Since Jan. 2, a crew of self-proclaimed militiamen have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The occupation is a reaction to the sentencing for arson of Dwight and Steve Hammond, local ranchers who have become symbols of the Sagebrush Rebellion over the last two decades. But the action goes far beyond just one family’s fight with the federal government: It’s an escalation of an insurgency sparked by the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014.
The Hammond family has been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management since the early ’90s, initially over grazing and water rights, and more recently over arson. The son and father were sentenced in 2012 and served abbreviated sentences—a year and three months, respectively. This October, the Hammonds were resentenced to five years each, with credit for the time they already served.
That aroused the passion of Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy; the elder Bundy made national news when he sparred with the BLM in 2014. Ammon Bundy has led a social media PR campaign for the Hammonds’ cause, producing a flurry of emotional YouTube videos and blog posts that rally support for the Hammonds and stir hatred for the federal government. In response to his urgent call to action, several hundred people walked in peaceful protest through the town of Burns last Saturday in support of the Oregon ranchers. Some of them were locals, but most were from out of town.
Saturday afternoon following the rally, word got out that Bundy had ratcheted the support movement to a new level: He and a handful of compatriots, including his brother Ryan, as well as Montana militiaman Ryan Payne, announced they were occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 23 miles south of Burns. They said they would stay there for as long as it took to stop federal overreach, and that they would be willing to fight and die for their cause.
While it at first appeared to be a repeat of the Bundy standoff or the Sugar Pine Mine incident in southern Oregon last spring, many of the individuals and organizations that rallied behind Cliven Bundy didn’t join the occupiers—and, in fact, condemned their actions.
Even before the wildlife refuge occupation began Saturday afternoon, Ammon Bundy was a controversial figure within far-right circles. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, the national constitutionalist organization that helped out at Bundy Ranch, called Bundy’s messaging “confusing and contradictory.” Rhodes criticized Bundy for putting out a call to action and incendiary rhetoric, without the full support of the Hammonds. Rhodes wrote: “At the very least, Ammon needs to make it very clear what he is asking people to do, and he needs to make it clear that he is going against the clearly stated intent of the Hammonds.”
News of the occupation blindsided other leaders of the Hammond support movement. “It was like: Wait, what did they do?” says Joseph Rice, head of the Oath Keepers of Josephine County, Ore., site of the Sugar Pine Mine incident.
“You HIJACKED what turned out to be a great and peaceful rally,” BJ Soper, of the Pacific Patriots Network, wrote to Bundy on Facebook. Rice, Soper and other Hammond-supporters have called Bundy “radicalized” and “fringe,” since he went rogue.
Chuck Cushman, a close supporter of the Hammonds and brainchild of the conservative wise-use movement of the ’90s, said of an email from Ammon Bundy: “Nearly all of what Bundy wrote was inaccurate at best. The facts were misstated and nearly all of what he talked about never happened. … Suzie (sic) Hammond (wife of Dwight) … expressed concern that statements were made that were just flat-out wrong.”
Bundy has refused to report how many people are camped at the wildlife refuge, but High Country News photographer Brooke Warren, who was at the site on Saturday night, counted 15 to 20 people. At least two were keeping watch in the federal fire tower. Rumors have circulated that Bundy may have machinations to occupy a nearby BLM building as well.
The dispute between the Hammonds and the federal government dates back decades. HCN reported in 1994 that Dwight Hammond, now 73, had made death threats against managers of the refuge in 1986, ’88 and ’91. He had also allegedly repeatedly violated a special permit that allowed him to move his cows across the refuge only at specific times. Hammond was briefly jailed in 1994 for “disturbing and interfering with” federal officials and then released after two nights in jail. Afterward, nearly 500 ranchers apparently rallied in Burns to support the Hammonds in their ongoing dispute.
The more recent fight is over two fires in 2001 and 2006. According to a family member’s testimony that is central to prosecutors’ arguments, in 2001, Dwight Hammond led family members in setting a blaze that burned 139 acres of public land in order to destroy evidence of an illegal deer hunt. Hammond argued the fire was meant to beat back invasive juniper that interfered with his cattle operation. Hammond lit the 2006 fire as a back-burn to lightning-caused fires, in order to protect his cattle and land. That backfire endangered the lives of BLM firefighters, according to Acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams.
