DENVER, CO,  Oct. 28, 2016 – An Oregon jury returned a surprise verdict yesterday, finding Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, and five other militants not guilty of conspiring to impede employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The trial is a setback for the U.S. government working to stem the tide of militant extremism on public lands; the trial’s outcome may also embolden militia groups in states across the Western United States.

The militant occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is but one of many instances of militia groups threatening the safety of public land managers. And while the Bundy family and their devotees fall far outside mainstream public opinion on Western public lands, militants remain committed to using public lands and government employees to express their anti-government sentiments.

Documents obtained by the Center for Western Priorities via a Freedom of Information Act Request to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service highlights the dangerous reality for land managers and scientists working on America’s public lands.

The records reveal four key findings:

  • Government employees are regularly threatened by militia and sovereign citizens on public lands.

  • Civil servants receive threats against their life.

  • Militia groups routinely use public lands for training.

  • The occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge emboldened militants.

Records Request 1
Bureau of Land Management

The Center for Western Priorities obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Request to the Bureau of Land Management for reports and complaints involving militia activity in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada between January 1, 2012 and August 21, 2015. The request asked for information concerning the discharge of firearms or other weapons, militia activities, or incidents involving the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Militia of Montana, the Council of Conservative Citizens, or sovereign citizens.

Full documents and analysis

Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officers reported 26 incidents related to militia or sovereign citizen activity on public lands in the seven states between 2012 and 2015.

  • Ten incidents involving sovereign citizens or militia groups were reported in Arizona, nine of which occurred in the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

  • Bureau of Land Management employees received multiple death threats from anonymous callers during the Bundy Ranch standoff.

  • Law enforcement officers in the Sonoran Desert National Monument stopped two militia members who were on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s domestic terrorist watch list.

  • The Ada County Lightfoot Militia attempted to close off portions of public lands for shooting without a permit.

  • A Bureau of Land Management officer was harassed by a sovereign citizen during a property rights investigation.

  • A Sovereign citizen accused of domestic assault refused to recognize the authority of a Bureau of Land Management officer attempting to arrest him on public lands.

Records Request 2
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Center for Western Priorities obtained documents from a Freedom of Information Request concerning incidents of threatening behavior, vandalism and other acts at U.S. wildlife refuges in the West as armed militants held the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Full documents and analysis

While many of the records received were redacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under various FOIA exemptions, the unredacted information reveals emboldened militias willing to take aggressive action on American public lands. According to the documents, between January 31, 2016 and February 14, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded 26 different incidents. These occurred at 16 different wildlife refuges across the West. That includes four incidents at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada and five at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.

While this week’s verdict could embolden anti-public land militants, it is also important to remember that the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation—Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy—are not walking free. Both will stand trial next year, alongside their father Cliven Bundy, on charges pending in Nevada for their role in the dangerous 2014 armed standoff at the Bundy Ranch.

Ensuring the Bundys are held accountable for their illegal activities in Nevada will send a signal to militant extremists that they are not above American laws.

The Center for Western Priorities is a conservation policy and advocacy organization focused on land and energy issues across the American West.