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Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy takes on the U.S. government again

If Mr. Smith can go to Washington, then, by golly, Mr. Bundy can go to Carson City

Decked out in a buffalo-hide hat, bolo tie and Western boots, Nevada rancher and states' rights rabble-rouser Cliven Bundy stood near the Capitol building Tuesday, addressing a throng of supporters and one lone counter-protester (more on him later).

Hey, if Mr. Smith can go to Washington, then, by golly, Mr. Bundy can go to Carson City — to air out his plain-spoken concerns on how the federal government's britches have just gotten too big, with a reach so suffocating it threatens to smother the constitutional health of this Western state.

And so here he was, this stubborn 69-year-old cowboy, whose armed standoff last year with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights on federally administered public lands almost led to violence. But this time Bundy's supporters left their guns at home.

The rancher led a busload of blue-collar followers from Las Vegas to swarm a hearing to discuss legislation calling for Washington to release its stranglehold on 85% of the land in this arid state and allow local residents greater access to fish, hike and hunt there. And in Bundy's case, run his cattle free of charge there.

"For too long, we've allowed the federal government to run over us like we're nothing," he told supporters. "Well, we're not gonna be nothing no more."

At issue is Nevada's AB 408, introduced by Republican state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. It's the latest of a slew of anti-Uncle Sam bills put forth across the West that have caught the attention of land and water advocacy groups.

"Bill 408 goes farther than even the most extreme bill we've seen so far — and we're tracking 37 like bills in 11 Western states," said Jessica Goad, a spokeswoman for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank.

Similar state legislation elsewhere has called for studies of state-controlled lands and even demanded the BLM relinquish all management to the state. Nevada's goes even further, insisting Washington "has no say in any land and water rights discussion," Goad said.

Nevada's oversight Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal advice and research for lawmakers, has labeled the bill unconstitutional.

Goad said Bundy and his sovereign-citizen movement represented "an extremist take on the rights of the federal government in America" that, if successful, could embolden others throughout the West.

On Tuesday, Bundy was eager to leave his cattle brand on Carson City.

The day was a snapshot of life for the recalcitrant rancher a year after his showdown with federal agents sent to seize cattle they said Bundy was running in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, the habitat of the federally protected desert tortoise.

After years of court battles in which a defiant Bundy argued that he did not recognize the rule of the federal government in the matter and stopped paying allotted grazing fees in 1993, a federal judge ordered seizure of the animals, saying the rancher owed $1 million in back fees.

When agents moved in last April, Bundy was backed by an angry citizen militia, many of whom were armed with semiautomatic weapons. The BLM backed off, promising to pursue Bundy through federal court.

A small cadre of militia members still camps near Bundy's spread, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

And beefy men now follow their leader everywhere, including here.

At the rally, a bystander asked Bundy if his cowboy hat was new. That's when his personal bodyguard — a bald-headed man with tattooed hands who calls himself Booda Cavalier — broke in:

"He's had that awhile," he said in a tone that suggested the matter was closed.

On a windy late-March day, the scent of protest was in the air as 100 Bundy disciples — including carloads from Arizona, Utah and California — held signs and waved bumper stickers that said, "Bye Bye BLM."

Into the throng came Tork Rains, a 50-year-old Navajo who works as a graphic designer. He carried a sign with a Native American chief in full headdress and the words: "Bundy get off my property."

Rains said the argument wasn't about states' rights, but the rights of ranchers like Bundy to freeload off taxpayers by grazing his cattle on public lands without paying for the convenience. "Everything for cattle," he said.

As a parade of speakers, including Bundy, took to the lectern, Rains held his blood-red sign in their faces. Some speakers tried to assuage the lone dissenter. "I'm all for the Native Americans," Bundy said.

Rains wouldn't budge, even after one speaker implored, "Would you please remove yourself?" Then an elderly woman rushed up and thrust a pro-Bundy sign in front of Rains' message as some in the crowd cheered.

Finally, Rains backed off, muttering, "I'm tired of these bullies."

Inside the Capitol, lawmakers addressed a crowd so large it spilled into two adjoining rooms. At one point, Fiore, with a cowboy-hatless Bundy son Ammon by her side, argued the wisdom of her bill, using an analogy drawn from a 1960s TV sitcom to suggest Nevadans didn't own their state — the federal government did.

She likened the state to TV backwoodsman Jed Clampett.

"It's like 'The Beverly Hillbillies,'" Fiore said. "If we go out into our backyard and strike gold, it wouldn't be ours. In Nevada, we wouldn't be going to Beverly Hills." Some in the crowded hooted as if at a revival meeting.

Outside, before the hearing, 10-year-old George Rosenlund had held up a sign that read, "BLM, Forest Service Guilty of Treason."

When asked what that meant, the boy said, "I'm not sure."

Nearby, an 11-year-old girl spoke up. "It means they're not following the Constitution. They're not following the rules."

Her name: Jerusha Bundy, Cliven Bundy's granddaughter.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter: @jglionna

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