By his own account, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy never wanted to start a war with the federal government. To hear him tell the story, he is a folksy, rural Nevada rancher trying to eke out a living on a piece of land near Bunkerville. But in 2014, on the same piece of land Bundy claims is so peaceful, armed militias showed up and pointed guns at Bureau of Land Management agents who had come to round up his cattle because of Bundy’s unpaid grazing fees.

Cliven Bundy speaking in Mesa, Arizona, image by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During the chaotic events that were broadcast on national television, Bundy took to the stage and gave a list of demands. He wanted federal parks officers to turn over their weapons to the crowd. He wanted federal buildings demolished. He wanted all public lands in Clark County, Nevada, turned over to local control. It was a stark contrast to the image Bundy paints of himself. Far from peaceful, Bundy was calling for an armed rebellion if he didn’t get his way.

Federally owned land in the United States

And that’s essentially what happened. Militia members pointed their guns at BLM agents, and those agents backed off after being surrounded in a river wash near the ranch. Bundy got his cattle back and for years faced no consequences for his actions. He had, it seemed, beaten the federal government.

Two years later, in 2016, Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy gathered a posse of men and took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. They said they were taking the federal facility away from the government as a way to protest the imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. Again, the militias came to the Bundys’ side. A 41-day standoff ensued at the refuge.

Headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by Cacophony (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It ended with Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy in handcuffs, and one of their followers — an Arizona rancher named Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum — dead. Finicum was with Ammon and Ryan Bundy when Oregon State Police arrested them, and he reached for a loaded handgun multiple times before officers shot him at a traffic stop.

Map of locations occupied by militants at Mahleur National Wildlife Refuge

Many people thought the Bundys would go to jail for their actions against the government. And they did while they awaited trial. But over the next two years, something remarkable happened. In Oregon, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted by a jury of all charges. In the Nevada trial for the Bunkerville incident, the judge threw the case out because she said prosecutors withheld key evidence from the defense.

Images courtesy of OPB

Government hubris and possible corruption had allowed the Bundys to walk free in January 2018. One thing has been clear since the Bundys returned to their homes earlier this year: They are emboldened. They feel their views have been legitimized — and their fight against the federal government has just begun.

Bundyville” is a deep dive into the politics and fringe religious beliefs that drive Cliven Bundy, his family and their followers. From prophecies and nuclear testing to white supremacists and radical plans to shrink public lands, “Bundyville” explains how one family has beaten the federal government twice — and why this battle has just begun.



Bundyville is a joint effort by OPB and Longreads and hosted and reported by award-winning freelance journalist Leah Sottile. It is produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Robert Carver of 30 Minutes West Productions, and OPB’s Ryan Haas. Subscribe to “Bundyville on NPR OneApple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts.

Correction: In the audio, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is referred to as being in western Oregon rather than eastern Oregon, where it is in fact located.

  1. Lyric Kinard

    Thank you for this.

    Now do an episode about the difference between the governments doft reaction to armed white insurrectionists, and the peaceful, unarmed protestors st the Dakota Access pipeline.

  2. Grimstod

    This was a very insightful episode. I learned a lot about this event. I remember seeing it on TV but the new is so insanely biased now it was hard to know what was going on. The Feds really screwed up to. I miss Walter Cronkite and his mater of fact reporting on the news.

    There is do doubt in my mind that the Feds miss manage our land especially out west. They are ignorant of the needs of nature and the people out there. For example while I was in Alaska the natives told me how some species of sea lions in Alaska are so over populated they are eating to extinction many other species. Yet the feds do not want to remove their protected status.

  3. hazy

    Liberal media and NPR being way too soft on conservative jerks that want to exploit lands and natural resources. I know you want to get a story and that behooves you to be gentle while news gathering but I’m personally sick of babying these uneducated twits.

    The left needs to really start telling it how it is. These Trump voters are not doctors, engineers and the ones that are lawyers have such lousy interpretations of the law that it’s just self serving. They are not interested in working hard to build a better future. These are not people that care about helping the poor or keeping animal populations plentiful. They want to TAKE TAKE TAKE. They have little to no benefit to the society they live in and parasitize.

    Cliven Bundy is a a law breaker who is grazing cattle in one of the most water starved states in USA. Does that sound like the actions of an intelligent man? And when confronted by BLM he demands a sheriff to DISARM the feds? Unbelievable. No deference to authority whatsoever.

    You know who else denied federal power over their perceived sovereignty? Confederate states. State rights was convenient for the south, but if slaves fled to the north, they demanded the slaves be returned, even though there were state laws protecting slaves that had fled to the north.

    “States rights” is just dog whistling for maintaining racist institutions. Bundy is just one faction of the white supremacy backlash but he is no defender of democracy or freedom. He’s a lazy jerk with no real skills or values in the very country he festers in.

    1. Grimstod

      I would advise you to edit or delete you own comment. What you are wishing for would eliminate a states ability to make SANCTUARY cities.

    2. Jayden

      This comment absolutely nails it. Couldn’t have put it better.

