Crackpots, not cowboys

Oregon occupation a case study in mission drift, lack of principles
Pile burning, part of fire prevention efforts at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo: USFWS).
Pile burning, part of fire prevention efforts at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo: USFWS).

The rugged ranch-reared sons of Nevada cowboy-turned-grazing-fee-cheat Cliven Bundy aren’t the salt-of-the-earth ‘Merica-loving cowboys you might think they are.

No sir.

Ammon Bundy, the leader of the so-called militia group, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, owns and runs a fleet vehicle repair service in Phoenix. His brother Ryan works in construction when he’s not in and out of southern Utah courtrooms for odd-ball offenses like letting his horse roam outside of its corral or interfering with an arresting officer.

These guys aren’t cowboys. They’re crackpots. And they’ve suffered a bit of mission drift over the course of the last couple of weeks. They’ve gone from trying to keep a pair of Oregon ranchers—Dwight and Steven Hammond—out of jail to demanding that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding national forest land be “returned” to its rightful owners.

The Hammonds are, indeed, ranchers, that were convicted in a court of law of two separate charges of arson. The first fire, in 2001, was started, according to court witnesses, to cover up an illegal deer slaughter. The second, started in 2006, was reportedly started to serve as a back-burn against a lightning-ignited wildfire on adjacent public land. For their crimes, they received relatively light jail terms that most would agree were in line with their crimes. Then, last year, after reviewing the case, a federal court ordered that the Hammonds be returned to prison to serve longer terms required under federal minimum sentencing laws—five years.

As ordered, after the holidays, the Hammonds reported to prison.

Ammon Bundy left his Phoenix fleet repair shop, grabbed his brother and a host of right-wing, anti-government extremists and — in protest of the Hammond’s incarceration — courageously conquered a vacant federal visitors’ center at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where they sit today, pleading with sympathizers for snacks and bathroom tissue. And they say they’ll sit there until their demands are met.

The Hammonds have wisely and publicly disavowed the Bundys and their supporters. They’re serving their time and many presume that, with good behavior, they’ll be out in short order. Additionally, the citizens of nearby Burns, the Harney County sheriff and just about everybody who doesn’t see a federal bogeyman behind every rock and tree has kindly asked them to leave and let the locals return to a normal existence in their remote but beautiful corner of the Northwest.

Oh, but their demands. In addition to asking for Power Bars and Charmin, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom are asking that the public lands of the refuge and the adjacent national forest be handed over to their rightful owners—the ranchers of Harney County, from whom it was presumably stolen years ago.

Ammon Bundy
Ammon Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education (AAFCE) at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona (photo: Gage Skidmore).

The refuge was designated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and comprised of unclaimed government lands for the purpose of protecting migratory birds that frequented Malheur, Harney and Mud lakes. The birds—cranes, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, etc.— were under serious threat from plume hunters in the late 19th century, and these lakes and wetlands were a vital stopping point along the Pacific flyway.

The refuge has grown over the years, thanks to willing sellers, often influenced by floods and drought that are part of the natural order of things in this lonely outpost of the Great Basin. It’s a tough life on the sage prairie of eastern Oregon, particularly for cows and sheep and those hearty souls who raise them. Naturally, there has been conflict between some landowners and the feds—this can’t be discounted. But, in recent years, efforts on the part of local ranchers, the community and, yes, the federal government, have born fruit. The refuge negotiated a management plan with local stakeholders, including ranchers, environmentalists, the recreation community and local governments. It’s six months old, and folks were optimistic that progress was being made. Amazing things can happen when you sit down and willingly work toward a common goal with a willingness to listen and compromise.

Then the Bundys showed up with their pals—armed to the teeth—to protest the mistreatment of the Hammonds, seized a vacant visitors’ building, blocked access to a public resource and … changed their story. No longer are they interested in the Hammond’s plight. Now, it’s all about returning the refuge and the surrounding national forest lands to the people—the ranch owners of Harney County.

It’s important to note that, upon statehood, western states signed away any claims to unclaimed land, Oregon included. Most public land in Oregon has never been “owned” by anyone (although a compelling case for ownership of the refuge and the surrounding forest could be made on behalf of the Burns Paiute Indian tribe) but the feds. And, just as is common throughout the entire Intermountain West, much of that land has been made available to ranchers who wish graze their herds on land belonging to every single American, but for a price. Last March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management raised their grazing fees as required by Congress (yes, the same Republican Congress that starves the budgets of the Forest Service and the BLM, continually tries to float the idea of public land privatization through government channels and disregards overwhelming public sentiment supporting the one, true birthright every American enjoys—a stake in public real estate) to a whopping $1.69 per animal unit (a cow and a calf).

