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September 22, 2014

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One month later, Cliven Bundy, militia, residents face an uneasy coexistence

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Steve Marcus

Rancher Cliven Bundy, left, talks with Ed Vallejo of Phoenix at a supporter rally point near Bunkerville, Sunday, May 4, 2014.

Bundy Roundup Dispute: One Month Later

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his ranch house near Bunkerville, Sunday, May 4, 2014. Launch slideshow »

BUNKERVILLE — The federal agents backed down. The TV lights flickered off. The reporters flew home.

But one month after the Bureau of Land Management’s cattle roundup, the militia remain, standing tall, armed and tight by the side of rancher Cliven Bundy. They have camped out here far from wives, children and jobs as truck drivers, gun shop owners and factory workers.

They remain to help the Bundys but they also have people in town worried that they’re dangerous and a danger to the economy. And they’ve prompted U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district includes Bunkerville, to call on state and local leaders to investigate and remove the armed militia on Bundy’s ranch.

Bundy's battle with the BLM began in 1993. He refuses to follow federal court orders that he remove hundreds of cattle from federal land and pay more than $1 million in grazing fees. The conflict came to a tense — and nearly bloody — standoff between armed militia and federal agents April 12.

In an interview this week, Bundy said he’s seen proposals from state and local leaders. One of them called on the BLM to stay away while the militia dispersed. His land would be designated a study area for the threatened desert tortoise and local officials would determine how many cattle he could raise. Bundy said no.

Instead, the rancher said he has his own proposal to run by Clark County leaders. But that’s all he would say.

For now, there’s no resolution in sight.

Mesquite’s fear and empathy

Bunkerville is tiny with dozens of homes, 1,300 residents and few businesses. Just three miles away, Mesquite is newer, greener and bigger.

The town sprung up during Nevada’s boom years in the 2000s. Hundreds of homes on tiered lots look over vibrant green golf courses. Asphalt in the packed casino parking lots looks like it was laid last week. Cars idle in the backed-up double-line at the McDonald’s drive-thru.

On a May Sunday, a few dozen people gather to meet two candidates for county judge. Bundy, the BLM and militia are fresh in residents' minds.

Retiree Florence Vadala, a thrift store volunteer, said people are divided. Some support his fight against what they see as an overbearing government. Others want him to pay what he owes.

But everyone feels a little scared, Vadala said, “seeing people with guns around town. I’m hoping they’re not going to try to create a situation.”

One businessman, who did not want himself or his business named, said none of it is good for tourism or Mesquite’s economy. “I don’t even want Mesquite mentioned in your story,” he said.

Ann Rice, a retired UC Santa Barbara finance professor, knows Bundy offended people with his racist comments about black people. But she also respects the Bundy family’s history in Bunkerville and is empathetic with his battle against the government.

“His family settled our country,” she said. “They helped the community. The community respects those who developed the country.”

She added: “We know it’s too much government right now, and some people have been in office too long to have a fresh view of things. It’s just too easy to fall into old patterns.”

Militia’s persistence and plan

Before a Sunday church service, Bundy’s security guards keep a close watch on the rancher in front of his house.

Booda, who declined to provide his last name, carries a pistol and watches from behind mirrored sunglasses. He’s 42 and a former Marine who works for a manufacturer of parts for off-road vehicles in Arizona.

He’s been in Bunkerville for a month, driving here as fast as he could after hearing about the Bundy-BLM standoff. He left behind his two daughters and ex-wife. “I’d love to go home, but I want this family to be safe,” he said.

“I want this to be resolved peacefully,” Booda said. “We don’t want bullets flying. We’re not here for that. I’m not.”

BLM-Bundy Standoff: April 12, 2014

Photos of the April 12, 2014 stand-off between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy near Bunkerville, Nevada. The BLM eventually called off their roundup of Bundy cattle citing safety concerns. Courtesy of Shannon Bushman. Launch slideshow »

Booda and the rest of Bundy’s security detail live around the ranch house. Bundy’s wife, Carol, feeds the security guards sometimes. They sleep in tents and an assortment of trailers scattered around the grounds.

Other Bundy supporters live in camps along the public road leading to the family driveway. There’s a half-dozen tents in the grass and another half-dozen in a gravel parking area a few miles east.

Under the shade of an awning at the “Bunker Hill” encampment, a couple of militiamen and one woman eye strangers warily. Water bottles are stacked up next to a big box of breakfast bars.

On the ground, there’s a square piece of metal with holes shot through it — “at 100 yards,” said William Bennett, 34, a trucker from Greenville, Ill. Bennett later said that it was reporters — “spinmeisters” — who turned the the story against the Bundys.

Back up to the road at Bundy’s ranch, Ryan Payne rests in an RV sick with the flu. In Anaconda, Mont., he’s an electrician with a wife and two kids. Down here, he’s working on an ambitious plan.

He and a group called Operation Mutual Aid want to build a camp and, later, homes for homeless military vets. They could help work Bundy’s ranch or in mines nearby. Las Vegas has more than 800 homeless veterans, according to the 2013 Homeless Census and Survey.

“Teach people how to raise their own food and animals, solar and wind power generation,” Payne says. “And bringing people who are underprivileged and — ‘Here’s your house, buddy.’

“Here’s your community. Now learn to live together. You don’t have to go into that gang anymore. You don’t have to shoot your buddy.’”

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