Letters from the West

As tension spread beyond the Oregon refuge, the feds moved on Bundys

Ryan Bundy hammered and sawed on a veranda next to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor center on Jan. 23, preparing to hang a sign.

He was preparing for what was essentially a reality television event that he and the others occupying the refuge planned to stage at 4 p.m. that Saturday for the media who had massed during the occupation that began three weeks before. He was hurrying to get ready for a “gathering” at 2 p.m. of ranchers the occupiers had invited to tear up their federal grazing permits in a show of defiance.

A reporter was accompanied by Duane Ehmer, who described himself as head of security and was recognizable from ubiquitous media images of the occupation as the man on the horse Hellboy, carrying an American flag.

Passing the federal vehicle that served as a gate, Ehmer expressed surprise: “I thought there’d be more people up here.”

There weren’t. Only one New Mexico rancher came for the show of defiance. It was a sign that the alternative reality that Ryan and his brother, Ammon Bundy, had created for themselves was not true.

Ehmer and others had persuaded themselves that the FBI would not storm the refuge to end their siege, saying the agency knew it didn’t have the authority. Instead, the Bundys and four others were stopped and arrested Tuesday while driving to a meeting in John Day on a snowy highway north of Burns. Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed. Two more were arrested in Burns. On Wednesday, Ehmer and two others gave themselves up, leaving just a handful still holding out at the refuge.

The law enforcement action was unannounced, but not unexpected. Despite the occupiers’ confidence that they could continue to move about with impunity as they had for weeks, pressure had been building on law enforcement officials to act. Officials also were aware of mounting criticism that the feds’ failure to act in 2014 — when the Bundy brothers’ father defied federal authorities in an armed showdown on his Nevada ranch over grazing rights — had emboldened the new group of occupiers.

FBI Special Agent Greg Bretzing told reporters Wednesday that the highway arrest was “a very deliberate and measured response” to the occupation, and released video and some details of Finicum’s shooting on Thursday.

“We’ve worked diligently to bring the situation to a peaceful end,” Bretzing said.

‘TEARING OUR COMMUNITY APART’

The Department of Justice and the FBI kept their plans and strategy close to the vest. But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Burns Paiute Chairwoman Charlotte Roderique and local officials had urged the Obama administration to act.

Brown spoke to Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, deputy presidential assistant Jerry Abramson and FBI Director James Comey on Jan. 19, said Kristen Grainger, Brown’s spokeswoman.

“During my conversations, I conveyed the harm that is being done to the citizens of Harney County by the occupation and the necessity that this unlawful occupation end peacefully and without further delay from federal law enforcement,” Brown wrote Obama.

Roderique had complained of harassment of tribal members by armed militia members, and the threat to more than 4,000 sacred artifacts stored at the refuge headquarters, which occupiers displayed in their videos from the site.

“This episode has placed great strain on the tribe, the community and law enforcement officials,” Roderique said after the arrests. “The ability of the lawbreakers to come and go as they please needed to stop.”

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho were more insistent Jan. 22 when they urged Robyn Thorsen, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to act. The feds already were too late, demonstrating that tribal resources at other refuges around the nation were not adequately protected.

“The (agency) has left the lights on, opened the Internet, allowed them to receive mail and let them come and go with absolutely no consequences,” wrote LeeJuan Tyler, acting chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council that leads the tribes. “If these occupiers were tribal members, at any refuge you manage, the response would be heavy-handed and swift for anyone involved.”

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who serves as what in Oregon is the chairman of the county commissioners, delayed a meeting with a reporter Jan. 22 when Ammon Bundy came to Burns with his entourage, confronted the FBI and sought unsuccessfully to meet with Sheriff Dave Ward.

Grasty’s comments that day suggested he knew the FBI’s strategy.

“If I have my way, I would turn the power off, shut that facility down, keep the press out and wait them out,” he said.

Officers grabbed the leaders, circled the refuge headquarters and told the press to stay away as they waited out the remaining militia members and others who share Bundy’s alternative view of the law.

Sheriff Ward said the occupiers’ actions were reaching beyond the refuge and stressing the community — an allusion to the threats, harassment and stalking that Grasty and Roderique had detailed.

“If it was as simple as just waiting out some folks down there, to just get them out of some buildings, we could have waited a lot longer,” Ward said after the Bundys’ arrests and Finicum’s death. “This has been tearing our community apart.”

The ripple effects were felt far beyond Burns. The Bundys were heading for a meeting in John Day when apprehended. A militia meeting had been scheduled for Thursday in Ontario. Bundy was scheduled to speak at a meeting Friday in Jordan Valley.

RANCHERS DIDN’T SIGN ON

Fred Otley, a rancher and former Oregon Cattlemen’s Association president from near the refuge in Diamond, thinks Bundy might have left on his own. He didn’t support the occupation but was sympathetic to the Bundys’ cause in support Dwight and Steven Hammond. The father and son were sent back to prison to serve a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for arson on the refuge, a charge he and others view as trumped up.

“We don’t agree with the occupation of the buildings,” he said, “but it was nonviolent.”

Otley never considered tearing up his grazing permit. Like the association he once led, he supports changing policy through legal channels. But as he watched federal, state and local officials “overreact” by shutting down community meetings and closing schools, he said he can almost believe the conspiracy theories about stalking and harassment by federal agents.

“It’s like they were trying to make this look as bad as they can,” Otley said of the officials.

Even once the occupation is history, Otley said, the frayed relationship with the federal government won’t improve for Harney County ranchers until the sentence the Hammonds are serving is reduced or ended. Had the Hammonds not been sent back to prison, said Otley, “none of this would have happened.”

Other livestock leaders say privately that had the Hammonds joined the Bundys and fought going back to prison, the protest might have helped the Bundys spread the revolt across the West. Instead, the Hammonds turned themselves in and told the occupiers to leave.

John O’Keeffe, current president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, was watching closely. He monitored the Bundys’ efforts to get his members to tear up their grazing permits — and was ready to express opposition publicly to an action that would be economically devastating to cattlemen.

In the end, it was clear ranchers weren’t signing on to the Bundys’ revolt and the movement wouldn’t reach beyond the fringe groups represented in the occupation compound. But Bundy wasn’t giving up. That’s why he and Finicum were on a recruiting trip to John Day.

Even as militias call for arresting Bretzing and the FBI and Oregon officers involved in the arrests, O’Keeffe doesn’t second-guess how law enforcement handled the stop.

“We’re definitely sorry it ended in bloodshed,” O’Keeffe said.

An earlier version of this story had the wrong day Bundy was arrested.

Rocky Barker covers environment, energy, federal issues and government accountability for the Statesman: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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