BURNS, OREGON - At 11:15 a.m. on February 11, 2016, the last of the remaining occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge walked out and surrendered to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cliven Bundy, father of occupiers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who was presumably heading to the refuge, was arrested as he got off the plane at Portland International Airport just after 10 pm on February 10. At Malheur, the final 18 hours of the standoff were livestreamed on YouTube. Tens of thousands listened as an FBI negotiator known as “Mark,” and Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, talked on the phone with the holdouts. Jeff Banta of Nevada and Sean and Sandy Anderson of Idaho surrendered an hour before the last holdout, 27-year-old Ohio resident David Fry abandoned his talk of suicide and violence and put down his gun, nevertheless declaring war against the federal government.
To shouts of “Hallelujah!” the 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was over.
Spring and autumn are the best times of year to visit Malheur, a time when millions of birds stop on their migrations in one of the most remote wildlife refuges in the United States. Malheur is crucial to the birds of the Pacific Flyway. It covers more than 187,000 acres of habitat — wetlands, riparian areas, meadows, and uplands. More than 320 bird and 58 mammal species use the refuge for rest, food, water and nesting. During migration, the refuge regularly supports hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and tens of thousands of shorebirds, including a significant portion of the total populations of several species. The refuge can be accessed by visitors from Burns, Oregon.
On October 7, 2015, in the federal district court in Eugene, Oregon, 73-year-old rancher Dwight Hammond and his 46-year-old son Steven Hammond were re-sentenced to five years in prison for arson on federal lands near Burns, Oregon. Federal District Judge Ann Aiken ordered that they return to prison on January 4, 2016, specifying that their sentences would be credited for time already served. Both of the Hammonds reported to prison in California as ordered.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson in 2012 by a jury of their eastern Oregon peers in Pendleton, Oregon.
After a two-week trial, the jury convicted both Hammonds of starting a 2001 fire called the Hardie-Hammond fire, and convicted Steven Hammond of setting a 2006 fire known as the Krumbo Butte fire. Of nine counts of repeated arsons from 1999 through 2006, damaging federal lands, witness tampering, and risk of injury to firefighters and other persons, the jury rendered no verdict on four charges, and found one or the other of the Hammonds guilty on the remaining five charges.
Trial judge Michael Hogan, on his last day before retirement, sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison, and Steven to one year, to be followed by three years of supervised release for each man. Judge Hogan ruled that the full mandatory sentence of five years would have violated the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment and would “shock the conscience.” He also allowed the men to stagger their sentences so that they could continue to operate their ranch. But U.S. attorneys appealed Judge Hogan’s sentence to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and won.
The appellate court ruled that the trial judge erred in his lesser sentencing and sent the matter back to the District Court, where Judge Aiken ordered the full five-year sentence reinstated.
Why is Everybody So Angry?
The Hammonds are eastern Oregon ranchers, scofflaws, arsonists, bullies who issue death threats and respected members of their community. At the 2012 court sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni acknowledged that the Hammonds, “both of them, have done many wonderful things for the community.” Both men have served on the French Glen School Board, Community Club and Site Council, and have taken part in founding and financing the French Glen Education Foundation, which pays for extracurricular activities for area students. The Hammonds regularly host annual science and careers fairs for rural schools, contribute money and food to the Harney County 4-H and FFA, and donate meat to the Harney County Senior Center, according to their attorneys’ sentencing memo.
When the Hammonds were sentenced to five years in federal prison, local people held a rally to express their support for the ranchers.
Either by propaganda or misunderstanding of the law, a repeated complaint was that the Hammonds were being sentenced as terrorists. They were not. They were sentenced as arsonists under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — a law that had been long sought by the Republican Party and many conservatives. A lot of people in the west are frustrated with federal regulators and see the enforcement of environmental regulations as arbitrary, and as an expensive nuisance. The Hammonds’ case offered residents another opportunity to vent their anger and show their support.
Yonder Stands Your Orphan With His Gun
Enter the Bundys, Ammon and Ryan, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. They came to Burns, they said, to join the support rally.
On January 2, 2016, Cliven Bundy published a press release that was as baffling as it was original:
The United States Justice Department has NO jurisdiction or authority within the State of Oregon, County of Harney over this type of ranch management. These lands are not under U.S. treaties or commerce, they are not Article 4 territories, and Congress does not have unlimited power. These lands have been admitted into statehood and are part of the great State of Oregon and the citizens of Harney County enjoy the fullness of the protections of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution limits United States government.
Almost immediately, the Bundys went from rallying in support of the Hammonds to taking over Malheur’s headquarters and sending out social media calls for help in overturning the federal jurisdiction of the land — to the dismay of most of the local people. The Hammonds, in fact, stated that they wanted no help from the Bundy outfit. “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family,” the Hammonds’ attorney W. Alan Schroeder wrote to Harney County Sheriff David Ward.
Sheriff David Ward and local citizens repeatedly told the media swarm that they wanted the outsiders to go home and that they could and would solve their problems by themselves.
But the Bundys had hijacked the rally and were now on their own mission.
