BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Squinting into the morning light, Cliven Bundy lifted the brim of his western hat and watched his youngest son, who sat silently in the saddle of a horse he named Turbo.
At 15, Arden Bundy is cowboy sturdy, a trusted ranch hand on the family spread 100 miles north of Las Vegas. He wears dusty boots with bloodstains on his chaps from calf-roping escapades. He also has the cowpoke pose down cold: the knowing slouch, right thumb hooked into his oversize belt buckle.
The 67-year-old Bundy, a father of 14, said the boy reminds him of himself, his own father and grandfather — generations of Bundys who have ranched and muscled this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s.
"He's a real cowboy," he said of Arden, his only child still living at the ranch. "Those bloodstains could be from the cattle, his horse or even him. I want him to run this ranch one day. He's the one I'm fighting for."
Bundy believes big government is trying to sabotage his plans to one day hand over the ranch's reins to his son, by stripping Bundy of land-use rights his family spent a century earning. He says overregulation has already driven scores of fellow ranchers out of business in sprawling Clark County, leaving him as the last man standing.
For two decades, Bundy has waged a one-man range war with federal officials over his cattle's grazing on 150 square miles of scrub desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Since 1993, he's refused to pay BLM grazing fees. He claims he "fired the BLM," vowing not to give one dime to an agency that's plotting his demise. The back fees exceed $300,000, he said.
Now a showdown looms, one with a hint of possible violence.
Officials say Bundy and his son are illegally running cattle in the 500,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd D. George ruled that if Bundy did not remove his cattle by Aug. 23, they could be seized by the BLM.
That hasn't happened — yet — and the rancher insists his cattle aren't going anywhere. He acknowledges that he keeps firearms at his ranch and has vowed to "do whatever it takes" to defend his animals from seizure.
"I've got to protect my property," Bundy said as Arden steered several cattle inside an elongated pen. "If people come to monkey with what's mine, I'll call the county sheriff. If that don't work, I'll gather my friends and kids and we'll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws."
The face-off is the second time Bundy has challenged federal officials. In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the white-haired rancher, ordering his cattle off the land.
Representing himself, Bundy lost his appeal to San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He's handled his legal battle from his Nevada ranchhouse, arguing in mailed-off court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was even formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement.
Despite the court order, he refused to pull one head of cattle off BLM land. "At first I said 'No,' " he said, "then I said 'Hell, no.' "
His defiance led to visits by Department of Homeland Security officials and local sheriff's deputies, who interviewed neighbors to determine any possible threat. But the BLM took little public action, until this summer.
The case is the latest flourish of the civil disobedience popularized during the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought greater local control in 12 Western states, where the federal government administers 60 percent of the land. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87 percent of the state's land.
Experts say anti-government clashes at Idaho's Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, are the modern chapters of an old Western story.
"It's the 18th century mindset that the sweat off your brow determines your ability to survive, not the government," said Jeffrey Richardson, a historian at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. "But the notion of the great pioneer has been slowly chipped away by barbed wire and government regulation."
Bending to federal will is hard for independents like Bundy, Richardson added: "If a family has worked for generations to shape the land to their needs, it's difficult. These people have long thrived in difficult territory."
Others say Bundy's rugged individualism is misguided. "The reality is this is public land, and that means something," said Paul Starrs, a geography professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. "He's part of a long chain, and he's entitled to feel oppressed. But that doesn't mean he's right."
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie visited the rancher last year but has resisted enforcing federal deadlines, declining to put his deputies in danger over cattle. Gillespie called Bundy in September with the names of few lawyers to contact. "I don't know if he's looking out for me or trying to protect his own skin," Bundy said. "But I told him he needs to defend my life, liberty and property."
Bundy's supporters include Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who doesn't buy the BLM's argument that it's trying to protect the desert tortoise. "The U.S. government has perpetrated a bigger fraud on people over those tortoises than Al Capone did selling swampland in Miami," he said.
Collins added that Nevada officials are studying whether to petition the federal government for local control over a wide swath of land that includes the area Bundy is fighting over.
"Cliven doesn't want to be a martyr, the guy who shot it out with the feds, Waco-style," he said. "I just hope the government isn't stupid enough to go pick a fight with him."
Bundy and Arden recently sat at the kitchen table, eating bacon and sourdough pancakes coated with heavy cream and peaches, before heading out to repair their irrigation equipment on public land. Bundy admitted his own spread runs to just 160 acres, far less than he needs to keep 500 head of cattle alive.
But he insisted his improvements, including 100 wells his family dug from beneath the desert scrub, have bettered the land. He says the federal plan to close off the area for the sake of the tortoises will ban not just his cattle but the general public from land with natural beauty that should be enjoyed.
He shook his head: And all over a tortoise.
Carol Bundy said her husband is not a violent man, just a person who will protect what he owns. For that matter, so is she. "I've got a shotgun," she said. "It's loaded. And I know how to use it. We're ready to do what we have to do, but we'd rather win this in the court of public opinion."
Grabbing another fistful of bacon, Arden said he wants to be part of any coming battle. His mother smiled. "Arden doesn't know life any other way," she said. "We've been fighting this war before he was born."
The 10th grader said most students respect his buckeroo persona. "This is the life I want to lead. I'm a cowboy and always will be," he said.