LAS VEGAS — Protesters with fluttering flags and a bellowing bullhorn faced off Monday outside U.S. court in Las Vegas, while jury selection began inside for six defendants accused of stopping federal agents at gunpoint from rounding up cattle near Cliven Bundy's ranch in April 2014.
About 10 supporters of the jailed rancher and his philosophy that states' rights supersede federal land policy, and a similar number of counter-protesters organized by a conservation advocacy group, remained peaceful beneath the watch of heavily armed federal security officers.
"We're out here to support our fellow citizens and uphold the Constitution against all enemies," said Dan Knowles, a Bundy backer from Oakley, California, who also demonstrated outside the courthouse during several pretrial hearings in the case. "Our government has lost sight of the Constitution," he said.
"I (Heart) Public Lands," read a sign in the hands of Ryan Beam, a Center for Biological Diversity protest organizer from Flagstaff, Arizona. He said his group fears that elected officials want to sell, give away or privatize public property in the West.
Bundy and his sons are not among the first six defendants to go to trial in U.S. District Court in Nevada. They're due for trial after proceedings are completed involving Orville Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart, all of Idaho, Gregory Burleson of Phoenix and Richard Lovelein of Oklahoma.
Each is accused of 10 charges including conspiracy, firearm offenses and assault on a federal officer. Each has pleaded not guilty, and each could face up to 101 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Land policy is a hot issue in the West, where U.S. land management, park, forest and military agencies control more than half the acreage in states like Oregon, Idaho and Utah. In Nevada, where federal ownership approaches 85 percent, the dispute has spawned other uprisings including the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s.
The standoff involving federal agents, Bundy and a self-styled militia came after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management won court orders against Bundy for failing for years to pay fees for grazing on public land and began impounding his cattle from land surrounding his 160-acre cattle ranch and melon farm near Bunkerville.
Government prosecutors argue that Bundy racked up more than $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties by ignoring laws he didn't like.
Bundy argues the government has no jurisdiction on land his family has grazed for generations about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The standoff came to a tense end with Bundy backers positioned on a high Interstate 15 overpass pointing military-style AR-15 and AK-47 weapons at heavily armed land management agents and contract cowboys herding cows toward a corral below.
The FBI investigated for two years before 19 men were arrested in early 2016 — at about the same time a group including Bundy's eldest sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, ended more than a month occupying a federal wildlife reserve in Oregon.
A federal jury in Portland, Oregon, acquitted seven people including the Bundy brothers of federal conspiracy and weapon charges in that case.
In Nevada, two of the 19 defendants previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, and they are expected to be sentenced in coming months to up to six years in prison. They are not expected to testify in the six-defendant trial.
Jury selection is expected to take several days before prosecutors begin outlining the government case, possibly on Thursday.