In 2012, Hammond and his son were sentenced on charges of arson. Last year, Oregon’s federal attorney appealed the original sentence that was below the minimum required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In October, a U.S. district judge sentenced them to finish the five-year minimum prison term, with credit for time they already served.
Shortly thereafter, Ammon Bundy began ramping up his PR campaign, using the Hammond case as a rallying cry for the wider Sagebrush Rebellion—the fight against the feds, with whom his own family had unfinished business.
Among the casualties of Ammon Bundy’s recent campaign are the local communities of Burns and Hines, which have become divided over the Hammond situation and its fallout. Some local businesses have put up “Bundys go home” signs, while others have said they will only do business with Hammond supporters. Protestors on Saturday threw pennies, some violently, at the county sheriff’s office to send the message that Sheriff Dave Ward is a sell-out for not standing with them.
“We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources,” Bundy said Saturday. Yet, whom he is helping is not entirely clear. In public meetings Friday and Saturday, several locals worried that Bundy and militia members from out of town were concerned more with their own agendas than with the desires of Harney County residents. On a petition to President Obama to pardon the Hammonds, out of 1,700 signatures, only 157 indicate they’re from the county. Yet the petition states: “The residents of Harney County believe that they have served enough time and are asking the president for a commute of sentence for the remainder of the Appeals Court Sentence.”
One local, Shonna McKay, wrote in a blog post: “Does anyone in town really know Ammon or what his real agenda is? Has he come here and stirred things up for our best interest or is this his own personal vendetta? … I have friends and family who live along their marching route (who) are afraid to be home on that day for fear of something happening.”
Hines resident Diane Rapaport says Ammon Bundy and his compatriots have taken the local community “emotionally hostage.”
Since October, government and law enforcement officials in Burns and Hines have received death threats from Hammond supporters. According to a city administrator, as of Jan. 4, two city halls, a courthouse, some county offices and public schools were temporarily closed due to safety concerns over the recent events. Employees at the Burns BLM office are also on leave, for safety reasons, until further notice.
Ammon Bundy’s bravado and apparent disregard for locals’ desires echo the events at Recapture Canyon in Utah in 2014, when his brother, Ryan Bundy, took an ATV protest ride farther than the local organizers seemed to want it to go. County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized the Utah protest and asked participants to stop at the end of a two-track road, and not to proceed onto a more sensitive trail. Ryan Bundy disregarded Lyman’s request and charged onward.
In Burns, Ammon Bundy says he did meet with the Hammonds, who were grateful for his support. However, the ranchers say they did not request the call to action nor the occupation of the wildlife refuge in their names.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have offered only generic statements about how they are responding to the situation. One employee at the local BLM office, who asked not to be named, told HCN that agency leadership has been as tight-lipped internally as it is in its public statements. The employee also said that the agency has discouraged staffers from attending public meetings about the Hammonds, not for political reasons, but for personnel safety.
Late Monday morning, Ammon Bundy and other occupiers held a press conference at the refuge. They read aloud a redress of grievances addressed to a number of public officials, which stated: “We hold compelling evidence that the U.S. Government abused the federal court system, situating the Hammond family into duress as effort to force the Hammond’s to sell their Steen Mountain property to a federal agency.” The document requested a response from the federal government within five days.
In response to reporters’ questions, Ammon said: “Statements are not good enough. We intend on going to work and assisting the people of Harney in claiming their rights, using their rights as free people. We have a lot of work of beginning to unwind the unconstitutional land transactions that have taken place here. And we have defense mechanisms that allow us to do it while we’re here.”
When a reporter asked whether any Harney County residents were occupying the refuge with him, he said no.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 5, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reportedly informed Harney County Sheriff David Ward that the wildlife refuge occupiers would face charges. The FBI is leading a criminal case against the group at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge.
Brooke Warren, associate designer for High Country News contributed reporting to this story. Tay Wiles is the online editor for HCN.