Ammon's Army
Mother Jones|September/October 2021
He built a platform that can summon 60,000 people for uprisings on demand. He’s running to become governor of Idaho. Inside Ammon Bundy’s crusade to liberate the West.
By Stephanie Mencimer

For six years now, Josh Thayer has been at war with his next-door neighbor over the location of their property lines in Salem, a small town in Utah. Thayer has been prosecuted for trespassing and cited for keeping chickens on his property. He has accused the neighbor of various transgressions, a dispute memorialized in restraining orders, plus a lawsuit and an appeal—both of which Thayer lost. City officials, he claims, have conspired to steal his land so they can give it to well-connected developers. And these days in the West, when you think the government is trying to steal your land, there’s one person you call: Ammon Bundy.

Bundy, 45, is one of the 13 children of Cliven Bundy, a devout Mormon who in 2014 organized an armed standoff against the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, where his family had been grazing cattle on public land for more than 60 years. Cliven had stopped paying federal grazing fees in 1993 to protest new environmental restrictions. After a federal judge ordered the cattle removed, the Bundy family, supported by armed militia groups, confronted BLM agents, who ultimately retreated to avoid a bloodbath. The drama played out nightly on Hannity.

The successful standoff turned Ammon into an instant star in the anti-public land firmament, especially after law enforcement failed to arrest any of the Bundys for two years. But the next confrontation would not end so peacefully. In 2016, Ammon traveled to Oregon—claiming the Lord had sent him—where he led a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the reincarceration of two local ranchers who’d been convicted of arson on public land. During the occupation, Bundy’s friend, a rancher named LaVoy Finicum, tried to charge a police blockade. Officers shot Finicum dead as he appeared to reach for his gun, yelling, “Just shoot me!”

Only then were Ammon, Cliven, and several Bundy siblings arrested and charged for their roles in the earlier Nevada standoff. Ammon and his brother Ryan were also charged for the Malheur takeover. But the Lord delivered: An Oregon federal jury stunned observers by acquitting the Bundys. The Nevada case ended in a mistrial after the judge ruled that prosecutors had engaged in “gross misconduct” by improperly withholding evidence from the defense.

The government’s failure to hold the Bundys accountable turned the family into folk heroes in some quarters. After spending two years in jail awaiting trial, upon his release, Ammon became a headliner on the “patriot” speaking circuit, and people all over the West invited him—and the militia groups in his orbit—to parachute into their local land conflicts. His popularity only grew after he mobilized his followers to oppose pandemic restrictions and covid vaccinations. In a timely merger of far-right extremism and Republican politics, Bundy has even leveraged his outlaw celebrity into a campaign for governor of Idaho.

The notion that Bundy, whose critics jokingly deride as the leader of “Y’all Qaeda,” might stand a chance in a statewide election would strike many Americans as absurd. Then again, nobody ever thought Donald Trump would be president. “[Bundy] has this arm reaching really far to the right, to the real extreme kind of militia groups, but he is always careful to position himself as nonviolent,” says James Skillen, a Calvin University professor and author of This Land Is My Land: Rebellion in the West. Bundy’s politics are extreme, Skillen says, but he speaks a language that appeals to mainstream conservatives, Trumpians, and libertarians, as well as Mormons and evangelical Christians. “He’s a meaningful link between mainstream and extreme conservativism in America.”

Win or lose, Bundy’s activism has consequences that extend well beyond Idaho. In late 2019, he formed an organization called People’s Rights, which now claims more than 60,000 members nationally. Dubbed “Ammon’s Army” by the Institute for Re-search and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors far-right extremism, People’s Rights is rooted in what Irehr President Devin Burghart calls “middle-American neighborhood nationalism”—the idea that the only way to fight government tyranny is to stand with your neighbors to defend your constitutional rights. “For Bundy that goes farther,” Burghart told me. “It’s not just about neighbors but that battle between the righteous and the wicked.”

