WildEarth Guardians expressed disappointment with today’s not guilty verdict for Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other militants who seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The western environmental advocacy group simultaneously pleaded for the safety of employees at public land management agencies.
“I am extremely disappointed and surprised with the not guilty verdict,” said John Horning, WildEarth Guardians’ Executive Director. “We don’t know the jury’s deliberations, but regardless, most Americans agree that taking over the Refuge through threats of violence was appalling,” Horning added. “I fear this ruling will embolden other militants to use the threat of violence and I worry for the safety of employees at our public land management agencies. It is entirely possible there will be threats or intimidation from militants that believe such actions are justified by this verdict,” said Horning.
Ammon Bundy and his followers took over the eastern Oregon refuge for nearly six weeks in early 2016. At trial Ammon Bundy said he did not recognize the refuge as public land and that he and the others took it over to give it to local residents. During the occupation Bundy’s group used government equipment to build a new road and trenches adjacent to historic cultural sites containing sensitive artifacts of the Burns Paiute Tribe. Experts put the overall cost of the occupation to taxpayers at $6 million.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a crucial rest stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds and offers resting, breeding and nesting habitat for hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. Visitors to the refuge bring about $15 million into the local economy each year.
In 2014, the Bundy brothers took part in an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management led by their father, Cliven Bundy. The elder Bundy, who does not recognize the existence of the United States government, illegally grazed cattle on public land in southern Nevada for many years. The standoff began when BLM-hired cowboys attempted to round up Bundy’s livestock on public land after Bundy defied three court orders to remove the cattle.
Both the occupation of the wildlife refuge and the 2014 standoff align with claims from right-wing groups such as the American Lands Council that the states, not the public, are the rightful owners of public lands across the West. These claims have consistently been debunked, most recently by a bipartisan report from the Conference of Western Attorneys General finding no merit to legal claims that the U.S. is obligated to turn over public lands to the states.
“The Bundys want to steal our birthright, the commonwealth that is one of the cornerstones of the American experience—our public lands,” said Chris Krupp, Public Lands Guardian for WildEarth Guardians. “Their selfish and flat-out wrong interpretation of the Constitution is all about privatizing our public lands, which threatens to deprive all Americans of our ability to experience and enjoy the beauty and wildness of our lands.”