BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — American flags flap in the wind on the two-lane state highway to Cliven Bundy’s ranch. Along the roadside, self-described militia members in camouflage who came to defend him from the federal government lounge and smoke, loaded pistols on their hips.
Ten miles from these desert encampments, the telephone is ringing more than usual at the police department in Mesquite, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Travelers from around the country are calling, wondering if it’s safe to pass on I-15, where Bundy and his supporters, some armed with military-style weapons, faced down federal officials in an April 12 standoff over his cattle grazing on federal land.
Police Chief Troy Tanner tells callers it’s safe. But local authorities and Bundy’s neighbors are growing weary of the attention and the unresolved dispute. Since the standoff, Bundy went from being proclaimed a patriot by some for his resistance to a racist for comments he made about blacks being better off under slavery.
“Most of our neighbors have about the same opinions we have. They don’t like it,” said John Booth, a resident of nearby Bunkerville who drove this week with his wife, Peggie, past the State Route 170 encampments. “But they’re not really going to say anything about it.”
As triple-digit temperatures of a Mojave Desert summer approach, militia members vow to stay and protect Bundy and his family from government police, though it’s unclear what the immediate threat is.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has halted plans — at least for now — to round up Bundy’s cattle under a court order to remove them from public land and habitat of the desert tortoise. The BLM says Bundy owes $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties.
“We haven’t been told by the Bundys that they’re ready for us to go,” said Jerry DeLemus, a former U.S. Marine from New Hampshire.
DeLemus heads a self-styled militia protection force of perhaps 30 people who sleep in tents, clean their military-style AR-15 and AK-47 weapons, and form work crews to help build watering bins for cattle on and around the Bundy ranch.
Bundy, who turned 68 on Tuesday, rode his call for a “range war” to conservative media stardom. He’s been portrayed as a states’ rights advocate battling an overreaching government, and a white-hat, last-of-the-cowboys figure.
Just as quickly, he lost many Republican defenders when he made the comments about blacks last week. Democrats labeled Bundy a racist.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, who lives in Las Vegas and represents a vast area including Bunkerville and Mesquite, met with residents last week and called Monday for federal authorities and the local sheriff to investigate the gun-toting force.
Openly carrying a pistol or rifle is legal in Nevada. Permit holders can carry concealed weapons.
Horsford, however, cited concerns about “an armed presence in or around community areas including local churches, school, and other community locations.”
Bunkerville, with about 1,200 residents, has a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple, a Catholic church, a community center, an elementary school, a park and a firehouse on the banks of the Virgin River. There’s no general store or restaurant.
Bundy acknowledged creating a stir when he and his family showed up at the Mormon church with armed bodyguards for Easter Sunday services.
“The militia have been going with me everywhere,” Bundy said Tuesday. “When I got to church, I said, ‘Leave your weapons in the car.’ They did. I guess there could have been weapons in the parking lot, but there were no weapons in the church house.”
Bundy denies that militia members set up checkpoints on public property. He said armed guards do stop and screen visitors at the gate to his ranch.
A group of militia members who stopped a neighboring rancher trucking cattle last Saturday to Arizona, about 12 miles to the east, were helping his son, Ryan Bundy, the family patriarch said. They wanted to ensure that Bundy cattle weren’t being rustled.
A guard also is stationed on a dirt road leading to a gravel quarry on private land where DeLemus and his group have been camping for almost three weeks.
At a campsite with a sign dubbing it “Bunker Hill,” Jason Scott Patrick, 42, from Bonaire, Georgia, described wielding a weapon during the standoff in a dry wash beneath the I-15 overpass.
Lisa Marie Johnson, 49, a Republican party activist and Rand Paul supporter from Pahrump, Nevada, said she believed their presence provided a deterrent to what she described an overreaching federal government.
Across the highway river bridge, Tom Mayhew, 72, also from Pahrump, has been living in a cluttered 32-foot motor home with a generator, a big computer screen and a gun in his belt.
“I’m too old to do battle, but I’m a body,” he said as he punched up a website showing an aerial view of the encampment area.