The Los Angeles Times has described People’s Rights as Uber for militias, a platform Bundy created that enables anyone with a beef against the government to dial-up an armed protest on demand. Encrypted Signal messages allow members to communicate and rally each other to action in an entirely decentralized way, sort of like a 21st-century phone tree. Local People’s Rights groups also hold ham radio trainings and food canning lessons to prepare for the apocalypse—or, more likely, if they are de-platformed. “Our goal is so that anybody in People’s Rights can call, and if it is warranted, at least 10 people will show up in 10 minutes, and 100 people show up in 100 minutes, 1,000 people in 1,000 minutes, and so on and so forth,” Bundy told me.

That’s how it worked for Thayer. When he sent out his distress call this past February, dozens of members flocked to Salem. They made harassing calls to the police chief, circulated videos of their menacing confrontations with the mayor, and generally made nuisances of themselves.

Bundy inspires and facilitates these armed flash mobs, and experts I spoke with believe it’s only a matter of time before one turns violent. Climate-driven droughts, wildfires, and extreme temperatures are creating new battles over scarce public resources, particularly if the Biden administration starts enforcing the environmental and land regulations that Trump’s people ignored or deliberately weakened. “You can’t go around waving guns as a political statement and expect no one to get hurt,” Skillen told me. “That’s just not rational.”

EVERY ICONIC far-right extremist has a mythic origin story, and Ammon Bundy is no exception. Here’s a short version:

Until 2014, Bundy was just another law-abiding businessman—a devoted Latter- Day Saint raising a big family in Arizona and living the American Dream— until the federal government swooped in and attacked his ancestral home, threatening to turn it into the next Ruby Ridge or Waco. He answered the call to defend his family, and with God’s help, they prevailed over the oppressive forces of the federal government. “My family’s ranch was put under siege and our lives were threatened by federal agents,” he told a Utah audience recently. “Our crime, I guess, was just doing what our family has done for 140 years, which is ranching in the southern Nevada desert.”

The longer version is more complicated.

The Bundy clan likes to suggest they’ve been ranching in Bunkerville since the 1890s, though they actually spent decades bouncing between Mexico and the Arizona Strip, a northwest corner of the state with a punishing desert climate that was settled by Mormons fleeing persecution. Cliven’s father didn’t start grazing cattle near Bunkerville until 1949, and the operation was so barely profitable that Cliven encouraged his children to make their livings elsewhere.

Grazing restrictions, environmental regulations, and Las Vegas sprawl threatened the family’s hardscrabble existence and fueled their distrust for the federal government—as did open-air nuclear testing in the 1950s, which showered radioactive fallout onto unsuspecting residents living downwind. Cliven’s anti-government convictions ran so deep that he wouldn’t allow his first wife, Jane, to sign the kids up for free school lunch when the ranch was struggling—the kind of conflict that may have contributed to her leaving the family when Ammon was 5. Cliven raised his six kids solo until 1991, when he remarried. (Carol Bundy brought four daughters to the fold; she and Cliven had three more kids together.)

In the late 1980s, inspired by the Sagebrush Rebellion in the West, which challenged federal control over land, Cliven began to insist (wrongly) that the Constitution does not allow the federal government to own land, and thus the BLM had no jurisdiction over where his cows grazed. In 1993, he told the agency he would no longer pay his grazing fees. By 2012, the unpaid fees and fines exceeded $1 million, and a federal judge ordered Bundy’s cows impounded. The BLM’s first enforcement attempt was called off based on concerns about a violent response. In 2014, the BLM tried again.

That March, Cliven summoned his children and friends to do “whatever it takes” to protect the cattle. Ammon says Cliven had asked him to bring food and gear to feed the protesters. That’s when the first spidey sense of divine intervention struck him: He should leave his guns at home. When Ammon got to the ranch armed with nothing but a Leatherman, he says he discovered that the BLM had deployed what looked like 200 officers armed to the teeth. Some had taken up sniper positions around the compound despite FBI threat assessments concluding that Cliven wasn’t likely to be violent. Agents in helicopters joined contract cowboys to round up Cliven’s cows for auction. Things started to go south when officers in tactical gear beat up and arrested Ammon’s brother Dave, who was attempting to photograph some of the BLM armament.

A few days later, Bundy family members, including Cliven’s sister Margaret, obstructed the passage of a truck they suspected held cows that the BLM had killed. (It actually held equipment the Bundys used to water their cattle.) officers threw Margaret to the ground, and Ammon, who had been dutifully grilling burgers, raced to the scene on an ATV. He confronted the officers, who sicced a dog on him —which he kicked —and fired multiple Taser shots. Ammon endured the assault standing up. Photos show him bleeding through his shirt after pulling out the Taser prongs.

