Ten years later, reverberations from the Bundy standoff continue to shape the anti-government landscape 

22 May 2024 

By: Laurie Wood 

Rancher Cliven Bundy and hundreds of his anti-government supporters scored a decisive win against the federal government 10 years ago. Law enforcement, seeking to seize the Bundy cattle after years of unpaid grazing fees, was forced to retreat from an armed standoff in the Nevada desert in April 2014. 

This unusual victory helped shape the evolution of the anti-government movement and emboldened figures who are still roiling the political landscape today. Many key players from the standoff remain active on social media and in public life, where they continue to foment hostility toward the government. Some of the participants took their anger to the next level by taking part in the 2021 riot at the US Capitol Building. 

As for Bundy’s cattle: they still roam free on federal lands without consequence. 

The ‘Battle for Bunkerville’ delivered the US government a clear defeat 

When the Bundys called for help in their dispute against the federal government, armed militia members and otherwise affiliated supporters answered. It was a showdown years in the making. 

State and federal law enforcement were planning to confiscate cattle belonging to the Bundy family, who for decades had let their cattle graze on federal lands in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bundys historically paid annual fees to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for grazing rights, but their payments to the government stopped sometime in the early 1990s. By the time law enforcement sought to enforce penalties against the family, their debt to the government was more than $1 million. 

Disputes between BLM and the Bundys reached a boiling point in 2014, escalating into a series of small skirmishes between federal agents and the rancher family. That April, state and federal officers found themselves trapped in a gulch outside Las Vegas, surrounded by scores of angry, armed protesters— and in the crosshairs of their rifles. Eventually, law enforcement was forced to retreat. The “Battle for Bunkerville,” as it came to be known, was a definitive win for the Bundys and their supporters. 

Standoff participants would continue to score victories in courtrooms. A federal judge dismissed firearms and conspiracy charges brought against Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon and Ryan, and an appeals court affirmed the ruling. Prosecutors failed to land convictions of four other men charged with crimes related to the showdown; two were acquitted of all charges and the other two were found not guilty on ruling or by default. In 2016, two of the Bundy sons and armed followers took on the government again. Their protest march, in support of father and son ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fire to federal lands, turned into a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon. Law enforcement responded to that event differently and attempted to negotiate with the occupiers, but it ended when the siege’s spokesman LaVoy Finicum was killed in a confrontation with state and federal officers. 

Seven individuals, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of federal conspiracy and firearms charges, delivering another legal victory for their movement. Others weren’t so lucky– two participants were convicted and 11 pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Finicum lives on as a martyr to anti-government extremist causes and in 2018 then-President Donald Trump issued presidential pardons to the Oregon ranchers. 

The message to those who embraced the Bundys’ beliefs was clear: Their strategies worked and victories were, in fact, possible. 

The success of the standoff charted course for the next decade of anti-government extremism 

The 2014 events at Bunkerville empowered other acts of anti-government defiance in the decade that followed. Several groups and figures that participated in the showdown would emerge as leaders in the larger movement. 

In the years since the siege, the anti-government movement evolved drastically and reached a dramatic crescendo: The January 6 Capitol riot. As of January 2024, more than 1,200 people have been charged in connection with the events of J6; of these, more than 400 have received prison sentences. Though a minority of those charged are known affiliates of extremist movements, supporters of those movements have been found to have played critical roles in escalating the riot. 

According to a 2023 report, 702 anti-government groups were active in the US in 2022– a 48 percent increase from the year before, and the largest number counted since 2015. Though the volume of noted militia groups has decreased, the count took note of new anti-government groups.  

The Bundys 

After escaping legal consequences from two major confrontations with the government, Cliven Bundy continued to graze his cattle on federal land. His son, Ammon, withdrew from the anti-government movement, and even denounced the militia movement in 2018 for its support of then-President Trump’s treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border.  

But in 2020, Ammon reemerged on the scene to organize against government-ordered COVID-19 lockdowns. That year, he formed the People’s Rights Network (PRN), a multi-state grassroots organization focused on challenging public health mandates. By the end of 2020, his organization had established networks in 16 states with more than 150 ‘assistants,’ several of whom stood alongside the Bundys during the 2016 Malheur siege.  

Ammon Bundy racked up arrests and lawsuits for his activism stunts. His protests in Boise, Idaho, over a dispute between his friend and a local hospital resulted in a 2022 civil case brought by the healthcare provider. After Ammon refused to appear at legal proceedings against him, he was arrested in 2023. A county sheriff would have served the younger Bundy a contempt of court warrant earlier, but cited concerns for his deputies’ physical safety at the hands of Ammon, who had grown increasingly aggressive. In the end, Bundy lost the case, his home and his websites. 

He also mounted an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in Idaho in 2022. Running first as a Republican, then an Independent, he crafted his platform largely around his opposition to pandemic mandates. Though he was defeated by incumbent Governor Brad Little, Bundy received 17 percent of the vote. 