  4. Johannes

    i disagree with the analysis that the going to jail would have ended the story and them winning made them more credible. i think its the other way round! if they went to jail it would have just prooven their story making them martyrs to the people of their cause.
    the fact that a federal court decides against the fbi and federal government is proof that their conspracy stuff about tyranny ect. is wrong.
    it shows that the judicial system works and is not controlled by politics but by that all the decisions by the courts about government owning land get extra credibility.

  5. Chris

    As a European watching from afar, this is just ludicrous. Imagine if these people had been anything but white, how many bodies would we be counting at this point? 30? 50?

  6. Jescowa

    This may have been the first bad 99pi episode ever. The coverage was way too apologetic for the Bundys (and where is the design hook?).

    The Bundys and their ilk seem to forget that public lands belong not to some remote “government” but to the American people collectively. How arrogant to assume that they should be able to consume public resources for private gain without reimbursing the rest of us. This is a simple matter of property rights that they should understand. It these lands were in private hands, do they think their neighbors would just let them freely graze (and log and mine)? Of course not. This is white, rural entitlement run amok.

    1. Jeff

      Completely agree. I went ahead and listened to the other 6 episodes in the series just to give it a shot to see how much it would turn around, but every attempt it made to talk honestly about the Bundys it came back around and gave them an undeserved benefit of the doubt. In refusing to make any stance they ended up making a stance that was worse.

    2. Sarah

      Jeff, how have you already listened to other six episodes? I thought they hadn’t been released yet.

  7. Rachel Goffe

    This was interesting until it became apologist for armed white supremacists. In what way is the truth complicated? Since the Trump election there has been a trend in liberal media to “learn” about radical right wing racists. Unfortunately most of this trend seems to think it’s aim should be to humanize people who are violent, have hateful beliefs and are out of touch with reality – in this case the reality of the Constitution. What is the point of allowing these nuts to drag the public discussion towards legitimizing their fringe views? That’s not learning, that’s sticking your head in the sand.

  8. Shawn

    Ugh. This brings up a lot of resentment in me … how can individuals feel that they are so far superior to ever in else? For some reason they feel that sovereignty begins at the individual. That sounds good but it ultimately feels good but ends up in lawlessness, all-for-one. We need a set of laws to protect all of our rights. They have a weird sense that the Constitution only benefits them. That their reading of one provision in the some How trumps all of the others (pun intended). It reminds me how they reading a certain good Book.

    As a tax paying citizen of these United States I empower the federal government to manage lands that it owns and to follow the laws that the legislature passes. Pay the damn grazing fees and don’t kill the turtles.

    I will listen to the rest of series. I want to understand the mentality that creates this sovereignty under the Constitution irony.

  9. Scott Petrovits

    This episode was well-produced, as expected, and I’m sure the remainder was similarly well-researched and covered. But I won’t be listening. I know who Cliven Bundy was, because he’s the same as every other paranoid, right-wing, god-bothering, gun-humping armchair Constitutionalist ruining everything that progressive people are trying to accomplish in modern society. And he raised his sons to be the same. He only cared about the Constitution so far as it benefitted his wallet, even at the expense of the American people who were footing the bill for his selfish arrogance. Which is, again, typical. And the reason they succeeded at all is because they knew they didn’t have a case, because the people who actually know about the Constitution kept telling them that in court. So to get their way, they relied on emotional manipulation, first to get ignorant people sympathetic with their selfish, misguided cause to support them in their domestic terrorism, and then again in court, to appeal to jurors who were more interested in melodrama than in the truth. The Bundys are concerned rural America is dying. I say, let it die, if what we get from that part of the country as represented by the Bundys is any indication of its merit. I feel sorry for that blonde-haired boy at the start of the episode, doubtless another poor male Bundy soon to be indoctrinated into the toxic environment that consumed Cliven and his sons.

  10. Margaret

    I’m not sure why this is being played on 99 PI. It doesn’t have anything to do with design. If I wanted to listen to podcasts about the breakdown of law and society in the US, I’d do that. I am not an American, so I’d rather hear about issues in my country.

  11. David Milhous

    I am very glad that you broadcasted this story. When I was younger, I held views that were very similar to the Bundys. I have since moved away from those views, and having seen both sides makes me glad that someone is telling this story. I think that a great takeaway from this story is, “If your worldview causes you to point guns at people, you are wrong.”

  12. a. grey

    this is the first time i’ve ever commented here after listening for years, but i’d have to say that this episode has no reason to be here on 99pi.

    as a oregonian, i followed the bundys cases closely. soft handling racist insurrectionists has absolutely nothing to do with design, and i’m curious as to the reasoning why it was felt that this was a proper venue to air this.

  13. Elle

    The richest part about the Bundy’s self righteous behavior is that all that land was stolen from the Native peoples that were there first. But now it is their land? Those people have no business touting their “rights.” We are a nation of laws. If he doesn’t like it, he can leave and go to elsewhere.
    He does not recognize the United States government?! Anyone else would be in prison. As should he and his sons be.
    I believe this piece was far too apologetic to Bundy and his family. If he was a brown person, forget it.. he’d be dead.

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