On the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and on the Malheur National Forest, allotments are carefully managed to ensure that grazing is as fruitful as can be in a high-desert ecosystem while still protecting habitat for everything from sage grouse to steelhead. It’s not a free-for-all endeavor, nor should it be. Grazing, when managed correctly, can enhance rangelands and make them more fruitful for ranchers and wildlife. When done incorrectly, it can be devastating to watersheds, to native vegetation and to the native wildlife species.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wetlands
The vital wetlands of the Malheur refuge (photo: John Bromley).

It’s in the best interest of grazing lease holders to ensure the health of the land they graze, and most ranchers across the country are truly stewards of the land, both their own, and the public land they pay a very small price to use. These lands, in addition to sustaining cattle and sheep, are home to wild and native trout, big game herds, sage grouse and other upland game birds and, of course native vegetation that’s important to all of the above.

So when Ammon Bundy decided during the Malheur occupation to open the fence between the refuge and adjacent private lands, his message was clear: he and his cohorts have no respect for the multi-use mission of the refuge, the BLM or the Forest Service. Multi-use, in Bundy’s mind, must mean cattle and sheep.

This behavior—and this no-compromise message— is no surprise, really. Bundy’s father, Cliven, is little more than a welfare rancher who’s been grazing his cattle on southern Nevada public land for free for years. In 2014, when the feds rounded up his herd and tried to collect $1 million in unpaid grazing fees accumulated during Cliven’s twenty-plus years of failure to pay (remember, these grazing fees aren’t onerous, they’re generous—and are a mere fraction of the average $20.10 per animal unit charged by private landholders in the Western U.S.), the Bundys called in their anti-government brethren and forced an armed standoff with BLM agents. Wisely, the feds backed down and didn’t force a massacre, but nothing has been done since. The Bundy cows still pick their way through the sage and gobble up what little grass there is in the hard-pan desert, and the grazing-fee bill just keeps growing.

This is the “freedom” the Bundy boys hope to secure for ranchers in Harney County, too, I suspect. The freedom to ignore the establishment rather than work within it. The freedom to speak for other ranchers, even when it’s not welcomed. The freedom to do as they please because they’re the so-called rugged Western independent souls who just want to be able to don a duster, a cowboy hat and a six-shooter and stick up for the little guy who’s been so very put upon by the feds. The freedom to lock the rest of us out of our public lands.

As an aside, it should be noted that Ammon Bundy applied for and received a $530,000 small business loan in 2010 that was guaranteed by the very government he claims is tyrannical and oppressive. It would seem Bundy is only willing to work within the system so long as the system meets his own needs.

Trouble is, outside of a fringe element of extremists and a handful of ultra-right-wing lawmakers in state legislatures around the West, the rest of us value our public lands as a resource belonging to everyone, not just the Bundy Bunch. The new Conservation in the West report, produced annually by Colorado College, shows that 58 percent of Western voters support keeping federal public lands under federal management, and that 72 percent of Western voters recognize that public lands are good for the overall economy. Voters in only one state, Utah (and we know the solution for Utah) show less than 50 percent (47 percent) support for keeping federal public lands under federal management, but that still outweighs the 43 percent of state voters who want the land transferred to to the state.

Meanwhile the armed and vocal minority in Harney County—a couple dozen of them, at last count—continue to hole up in the visitors’ center at the public wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has generously kept the power on for the occupying force.

Mule deer malheur wildlife refuge
Mule deer bucks on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo: USFWS).

It’s no wonder the folks of Harney County want these guys gone. With a new refuge management plan that, until the occupation from an outside gang of extremist thugs, was working on behalf of all involved, there’s progress to made and enjoyed. The spirit of collaboration was in place, and things were better. And these people don’t want to be associated with the militants who have resorted to hijacking a government building in order to give a voice to their disjointed, drifting mission statement.

Here’s hoping they run out of Funyuns soon.


Really Hatch? This is a STRETCH for A fly fishing publication. The Bundy boys are 100% crazy too. When I want far reaching political crap I'll turn on Fox News or MSNBC. I enjoy Hatch for informative articles on leach patterns, gear reviews, photos and yes even relevant river and enviro health to fishing. What's next, how Trumps wall will affect Colorado Cuttys?

