, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the National Wildlife Federation — to circulate an online statement declaring that “Bundy extremism has no place in Montana.” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers issued their own opposing statement.
Denouncements also came from Rebecca Shoemaker of Arlee, standing with a friend outside. Holding a sign reading “Bundys = White Privilege” and speaking — in unraised voices — with Ryan and others, she described a racially skewed criminal justice system at work in the Bundy cases.
“If there had been any armed black groups or any armed Muslim groups that decided to take over a federal government office, they would have been killed. And if they hadn’t been killed, they definitely would have been in jail and prosecuted.”
Fielder brushed off the event’s detractors. “I will stand with people who stand for transparency and justice in government, no matter what the so-called Human Rights Network, which is actually an anti-human rights network, no matter what they say, I will stand for transparency and truth.”
As guests filed in, she predicted that “this is the kind of thing that will go down in history books as a major event in the history of our country.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.