Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher famous for his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, is slated to speak at an event in Sanders County Jan. 20 in one of his first public appearances since he was released from prison earlier this month.
The event, titled “Freedom and Property,” is organized by a group called Coalition of Western Property Owners (COWPO), whose members hope to draw attention to the perceived overreach of the federal government and its mismanagement of public lands.
Set to take place at 5 p.m. at the Old Paradise School gymnasium in Paradise, the event’s featured speakers include state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and Shawna Cox, one of the defendants in the armed occupation and standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon led by Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy’s son.
Cox was riding in a truck when state troopers shot and killed Robert LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, the group that spearheaded the occupation of Malheur, which lasted 40 days. Plains resident Jake Ryan also took part in the Malheur standoff and was indicted on felony charges.
Ryan’s mother, Roxsanna Ryan, also of Plains, said she helped organize the upcoming event featuring Bundy and was one of COWPO’s founding members eight months ago, spurred to action by what she called unconstitutional and illegal conduct by the federal government.
“We believe that the message of freedom is very, very important, and Cliven Bundy and other speakers at the event will share their firsthand experiences of how that freedom is being robbed in the West,” Ryan said Thursday. “People are coming here to share their stories.”
Ryan said the chief concerns shared by ranchers and farmers in the western United States center on “the degrees of abuse by all federal agencies,” including the FBI. The group opposes federal government involvement in favor of state and local control, she said.
“This meeting is about keeping the narrative alive and emphasizing that private property is vital to being a free man anywhere,” she said.
The polarizing topic at the heart of the event, as well as the controversial figures scheduled to attend, drew criticism from hunting and conservation organizations dedicated to maintaining public land managed by the federal government for a mixture of uses, including recreation and wildlife habitat.
Ryan Busse, the national board chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and a Kalispell resident, said he was shocked that a state senator had agreed to speak alongside Bundy, even someone like Fielder who has frequently championed the transfer of federal lands to the state of Montana since she was elected in 2012.
“I think that an elected political official from one of the two major political parties essentially hosting and endorsing what amounts to the outright thievery of public land is establishing a really bad and dangerous precedent,” Busse said.
Kayje Booker, state policy director at Montana Wilderness Association, also singled out Fielder’s scheduled appearance as cause for concern.
“The fact that Senator Fielder is speaking with not only Cliven Bundy at this event, but also with one of the people who participated in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge two years ago, confirms that she’s aligned herself with a dangerous fringe group that is violently trying to bring an end to public land ownership.”
Fielder said she intends to discuss the injustice and wrongdoing that occurred at the hands of federal agencies that prosecuted the ranchers at the center of the Malheur conflict, the Hammond family, as well as the recently dismissed cases against the Bundys.
“I believe there has been wrongdoing at every level. I want it investigated, exposed and I want it stopped. And I want anyone who has violated the public trust to be investigated and prosecuted,” Fielder said. “Just because I am going to the event does not mean that I agree with everything that Cliven Bundy does and says, but I do agree that there is some serious malfeasance occurring with the federal agencies that needs to be rectified.”
The 71-year-old Bundy became a nationally known figure when, after grazing his cattle on publicly owned BLM land for decades, he squared off against federal agents who attempted to seize the cattle in 2014.
In February 2016, Bundy was arrested by the FBI at the Portland International Airport while he was en route to support the Malheur occupation. The charges were related to his own standoff in Nevada.
In December, his case was declared a mistrial due to prosecutorial misconduct and on Jan. 8 a judge dismissed all charges against Bundy and his sons, saying prosecutors violated their due process rights by failing to disclose evidence to the defense attorneys.