Three Percenters 

The Three Percenters movement, which was represented at the Bunkerville standoff, has also grown significantly in influence and impact. One supporter who defended the Bundys in 2014 would become a key figure among the Malheur preserve occupiers in 2016 and in 2018, for which he received felony conspiracy charges. Other Three Percenters in Minnesota were convicted of criminal acts, including firebombing an Islamic center and concocting an alleged plot to overthrow the federal government. Three Percenters from California and Texas were convicted of participating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol. 

Eric Parker, who gained notoriety as the “Bundy Ranch sniper” after a photo of him pointing an assault-style rifle at law enforcement was widely circulated by news media, served an 18-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to obstructing a court order. However, he was acquitted of other charges and tweeted earlier this year that he was seeking to overturn his original plea. Shortly after leaving prison, he joined a Three Percenters offshoot in Idaho, and signaled his recommitment to anti-government ideologies. 

Parker ran for Idaho state senate in 2020, using his time on the campaign trail to defend his actions at the Bunkerville standoff and his leadership of an active anti-government group. He lost the general election to Democratic incumbent Senator Michelle Stennett, though he garnered 43 percent of the vote. He launched a follow-up bid in 2022, which also failed 

More recently, Parker promoted legislation that sought to revise Idaho’s terrorism law to exclude domestic organizations, a change that would favor anti-government movement groups. He claimed to have worked on the effort for years and even testified before a state House committee in support of protections for groups like his Three Percenters offshoot. The legislation passed the Idaho Senate but failed in the state’s House of Representatives. 

Oath Keepers 

Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, his anti-government militia organization, were among those that initially rallied around the Bundys during the 2014 standoff. According to one participant, the Oath Keepers’ presence foreshadowed an even more dramatic confrontation with federal authority almost seven years later: the January 6 Capitol riot.  

The Oath Keepers were active for years prior to the 2014 standoff, recruiting current and former military and law enforcement to pledge allegiance to the organization’s interpretation of the Constitution, and was criticized by its peer organizations for its erratic support of the Bundys’ 2016 siege. Though the group continued to engage in conflicts against the government, including a 2015 land dispute in Oregon, Rhodes was reluctant to affix his organization too closely to the Bundys’ firebrand. Though members of his organization appeared armed at a smattering of protests in the years that followed, Rhodes chose instead to emphasize ideas of “community preparedness.” 

In 2020, the Oath Keepers mobilized more often, capitalizing on social unrest and protests related to COVID-19 and the police murder of George Floyd, before joining the “Stop the Steal” movement and participating in the Capitol riot. Members’ actions ahead of and during the J6 riot thrust them into the national spotlight, for which the organization paid a heavy price. Twenty-nine Oath Keepers members and associates were charged for their roles in the attack. Eight pleaded guilty, 15 were convicted, and six await trial at the time of writing. In 2023, Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison for charges including seditious conspiracy. 

 Anti-government attitudes are as popular as ever online, where the Battle for Bunkerville is glorified 

Every red blooded American should be reminded of the events of April 12, 2014,” a post shared by the neo-Nazi group Aryan Freedom Network last month read. “[It’s] the day the Bundy family got their cattle back.”  

The 10th anniversary of the standoff’s resolution was celebrated by today’s extremist movements as one of “the most amazing days in United States history” and hailed as a model for future victories. Several white supremacist groups took note of the anniversary, including Patriot Front activists who stenciled graffiti under an overpass purportedly located in Bunkerville. 

The anti-government movement in the US changed after the “Battle for Bunkerville” and the flames it fanned. Some hardcore anti-government ideologues have attempted to shift the wider political arena and have formed grassroots activism groups. Sovereign citizen beliefs, like those voiced by Bundy and his sons, have remained steady; so have militia-styled mobilizations, now with a focus on the US-Mexico border. Distrust, anger, and even hatred directed at the federal government have continued to foment, especially online. 

Public attitudes have also shifted. A June 2023 survey by the University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Threats Center found that an estimated 18 million people agreed that use of force would be justified if it meant returning Trump to the Presidency, and an estimated 7 percent of Americans felt violence might be required to achieve that goal. A Pew Research poll from September 2023 found public trust in the federal government was near an all-time low. Only 1 percent of respondents believed the government would do what is right “just about always.” 

Social media platforms have effectively nurtured anti-government dissent among those with an affinity for extreme beliefs and granted tools that participants in the standoff have used to promote their efforts. Today, these attitudes are reflected in mainstream and fringe internet spaces alike. Even some elected officials and major media figures have incorporated them into their base messaging. 

Cliven Bundy’s youngest son, Arden, emphasized the importance of online activism through accounts like his YouTube channel, during an April 2024 Associated Press interview 

When asked what would happen if the government tried to confiscate the family’s cattle again, he replied, “If we have to call people, we’ll call all our followers from YouTube and social media.”  

His father Cliven added, “There was 1,000 there last time. There’ll be 10,000 there next time.” 


Additional Resources 

Antigovernment Extremists (Southern Poverty Law Center video for law enforcement) 

Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion (ABC News documentary) 

Bundyville (National Public Radio podcast)