There were no helicopters overhead, no gunmen in the hills, no scuffles or threats, just miles of quiet desert scrub dotted with the occasional cow. Cliven Bundy smiled. “Well, we definitely won.”
A year ago, his Nevada ranch crackled with tension as federal agents squared off against a so-called citizen militia which rallied from across the United States to defend Bundy, as members saw it, from government tyranny.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wanted to seize his cows over $1.2m in unpaid fees for grazing on federal land over two decades. Bundy rejected the agency’s authority, making him a rightwing folk hero and triggering the fraught face-off.
It ended after officials withdrew , fearing a bloodbath. Many assumed it would be a fleeting, pyrrhic victory for Bundy until authorities found another way to tame him.
But this week, 14 months later, his 500-strong herd grazed as normal, chickens clucked in the yard – and the feds were a memory.
“From the moment that they left we have felt freedom on this ranch,” said Bundy, 69, seated in his rambling wooden home, the porch draped in US flags. “We might be the freest place on earth.”
He has not seen a single federal official or vehicle on his 600,000-acre property, which sprawls 80 miles north of Las Vegas, and feels no pressure to pay a cent of the $1.2m, he said. A banner on the highway proclaims “freedom” and “liberty”, followed by a sign indicating “Bundy melons”.
A surge in beef prices to a five-year high has brought more good news for Bundy, a registered Republican. He is using the bonanza to make improvements to his property. “I’m operating the ranch as normal, still producing red meat – steaks and hamburgers. That’s what I do.”
His victory is a coup for the radical, gun-toting anti-government fringe which championed him as a symbol of defiance to Washington authority.
Wearing trademark jeans, boots, cowboy hat and bolo tie, the Mormon father of 14 was upbeat in an interview with the Guardian, speaking from the family home – which as a boy he helped his father build – and as he inspected cattle pens, trailed by his two dogs.
“I don’t think this is a battle that Cliven Bundy won. It’s a battle that the American people won. They’re just not going to put up with abuse by the federal government.”
Bundy said he was no outlaw, that he pays all taxes and state duties – but not federal fees for grazing, which he stopped paying after the BLM imposed restrictions as part of an effort to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
The federal government owns 85% of Nevada land, and a federal court upheld the claim against Bundy but he rejected its authority and legitimacy, citing a libertarian theory that the US constitution forbids federal ownership of land. “This is not about Cliven Bundy and cows. It’s about state sovereignty.”
The BLM’s retreat vindicated his stance, he said, tapping a copy of the US constitution which he keeps in a breast pocket.
Third-person grandiosity and race-tinged commentary
Two clouds, however, hover above the rancher’s apparent triumph.
A supporter named Will Michael recently pleaded guilty in a federal court in Pennsylvania to making threats against a BLM official during the standoff, a possible harbinger of prosecutions against other supporters and Bundy himself.
Asked to comment, the agency issued a curt statement hinting at further actions but did not elaborate: “The Bureau of Land Management remains resolute in addressing issues involved in efforts to gather Mr Bundy’s cattle last year and we are pursuing the matter through the legal system. Our primary goal remains to resolve this matter safely and according to the rule of the law.”
The other cloud is that Bundy remains ostracised by some former cheerleaders such as Rand Paul and Fox News’s Sean Hannity over racist comments made after the standoff ended last April.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the negro,” he said then. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”
Bundy, who has denied been a racist, sighed and shook his head at the memory. He said it was all a “misunderstanding” and that he hoped to regain lost support.
“I made a mistake when I called the black negro. My intent was not to be prejudicial but for blacks to enjoy this freedom. What I’m saying is that the black and the brown communities should be concerned about freedom and liberty.”
He said he had not personally heard any complaints from ethnic minority groups. “I’ve never had a black person or a brown person ever say anything bad about me.”
Then he proceeded to make fresh contentious comments, first by repeating the comparison between slavery and welfare dependence: “Receiving welfare and housing – is that a sense of slavery when you get caught up in that and can’t get out of it for generations? They don’t have freedom.”
When he flies, Bundy said, he often sees well-dressed, successful black people. “They really are progressing and prospering. I understand they’ve raised themselves up to a point where they are equal with the rest of us. And I’m so happy for them. But what about those that are in the ghetto and can’t get out?”
The only time he lived in a city was in Los Angeles in 1965 during the Watts race riots, he said. Instead of government handouts or government jobs, ghetto-dwellers needed private-sector work. “We don’t need leeches feeding off us and eating off of us. We need producers.”
This was not language to banish accusations of racism, but Bundy seemed untroubled.
‘It was amazing to go against an army and not be scared’
Fame has not mellowed his views – he branded federal bureaucrats “the enemy” – but has imbued grandiosity. Bundy equated himself with the national spirit, saying he represented millions of Americans. He referred to himself in the third person and interchangeably with “we the people”.
The ranch itself, in contrast, appears humble: a ramshackle dwelling at the end of a dirt track surrounded by arid, rocky landscape, except for bursts of green along the Virgin River. It feels isolated and solitary.
The scores of armed militia members who once patrolled here have dwindled to Booda Cavalier, 44, a heavily-built, tattooed bodyguard who wears a handgun on his hip and lives in a nearby trailer. “If the feds come back here in a negative fashion, I’d do what was necessary to protect myself and Mr Bundy,” he said.
Reinforcements are nearby, Cavalier said, indicating his smartphone. Three taps will send a social media alert and summon more than 100 “heavy operators” from Las Vegas and St George “to make sure we would be on equal footing with the opposing force”, he said.
Bundy himself does not carry a weapon, lest it give government assassins justification to take him out, said Cavalier. Bundy nodded.
Both men see themselves as the good guys in a quixotic, Tea Party-tinged western where the villains are the heavily armed agents of federal government overreach.
Cavalier said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and claims ancestry from 15th-century English soldiers whom he said guarded King Henry IV (cavaliers are in fact associated with King Charles I). His neck is tattooed with ‘veni, vidi, vici”, the Latin phrase for “I came, I saw, I conquered” attributed to Julius Caesar.
Bundy, who is expecting the birth of his 60th grandchild, traced his lineage to Mayflower pilgrims.
He cast the showdown over grazing fees as a miracle in which Jesus Christ and the founding fathers helped vanquish the BLM’s “army” without a shot being fired. “I believe in prayer … I felt I’ve been guided a lot of times by the heavenly spirits.” He was certain divine intervention delivered victory. “It was amazing to go against an army and not be scared.”
The standoff inspired countless others, he said. “It’s not only my family that’s willing to stand. It’s the people of the world that are standing.”