A group of armed men occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, bears testimony to long-running anti-government sentiment held by its members. The militia, led by Ammon Bundy, called by turn domestic terrorists and patriots, declare they will stay for years if necessary, to win their demands. The Source discovered another side to the story.
On Sunday, about a three-hour drive southeast from Bend, the compound set up by the militia at the Fish and Wildlife headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was surprisingly quiet. It was possible to wander around without supervision and nobody seemed to mind. On closer inspection, as it turns out, the militia took the day off, apparently to go into Burns for church. This didn't make headline news.
Clearly, storming the empty center and recapturing the headquarters is not part of any plan to end the standoff. Local officials said they are taking orders from higher up and are not permitted to act. It appears the government is waiting out the militia, pointedly avoiding a confrontation that could be deadly to the women and children camping there with them. However, some escalation began on Monday, when the militia tore down a government fence, indicating the group is ready to see results.
Origins of the standoff
Ammon Bundy, and his brother Ryan Bundy, joined others in support of two Oregon ranchers sentenced to prison. Father and son Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steve Hammond, 46, of Harney County, are each serving five years in prison for arson for setting backburns on federal land adjacent to their property. Although both men had already served the sentences they initially received, in October 2015, the Capital Press reported a Eugene judge resentenced them to return to prison to serve the minimum five years of the anti-terrorism law used to convict them.
Original sentencing by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, now retired, found that a five-year term would amount to cruel and unusual punishment and was "grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here." The Oregon Farm Bureau gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a petition for leniency for the Hammonds. Further, the Oregon Cattleman's Association established a fund to help with the Hammonds' legal fees. The Bundys were among thousands of supporters.
At Bundy's first press conference, which he called on January 3, he not only demanded the release of the Hammonds, but also explained the group's motives included getting the county economically revived - through logging. This might seem like a head-spinner, but protection of the spotted owl brought what felt like government oppression to many Oregon timber towns in the last few decades. Twenty-five years ago, the mills hummed night and day in Oregon, when the U.S. government was still in the business of selling Douglas Fir by the board foot. The endangered spotted owl and the Clinton Administration's Northwest Forest Plan resulted in economic death for many Oregon timber towns, still struggling today with poverty and unemployment.
At this writing, no charges have been filed. Nonetheless, what began as a peaceful protest in a Safeway parking lot, may now present an interesting legal case. In 2015, Ammon Bundy founded a group called the Harney County "Committee of Safety," a term with roots in the American Revolution. The Committee of Safety presented the Harney County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff with a Redress of Grievance on Jan. 8, 2016. However, within 48 hours, the Burns group unanimously decided to split with its founder and publicly asked him and the other occupants to go home.
Home for Bundy is Nevada, where his first armed standoff occurred in 2014, following a 20-year dispute between the Bundy family and the Bureau of Land Management. Whether Bundy and his supporters will respect the wishes of the local residents of Burns and leave, will unfold in the coming days, weeks or months.
The statewide effort required to respond to the occupation at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is taking resources away from every part of Oregon. Sheriff David Ward in Harney County requested deputies from all 36 counties in Oregon with state and federal officers to provide assistance and safeguard local residents.
"As far as time lines go we will continue our efforts until we can reach a peaceful resolution. The cost of sending the officers and deputies has yet to be determined," a Harney County public information officer provided.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who work at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge are working as best they can from other locations. "Due to the unauthorized presence of individuals at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, important, on site conservation actions have been suspended," they responded via email.
The Burns-Hines Schools are now open, according to the Harney County Sheriff's Twitter account. The schools reopened after an extended closure to ensure students' and staff safety under the guidance of Harney County School District Superintendent Dr. Marilyn McBride.
Whether or not Bundy and the militia will be charged with any crime, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty plans to fine Bundy $75,000 for every day of the occupation, he says.
History of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Hundreds of species of birds migrate through the region on the Pacific Flyway, a crucial stop that offers resting, breeding, and nesting grounds for migratory birds.
The Pacific Flyway stretches from Alaska to Patagonia, and some species of birds fly the entire length during migrations in the spring and fall. Each individual species usually travels the same route and at the same time of year along the flyway.
In 1908, wildlife photographers William F. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman, with backing from the Oregon Audubon Society, approached President Theodore Roosevelt asking for permanent protection of the region. On Aug. 18, 1908, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established by Executive Order of the President. At the time of designation it was one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi. The refuge now encompasses nearly 190,000 acres of wildlife habitat and birding paradise.
Usually a very peaceful place, avid bird watchers can predict with accuracy when certain birds will arrive and rest in the Harney Basin. In an article penned for the Atlantic Monthly in 1910, photographer William Finley wrote of the abundance of waterfowl in the area. "We found the biggest colony of gulls and white pelicans I have ever seen." He continued, "I have seen big bird colonies before, but never one like this." He documented that he was so excited that he tripped over the oars in his boat and fell overboard, photographic plates in hand.
Long before Oregon was even a state, in 1826, French-Canadian fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden led a large expedition into the Malheur - Harney Basin area in search of fur-bearing animals. Although they did not find an abundance of beaver and other fur-bearers, Ogden did note that the lake was about a mile wide and nine miles long and contained "fowl in abundance." As with bison, by the late 1880s hunters were decimating North American bird populations in pursuit of feathers for the fashionable hat industry. The Harney Basin, where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located, was no exception, where white herons were killed to near extinction.
More than 100 species including waterfowl, shorebirds, cranes, raptors, songbirds, and others can be seen during the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival each spring. Only time will tell if the militia will still be there come April, in what would be the festivals 35th year.