A militia seized the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. This happened on Saturday, Jan. 2, but many are still cloudy on the details behind the seizure.
This new Oregon militia is attached to Cliven Bundy’s family. Bundy is a cause celebre for conservative separatist movements. His family and supporters stood off against the Bureau of Land Management, the ATF, and Los Vegas Police in 2014. Bundy had been grazing cattle on public lands without a permit for more than 20 years, accruing and refusing to pay more than $1 million in fees and fines.
The anti-government militia Oath Keepers provided Bundy armed support during that standoff, and U.S. Army veteran Ryan Payne famously spoke about organizing militia snipers to target federal employees. Luckily, no one was shot during that protest. The height of the standoff was reached when one of Bundy’s sons attacked a police dog and was subsequently tasered.
The armed occupation of Malheur NWR near Burns, Oregon has followed a similar path, but centers on the illegal actions of a different family. This time, Dwight and Steven Hammond are local ranchers being sent to jail for arson. The father and son illegally poached a deer on federal land in 2001. They set a fire to cover up the evidence, and it got out of control, burning 139 acres of wild land. In 2006, they set another fire on government land, this time attempting to create a burn line to stop a wildfire already in progress. That fire also got out of control and endangered the lives of volunteer firefighters who were camped nearby.
Father and son Hammond served jail time under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. This stated a five-year mandatory-minimum for an act of arson on federal land. The first federal judge handling the case gave the pair lighter sentences, but the U.S. attorney appealed. Appeals take time. By the time the Ninth Circuit Court ruled, “given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense,” the Hammonds had already served out their lighter sentences.
The appealed ruling means the Hammonds have to return to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentences. It’s important to note this is not a violation of double-jeopardy, but simply a facet of how the appeals system works in the United States.
Nonetheless, Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy have framed the Hammonds’ re-sentencing as a Constitutional violation. They have told supporters and local Oregon militia that the federal government is prosecuting the Hammonds as terrorists, although this is not the case. Many laws, including but not limited to antiterrorism laws, are covered in the 1996 act under which the Hammonds were prosecuted.
Ammon Bundy declared, “We have basically taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And this will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here and to live here. And we’re planning on staying here for years.”
Their demands before vacating include that the Hammonds be released and that federal lands in Harney County be gifted to local miners, ranchers and loggers. The Hammonds themselves have disowned any connection to the Bundys and have said they do not support the Bundy family’s actions.
While the Bundys have claimed 300 armed allies and their children are occupying the Malheur NWR headquarters and possess stores that can last for years, media that has visited the location report no more than 20 armed participants, no children and a very modest supply of food. Furthermore, even the Bundys have said local miners, ranchers and loggers have declined to join or support them. Some local Oregon militia groups have also declined. The armed occupation appears to be chiefly composed of individuals like the Bundy brothers from out-of-state. Meanwhile, Bundy ally Jon Ritzheimer released a message that echoes others regarding the possibility for armed conflict as a result of their occupation of Malheur NWR.
The most difficult notion to grasp in this may be that the land local towns were founded on was given freely to settlers in the first place. Seized from Native American tribes, lands were gifted to settlers under the Homestead Act. Many decades ago, Harney County was one of the richest counties in Oregon, but it has since been mined, ranched, and logged into desolation. The Bundys seem to argue that now businesses have expended what was already given to them for free, these businesses should be gifted more free land ad nauseum.
The ranchers for whom the Bundys say they’re fighting already receive a 93 percent discount on grazing rights. The Bureau of Land Management covers the rest of the cost using taxpayer dollars. In other words, these ranchers pay a minute fraction of the actual cost for grazing rights, while the federal government supplements the rest.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 320 bird species, 58 species of mammals and contains marsh, desert, prairie and rimrock ecosystems. It is a migratory stop for many endangered species and holds one of the largest freshwater marsh ecosystems still remaining in the United States.
Polling has regularly revealed that between 90-95 percent of United States voters support the current funding and reservation of land for national parks and wildlife refuges.