I understand that folks might read Hatch and other magazines as an escape from much of the ugly rhetoric that we are currently seeing on the networks that you mention. Nothing could be farther removed from that than being stream-side at your favorite riffle or one that you are discovering, but those places exist and remain because hunters, anglers and others took actions to save them from peril and preserve them for future generations. Preservation is a process rather than a single act, therefore, painful and distasteful as it may be we all have to be aware and active otherwise forces like the Bundys and others who would steal our public lands will take all of this that we hold so dear. As with most things in our system of government you cannot enjoy rights or privileges without exercising responsibility.

Can you explain why this is a stretch? There are people with money and influence (these jacktards being part of them) who believe that all the public land available for you to hunt and fish in the west should be in private hands to mine every last mineral, cut every last tree, graze every last blade of grass, and divert every last drop of water for their own benefit, not yours.

I think more fly-fishing publications should educate Americans on just how blessed we are to have public land to fish in this country. In other countries, all fishing rights, no matter where the river may be, are owned by someone, somewhere (club, individual, company, etc.), and you have to pay them and play by their rules (if they allow fishing at all).

There is a staggering amount of public land in this country that is YOURS by birthright to recreate on. Those rivers where the bottom is owned by a (often absentee) landowner, and you have to get permission to fish? Imagine that everywhere.

As an aside, I would like to see these bundy shitheads explain why the ranchers are "rightful owners", and not the Paiute who were there first.

This is a stretch because the real issue is our public lands are under attack. Instead of focusing on the real issues of State/Private/Fedral control, the author goes on a Bundy obsessed rant. I'm sick of the Bundy mess. Why do we need to know what Bundy's job and business is, what his brother does? We already know his families history. So this is a stretch because Hatch allowed itself to be used by the author to attack the Bundys in the name of conservation. I too strongly dislike the Bundy movement and what they stand for. I also can't stand when there are real issues to be debated we allow for and cheer on personal attacks. SLOW clap Hatch..... All of us fisherman agree the Bundys are idiots and we want them gone. This however is not moving forward conservation awareness. It's just a personal attack on a family and like minded people in the name of "Conservation." We could do much better.

I guess the difference is you see them as a red herring, and I see them as a totem figure for the "privatize all public lands" movement.

And I was not aware of the Bundy's main source of income was another buisness, but I guess its not uncommon for folks slip on a ten gallon hat, some carhartts so they can adopt a "down home aw-shucks, i'm just a regular 'ol cowboy/farmer just like y'all oppressed by the big bad gub'mint!" affectation for support.

Ammon, is that you?

The only thing that I am sorry about is that it seems to chafe your britches that all that land isn't fenced off and doesn't belong to one person alone (it all belongs to U.S. citizens, even you!) . Aside from military sites, a huge percentage of that land is free for you to recreate on. Lots of that land is open for logging and grazing (for fees that are often less than private land). I'm sure it would bring a little tear of joy to your eye if someone put up a fence around your favorite river with a "NO TRESPASSING" sign. It's what Scott Walker has repeatedly attempted to do in Wisconsin and what I think of when people say "the state can manage it better".

Keep on buildin' those fences!

Please don't fool yourself! The government is now, and has been for years, closing off "public" land from the public. There are thousands of acres now that have been literally closed to the public except for walking. Bridges have been removed to insure no one can drive 4 wheelers, ride horses, ride bicycles, or haul their large game off the gamelands. The public has in effect, been shut out! This is happening in several midwestern states. The cowboys that are standing up to the rogue government are doing us all a huge favor.....

What a joke : >>

"The government is now, and has been for years, closing off "public" land from the public. There are thousands of acres now that have been literally closed to the public except for walking. Bridges have been removed to insure no one can drive 4 wheelers, ride horses, ride bicycles, or haul their large game off the gamelands. The public has in effect, been shut out! " <<

So you have to be able to drive quads, and haul large game off public land!?

And you say the land is: "..closed to the public except for walking. " << So the land isn't 'closed' then is it?

Wow the idea that we should conserve some small part of land to stay natural, so big game can live free & roam with out you & your quad riding buddies shootin' them up & haulin' them out is so foreign to you . . . ?? That's exactly WHY the government NEEDS to shut out quads, vehicles, and all but the most dedicated public.

"Public Land" doesn't mean 'Free for the Public to destroy'

Public land is a legacy for the future. Yes preserving nature is a thang. There are too many humans, most of whom aren't too bright. So they would gladly roll their quads over every inch of it, & throw Bud Light cans everywhere.

The amount of undisturbed natural habitat for wildlife to flourish is quite small, and does need protection, so that animals have a refuge & a home.

If you ask me the Gov't hasn't protected enough land.

Those 'cowboys' or weekend warriors are short sighted criminals with their hands out. Arrest'em~! Charge them for damages too . . .

