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Cliven Bundy goes from folksy rancher to media magnet in ‘range war’

Early last week, Cliven Bundy was a relatively unknown rancher who called a news conference in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven convenience store that attracted just a couple reporters from Las Vegas media.

At one point, a store employee asked him to hurry up and move along, as Bundy’s weathered old pickup was blocking other vehicles from entering the parking lot. For Bundy, sparsely attended news conferences and obscurity have become a thing of the past.

These days, the rancher has turned into a contemporary folk hero in the eyes of his admirers, while also gaining notoriety from environmentalists who criticize his disregard of land management regulations.

Instead of showing up at press events by himself, he’s now surrounded by an entourage of armed militia guards devoted to protecting him as long as necessary. And Fox News host Sean Hannity lands exclusives with Bundy.

Somewhere along the way, a plain­spoken rancher from Bunkerville managed to wage a formidable public relations operation against a federal agency backed by two court orders and armed law enforcement officers.

To be sure, it’s not Bundy’s first time in the news. It’s just never been on this level before.

His battle with the Bureau of Land Management started two decades ago, when he quit paying grazing fees to the agency. He now owes about $1 million in back fees. He quit paying in a dispute with the agency over range restrictions intended to protect the threatened desert tortoise.

To critics, he is no hero and a free­loader who is unwilling to follow the rules that other ranchers follow. The BLM started to round up and impound at least 500 of Bundy’s cattle this month.

The weeklong roundup, intended to last weeks longer, ended abruptly on Saturday, when Bundy and hundreds of protesters — many armed — showed up at the corral and faced federal agents in a standoff. It ended peacefully, with the cattle released back to Bundy. The release came with no agreement between the BLM and Bundy, and the agency said it would pursue unspecified court and administrative solutions.

So far, Bundy appears comfortable in his new role as a rancher who famously took on the federal government and forced armed agents to give in to his demands. On Monday, he cracked jokes with supporters and repeated a version of what he told Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie on Saturday, shortly before the standoff. On Saturday, Bundy had told the sheriff he had one hour to disarm the federal agents. Gillespie didn’t take him up on the request.

“OK, media,” Bundy said Monday. “I want you to remember what I said. Sheriffs across the United States of America take away the guns from the United States bureaucrats.”

Of course, Nevada ranchers know that Bundy remains the figure he was before the standoff — a fellow rancher.

“This is my personal view — I view him as another rancher,” said Ron Torell, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. “I think he loves the land and the cattle business. I believe his philosophy differs from our views in the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. I respect his position and tip my hat to him for sticking to his guns.”

As the 67-year-old rancher gave an increasing number of interviews to the media, BLM officials started saying less.

In the end, that gave Bundy and his supporters a megaphone for expressing their views, which faced a shortage of comments from the opposing side.

The day that Cliven Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, was shot with a stun gun by a BLM officer, the footage of the incident was posted on social media and quickly spread across the Internet.

That same day, the agency canceled a scheduled conference call with reporters, opting not to answer questions about the roundup. The agency also delayed scheduled releases of daily numbers of cattle rounded up.

As the BLM started tightening the flow of information, Bundy’s family became de facto public relations professionals. By last Wednesday, the kitchen table at the Bundy house had transformed into a workspace for laptops and telephones, as family members fielded calls from media outlets across the nation.

At the height of the Bundy-proclaimed “range war,” it was the rancher — not anyone from the BLM — who stood before a swarm of television cameras and became the face of the story, blasting the federal government along the way.

And BLM staff members who answer media inquiries for a living asked not to be named in news accounts, citing safety concerns.

Critics of the agency’s handling of the situation include supporters of the BLM’s move to have a roundup.

“The BLM has, with the best of intentions, mismanaged the situation pretty spectacularly,” said Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It begins with the whole idea of even establishing ‘First Amendment areas.’ Why would they think they can restrict free speech outside the closure area?”

The other mistake was not speaking to the media, he said, adding that the agency got off to a good start with a transparent website. The move toward being tight-lipped, he said, allowed Bundy and the militia groups to capture the media attention.

“They totally tortoised,” he said of the agency. “They just withdrew into their shell, and they left us who were trying to help them out here stranded alone, trying to present the view opposite of Bundy’s.”

BLM spokesman Craig Leff would not answer questions Tuesday about the roundup. The agency also declined comment the day before.

Bundy, meanwhile, is still talking.

Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781. Find him on Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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