On January 3, 2016, more than 100 well-armed white men led by Ammon Bundy walked unchallenged into the empty headquarters building at Malheur. It was Sunday; the refuge staff were not at work.
Ammon told CNN “… This refuge — it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area,” On Monday, January 4, Ammon stated that he and his group wanted the federal government to relinquish control of the wildlife refuge so “people can reclaim their resources,” And, they said, they also wanted an easier sentence for Dwight and Steven Hammond. But their subsequent actions were less idealistic.
During the next three weeks’ occupation, Harney County Sheriff David Ward repeatedly asked the Bundy militia to go home and let the community settle matters for itself. Militia members at Malheur remained, instead, and illegally used federal equipment, damaged archaeological sites, cut down fences, accessed federal employees’ personal information, appropriated federal vehicles, and, on Tuesday, January 26, precipitated a gun battle with the Oregon state police that left one man, Robert LaVoy Finicum, dead.
Who Are These Guys?
Several of the 16 people arrested and indicted for their part in the invasion of Malheur have ominous resumes and no apparent connection to the Burns community’s frustration with environmental regulation. Internet shock jock Pete Santilli stated on his show that he wanted to shoot Hillary Clinton in her genitals.
Jon Ritzheimer made headlines for organizing a heavily armed protest in front of a Phoenix, Arizona mosque. Ammon Bundy’s brother, Ryan Bundy, had a prior arrest for verbally and physically resisting arrest during an altercation with an animal control officer, while at court on an even earlier matter.
Ryan Payne, a Montana resident who joined Cliven Bundy at his 2014 Nevada showdown with federal agents, trained armed militia members as snipers aiming at Bureau of Land Management employees during the showdown. “We locked them down,” Payne says. “We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. …If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would’ve died.” Payne also believes that slavery never really existed in the United States, and “in most states you have the lawful authority to kill a police officer that is unlawfully trying to arrest you.” Ohio resident David Fry regularly posts anti-Semitic, homophobic, pro-Nazi and pro-ISIS screeds on social media. And Shawna Cox, mother of 12, is the self-described Bundy family live-in secretary.
After the Fall
After the Bundy brothers and several other armed men were taken into custody, the majority of the occupiers left the refuge, with their demands for control of the site and reduced sentences for the Hammonds, unmet. Governor Kate Brown reported that the three-week invasion had cost the state approximately $100,000 per week.
Meanwhile, Robert LaVoy Finicum has become a martyr to the militia and related groups of Sovereign Citizens, Oathkeepers, and other groups identified by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI as among the nation’s top domestic terror threats. Cliven Bundy and, apparently his sons, belong to the Sovereign Citizen movement.
Sovereign Citizens, A Clear and Present Danger
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that Cliven Bundy first took issue with the federal government when the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the desert tortoise endangered and restricted his cattle’s grazing on its habitat. Bundy then spent years demanding that Clark County Sheriff Gillespie protect his beef from the Bureau of Land Management. Sovereign Citizens, including Bundy, think that a county sheriff is the most powerful law enforcement officer in the United States, “with unlimited authority that trumps that of any federal agent, elected official, local police officer, or perceived enemy.” The Sovereigns’ beliefs come from the racist and anti-semitic Posse Comitatus movement, and their tenets are derived from English Common Law, which states that authority resides with the local sheriff.
In addition to their status as FBI-recognized domestic terrorists, their numbers are growing. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that approximately 300,000 Americans were Sovereign Citizen believers. And in 2014, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism surveyed law-enforcement officials and agencies across the United States and concluded that the movement was the single greatest threat to their communities, ranking far above Islamic terrorists and jihadists.
On January 4, 2016, in its annual count of militias, the SPLC identified 276 militia groups – up from 202 in 2014, a 37 percent increase. “The number represents a renewal of growth after several years of declines,” the report found, and “grew explosively after President Obama was elected, from 42 groups in 2008 to a peak of 334 in 2011.”
There Will Be Blood
While law enforcement staff are increasing the sharing of information and preparedness, and the FBI and DHS have western armed militias on their watch lists, growing outrage over resource allocation, unfettered entitlement and the growing numbers of armed militia members make invasions of public lands and attempts to take and hold public forests and open spaces more likely.
The questions we face include how we as a society deal with armed and aggressive militias whose idea of freedom does not recognize federal authority, or the rights of other users of federal lands. The next president will likely have the unenviable task of dealing with more such threats to the public wellbeing.
Meanwhile, in Harney County, Oregon, Sheriff David Ward, who has weathered death threats for his strong stand against the militias, has his community’s support.
“This county is a united family, and we don’t need people to come here from someplace else and tell us how to live our lives,” Ward told one community gathering. They gave him a standing ovation.
On February 11, Oregon Live reported that FBI special agent Greg Bretzing praised Sheriff Ward, saying “I have never met a man who cares more about the people he serves, who cares more for the community in which he lives.”
Our best hope is in that strong sense of community.
Martha Ture is a freelance journalist and novelist based in northern California. She recently retired from the California Public Utilities Commission, where she worked as a regulatory analyst.