Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 8:30 p.m.
BUNKERVILLE — The militiamen rolled in to draw a line in the dirt.
About 70 miles northeast of Las Vegas, they set up camp on a sun-baked patch of land next to a bend in the Virgin River, keeping supplies — like rucksacks and sleeping bags — in neat piles under the roof of an abandoned shack.
Gruff and largely unshaven, dressed in camouflage fatigues and cut-off shirts, the men kept their intentions quiet, telling news reporters the reason they pulled their trucks into this rural desert town — on one of the hottest days of the year — is simple enough: “We’re here to camp,” said one man who would not share his name.
But they were really here to protect one of their own from the perceived enemies: a band of federal agents recently dispatched to the scrub desert to seize the cattle of embattled rancher Cliven Bundy.
“They’re here to protect Cliven’s family and home,” said Lynn Brown, one of Bundy’s daughters.
A 68-year-old Nevada native, Bundy has long been at the center of a battle with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency controlling the 150 miles of desert where the rancher’s cattle have roamed for decades. A renegade when it comes to any sort of government control, Bundy — the father of 14 children — has refused to pay BLM a dime of required grazing fees for his 900 cattle, a tab that has since reached $300,000. Bundy has fought the fee, he says, because his Mormon ancestors set up shop on the land long before the BLM formed.
The problem? The land where Bundy’s cattle graze is federally owned, and the BLM now says the livestock aren’t supposed to be there. Federal agents this week cordoned off sections of land and sparked a monthlong operation to seize the cattle.
Tensions boiled over this week when a scuffle between the BLM and Bundy’s supporters ended in violence: Agents reportedly used a stun gun to subdue Bundy’s son and knocked his daughter to the ground. Though called “brutal” by some, the brawl did not land anyone in a hospital or jail.
But the incident did prompt Operation Mutual Aid — a national militia with members from California to Missouri — to visit Bundy’s ranch and set up a camp just in case things got out of hand again.
Before their arrival Thursday, dozens of Bundy’s friends and relatives gathered at a protest camp in solidarity for the recent woes that have colored his rustic ranch.
The militiamen posted a sign: MILITA SIGHN IN (sic).
Traveling from as close as St. George — and as far as Montana — a mix of characters waved picket signs at an encampment just before a bridge over the Virgin River, protesting the BLM’s campaign.
“This is a better education than being in school! I’m glad I brought you. I’m a good mom,” said Ilona Ence, a 49-year-old mother from St. George and Bundy relative who brought her four teenage kids to the ranch. “They’re learning about the Constitution.”
Ence’s 19-year-old son Kayden and his brothers shared their opinion with a sign of their own: “CONTROL OUR BORDERS! NOT OUR RANCHERS!”
“It’s crazy,” Kayden said.
As the temperature crept into the 90s, supporters drove by — beeping their horns and delivering water drinks so the protesters could keep hydrated.
Jack Faught, Bundy’s first cousin, drove his forest green 1929 Chevy truck from Mesquite loaded with water and Gatorade.
“It’s not about the cows,” he said. “It’s about the freedom to make our own choices close to home.”
Polo Parra, a 27-year-old tattoo artist from Las Vegas, even showed up with two of his friends to support the rancher. Dressed in baggy clothes and covered in tattoos, the group carried signs that read “TYRANNY IS ALIVE” and “WHERE’S THE JUSTICE?” in red spray-painted letters.
One of Parra’s friends, who would not share his name, had a pistol tucked in his waistband.
“I think it’s bull, and it really made me mad,” said Parra, who decided to make the trip when he heard about the violence that broke out on the ranch. “This isn’t about no turtles or cows.”
The land in question — the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area — is a habitat of the endangered and federally protected desert tortoise.
Harry Pappas, a 60-year-old native and “concerned citizen,” grabbed the microphone at a makeshift podium and blasted the BLM.
“It’s all a fraud,” Pappas said, arguing the BLM’s preservation of the desert tortoise was just a way to “get rid of all the ranchers.”
The BLM drew criticism for creating “First Amendment areas” — patches of land where protests are allowed. Authorities arrested two protesters — brothers from St. George — for interfering with the BLM's operation Thursday.
The First Amendment debacle caught the attention of Gov. Brian Sandoval, who ordered the BLM not to limit the constitutional rights of Nevadans.
But the governor backed off from his statement after violence broke out at Bundy’s ranch:
“The ability to speak out against government actions is one of the freedoms we all cherish as Americans. Today I am asking all individuals who are near the situation to act with restraint,” Sandoval said. “Although tensions remain high, escalation of current events could have negative, long-lasting consequences that can be avoided.”
The ordeal disturbed Jeff Voorhees, a 50-year-old resident of Toquerville, Utah, who called Bundy’s lifestyle “one of the last bastions of American freedom.”
“I’m just trying to take all this in,” he said, looking across the river, toward the militiamen and Bundy’s home.