I love your take on public lands issues, dead on and funny. I don't even fly fish, but reading your articles comes only second to "A River Runs Through It" for making me want to learn. Oh, and Cam, this isn't a stretch for a fly fishing mag as fly fishing, like all other recreational activities on public lands, are imperiled by the anti-fed, take back public lands extremists out there. Not all of them are as idiotic or entertaining as the Bundys but they come from the same root. The State of Utah as well as Utah politicians heading up well-funded non-profits are the real threat and use the same logic as the Bundys, play off the Bundy movements anger, and have money and lawyers to wage their battle. It's real.

Thank you Ty for writing this and Hatch Magazine for publishing it. There is nothing heroic, patriotic or American about this group. The senior Bundy lost his grazing lease (not grazing right) because he over grazed his lease. Before this refuge was founded resource biologists assessing this range when it was managed locally found it denuded of vegetation. So aside from their arguments being unconstitutional (the Property Clause allows the federal government to own and manage these lands) and legally flawed (the Taylor Grazing Act clearly states these a permits or leases not "rights") their arguments are short-sighted and self-destructive because there is a long and oft repeated history of ranchers left to their own devices over-grazing and essentially putting themselves out of business. The Taylor Grazing Act is in fact a result of the wide-spread destruction of federal grazing lands in the first third of the last century. And we as anglers should understand that fish and fishing are one of the first casualties of overgrazing or improperly managed grazing. Good job!

Thank you for standing up for our public lands and wildlife habitat. People defending such have always been on the right side of history. Kudos to Hatch.

Thank you for addressing this issue and n a measured way.

Thanks Ty Hansen for exposing these crackpots for who the are.

Thank You Great article. The Oregonian has sided with the nuts and it takes great courage for a fly fisherman to stand for truth.

Thank you Ty and Hatch! This issue is absolutely relevant to fly fishing as so many of us in the western states fish on public lands. I was walking along the mostly frozen Big Thompson in Rocky Mtn National Park yesterday, a place I love to fish, and thinking about this situation. What would happen if thugs (and that's exactly what I think of Bundy and crew) tried to take MY park from me?

Thank you for the article. And to respond to the question about the Bundys, the reason it’s important to discuss the actual lives of the Bundy gang is that it’s important to unmask the false narrative of the rugged American rancher in the west fighting against a tyrannical government, nothing could be further from the truth. These guys are no more ranchers than I am, watching them struggle with the fence should be proof enough.

Ranchers in the west have been mollycoddled for decades, their “lifestyle” preserved by government and taxpayers while just about every other sector of the economy has had to change and adapt. America's love affair with ranching has more to do with Hollywood than it does with reality.

Thank you for writing this.

What's with this "drift off mission" talk? Bundy leaving his job on a whim to protect the rights of the Hammonds? Where do you get this stuff? Bundy and his wife were in town for months before this went down planning it. He had people staking out the refuge the whole time.

Even the organizers of the Hammond protest march saw through this and accused Bundy of misrepresenting his intentions on being at the march. He USED the Hammonds and their supporters to further his cause and piggy-backed the protest to try to steal able bodies away from it for his own protest. He's also publicly said he would leave if the Hammonds asked him to. He didn't. He said he'd leave if the local officials of Harney County asked him to. He didn't. He said he'd leave if the people of Burns asked him to. He won't. At what point will people get that Bundy isn't just some off-course flake? He's a liar and a manipulator and is doing all of this for his own self promotion. People who use the misfortune of others to promote their own agenda are scum, not hapless clueless folk heroes.

So...... how long do we allow them to occupy this building before we seize them? don't they know this ends in prison or in a box?

This article is a regurgitation of sensationalized, twisted and incorrect facts that the media has been spewing for weeks.
First off, if there was a crime committed, why did the government wait almost 10 years to start prosecuting?
Second, in the purported case of burning poaching evidence, the Hammonds notified the sheriff prior to starting the fire, and then put it out themselves.
Third, I haven't met any cattlemen that are going to kill deer to eat when they are growing meat on their property. In fact, they usually have a chest freezer full of steaks and roasts, because they can, and it costs them less than the time and fuel to hunt a tough chewy old high desert deer... that's like having an apple orchard and opting to pick and eat the wild apples on the other side of the fence that are riddled with worm holes.
Bottom line is that desert venison isn't very pleasant to eat, especially compared to beef.

The meatpackers are behind the Hammond conviction; similar has been occurring on many federal lands leased to ranchers so that the 4 meatpacking corporations that own the US market can further control the prices of beef in the US.