The law was clear: Cliven Bundy's cattle had been grazing on public land — illegally — for years. The Bureau of Land Management said so, and so did the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal courts agreed.
But when the BLM tried to enforce the law — by seizing the Nevada rancher's livestock in 2014 — a ragtag band of militiamen rode to Bundy's defense. After an armed standoff in the desert, federal officials released Bundy's cattle and retreated, soundly defeated.
Almost two years later, as Bundy's sons Ammon and Ryan and a small group of armed militiamen threaten a similar showdown by refusing to leave an Oregon wildlife refuge, Cliven Bundy still owes more than $1 million in grazing fees.
Both cases have raised uncomfortable questions about whether the Bundys are getting off easy and about what happens when demonstrators prevent the government from enforcing its own laws.
The standoff in Oregon has drawn the attention of Black Lives Matter activists who have protested law enforcement's regular use of deadly force across the nation, with seemingly little effect on the number of shootings by police. The government, meanwhile, isn't saying much about what it's doing to get the money Bundy owes.
Federal officials seem to have shied away from confrontation to avoid re-creating the bloody Waco and Ruby Ridge standoffs of the 1990s, which galvanized antigovernment radicals like 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
"The two [Bundy standoffs], I think, are indicative of a problem, and that is: When you have people who are publicly proclaiming their defiance of the law and doing it in a potentially violent way, how do you deal with it?" said Patrick Shea, director of the BLM from 1997 to 1999, who was the first to sue Cliven Bundy for illegal grazing.
"Because if you deal with it in an incorrect manner like at Waco or Ruby Ridge, you tend to enhance their status as martyrs," Shea said.
In Cliven Bundy's case, the 2014 showdown stemmed from the rancher's belief that federal lands belong to the states because of state sovereignty.
In November 1998, a federal judge permanently banned Bundy, whose ranch is located about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, from grazing his livestock on a swath of federal land known as the Bunkerville Allotment and ordered him to remove his cattle by the end of the month. Bundy didn't.
Instead, Bundy allowed his cattle to graze on even broader areas of federal land run by the BLM and the National Park Service.
In May 2012, federal attorneys sued Bundy to stop his "unauthorized and unlawful" grazing of livestock on federal lands, which they said contain archaeological sites, sensitive and rare plants, and the desert tortoise, a threatened and protected species.
Officials complained that Bundy had set up corrals and water tanks on the public lands and that his cattle caused accidents and near-misses after wandering onto public roads.
In their 2012 request for a restraining order, federal officials noted that they had "no adequate" legal means to "address the continuous and persistent unlawful conduct" by Bundy.
Bundy told the court he had broken no law, and in one January 2013 filing he apparently wrote himself, he said he had been "defamed" by the federal government, accusing officials of insinuating that he was threatening violence.
"It tries to twist out of context Defendant's words that he will do 'Whatever it takes' to protect his property," said Bundy's motion for dismissal. "Even their record over the years shows Defendant has never been violent and has been very vocal in the public speaking area, exercising his 1st Amendment Right to free speech and the ability to exercise civil protest against the government."
U.S. District Judge Lloyd D. George disagreed with Bundy and ruled against him in July 2013.
Bundy was once again ordered to remove his livestock, and he was once again permanently banned from another swath of public land. And once again, Bundy didn't comply.
But this time, George's July 2013 ruling gave federal officials the power to seize Bundy's livestock to enforce the law, which is when the real trouble began.
The next year, hundreds of protesters set up camp near Bundy's livestock, many of them armed. In one tense stare-down between the protesters and federal agents, both sides had guns at the ready, and photographers captured at least one Bundy supporter aiming his rifle at officials.
After the armed confrontation, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze said on April 12, 2014, that the bureau would release the cattle because of "our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public."
"After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million," Kornze said. "The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially."
But in the nearly two years since then, it's not clear what has been done. When asked for comment about the Bundy case this week, a BLM spokesman gave The Times the same statement it has been handing out for months.
"The Bureau of Land Management remains resolute in addressing issues involved in efforts to gather Mr. Bundy's cattle and we are pursuing the matter through the legal system," the statement says. "The Department of Justice has the lead on any investigation of federal crimes that may have been committed. Our primary goal remains to resolve this matter safely and according to the rule of the law."
No criminal charges have been filed against Bundy, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Nevada, as a matter of Department of Justice policy, declined to say whether any were being considered. Clark County records showed no tax liens levied against Bundy or his ranch.
"Nothing, basically, has happened there," said Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands and energy watchdog that opposes Bundy's views on federal land. "It's definitely a shame that he's still been allowed to keep grazing and basically suffer no consequences despite the fact that he still owes $1 million to taxpayers."
Weiss said the Bundy showdown also set the stage for the Oregon standoff, which was prompted by prison sentences for Oregon ranchers who had set fires on federal lands.
"The fact that there's been no consequences has emboldened these militia groups," Weiss said. "Some laws have clearly been broken here, and some people are going to have to pay the consequences for that. We certainly hope everyone here gets held accountable for what they've done."
Cliven Bundy, who has kept a low profile during his sons' showdown in Oregon, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. But statements attributed to him on his ranch's Facebook page showed he was supporting his sons as well as their cause — challenging government authority over federally owned lands.
"We the People are taking a hard stand to restore land and resources back to county government and to We the People, challenging the federal government's jurisdiction over the land and resources within an admitted state," said a message Wednesday attributed to Bundy. "Exercise agency or be controlled by a central government! FREEDOM, LIBERTY, FOR GOD WE STAND."
Follow @MattDPearce on Twitter.