Viral videos of the episode were a siren call to militia groups like the Oath Keepers, whose far-flung members flocked to Bunkerville to defend the Bundys from the jackbooted thugs. People like militia leader Eric Parker—who ran unsuccessfully last year for the Idaho state Senate—took up sniper positions on a highway overpass. The BLM stood down. To this day, Cliven’s cows still graze freely, and he still hasn’t paid his fees.

Bunkerville was mainly Cliven’s show, and Ammon probably wouldn’t be the legend he is today if not for the FBI. When he felt called by God to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, few people were crazy enough to join him. It was such an ill-conceived, disorganized affair that even Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes declined Ammon’s call to arms. No more than a dozen militants joined the initial occupation, but the FBI helped fill its ranks: Of the 40 or so people ultimately involved in the takeover, at least 15 were federal informants.

The most important piece of evidence in the subsequent trial of Ammon and his co-defendants on criminal conspiracy charges was a video at the refuge where a man with a French accent, who called himself John Killman, led the militants in firearms training. Under his direction, the occupiers fired hundreds of rounds from semiautomatic weapons into the marshland. Introduced by the prosecutors, the video was a dramatic courtroom visual, but prosecutors had neglected to inform the jury that Killman was in fact a government informant named Fabio Minoggio. Or that the FBI had bought Minoggio a bulletproof vest and paid him to travel to the refuge to offer paramilitary training to the occupiers. In a last-minute twist, defense lawyers subpoenaed Minoggio, and his unveiling helped secure the acquittals that created the legend of Ammon Bundy, untouchable, with God on his side.

I FIRST SAW Ammon Bundy in person in November 2017, when I went to Las Vegas to cover the trial for his role in the Bunkerville affair. One day after the jury was selected, US District Judge Gloria Navarro held a hearing to reconsider the defendants’ detention. By then, Ammon, Cliven, and Ryan had been in jail for more than 650 days because the government insisted they were too dangerous to await trial at home. Ammon took the stand hoping to convince the judge otherwise.

During the Malheur takeover, Bundy had cut a striking figure at his daily press conferences, the epitome of the rugged individualist with his neatly trimmed beard and uniform of blue plaid flannel jacket, Western snap-front shirts, fat silver belt buckle, and trademark Resistol TuffHedeman cowboy hat. But in this Las Vegas courtroom, the former varsity defensive end appeared uncharacteristically gaunt after 22 months of prison food. Cleanshaven, he was wearing a red prison jumpsuit and plastic orange Crocs, unusual garb for a defendant on trial. But Bundy wasn’t your ordinary defendant.

Among the Bundys’ many acts of resistance was their refusal to don normal clothes for court appearances. Ammon even appeared once in his underwear before a judge after declining to get dressed. The family wanted to show that they were political prisoners, long-held without trial even though they had no criminal records.

Indeed, no prosecutor has ever produced evidence that Ammon was armed at Malheur or Bunkerville. Defense attorneys stressed that before the ranch standoff, he’d been a model citizen, deeply religious, with no history of violence. Elected student body president his senior year at Virgin Valley High School, he served two years as a Mormon missionary in Minnesota after graduating. Despite his cowboy garb, Ammon has never been a full-time rancher. His aw-shucks demeanor masks a savvy businessman who, for 21 years, ran a successful fleet-maintenance business he founded near Phoenix. Flight risk? Bundy didn’t even have a passport. His lawyers touted his strong ties to the community, including his marriage to Lisa, his wife of two decades, and six kids, one of them still a baby when he was arrested.

But prosecutors argued that Ammon was dangerous and didn’t recognize the authority of the federal government, and was therefore unlikely to comply with any release conditions set by a federal judge. During Ammon’s two years in pretrial detention, he had resisted even the smallest commands from guards or US Marshals. One of his co-defendants, Pete Santilli, ultimately filed a motion asking to be tried separately from the Bundys because they “have decided it is more important to protest jail procedures they feel violate their rights instead of preparing for a defense in the upcoming case in which they are facing life in prison.”

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