Oregon Militia's Behavior Increasingly Brazen as Public Property Destroyed
The militiamen occupying a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon have adopted increasingly bold and risky tactics in their protest against the federal government, raising questions about how long law enforcement officials can allow the standoff to continue.
Now entering their third week of occupying the Malheur national wildlife refuge in rural Harney County, leaders of the militia appear to be testing the patience of the local sheriff’s department and the FBI by brazenly commandeering and in some cases destroying public property while escalating their anti-government rhetoric.
Community leaders and government officials in Oregon and beyond say they fear there could be major damage at the refuge and elevated safety risks for employees and local residents if the militia continues to stand its ground, seemingly emboldened by the continuing lack of consequences.
“For these people to go in and just be destructive, they’re really trying to get a rise out of somebody,” said Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the local Paiute Indian tribe, who has argued that Native Americans have much more of a claim to the public land in question than the out-of-state militiamen running the takeover.
“They really want a confrontation.”
On Friday evening, Rodrique said she was horrified to learn that the militia, led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy, had paved a road through part of the wildlife sanctuary. That move came days after occupiers destroyed part of a US Fish and Wildlife Service fence, to allow cattle to freely graze on public lands the federal government controls.
Militiamen have also removed cameras at the refuge they claim the FBI was using for “surveillance”. LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher and one of the main spokesmen for the militia, showed up to a Saturday morning press conference carrying a basket filled with black cameras.
“Do you not get tired of the mass surveillance in this country?” Finicum told reporters. “This, in my opinion, is unreasonable search.”
He added: “I want to call out the FBI and their harassment of neighborhood families.”
Finicum and other militiamen seemed undeterred by the Oregon state police’s arrest on Friday of occupier Kenneth Medenbach, 62, who drove a government vehicle off the refuge to the local Safeway supermarket in the town of Burns, 30 miles away.
“Sometimes we make dumb choices,” Finicum said of the arrest.
When driving their own vehicles, however, high-profile militia leaders have had no difficulty entering and leaving the compound. In fact, Finicum and Ryan Bundy, Ammon’s brother, recently left the refuge and drove out of Oregon and were then able to return to the occupation without facing any contact with law enforcement, Finicum told the Guardian.
Finicum said he and Ryan Bundy met out-of-state ranchers interested in mounting a similar protest against the federal government, but declined to say where the meeting took place. During his short trip, he said, he felt confident that law enforcement would not approach or arrest them.
“We did watch our mirrors a lot,” he said.
In addition to his criticisms of the federal government, Finicum slammed Harney County officials for denying the militia access to a community building in Burns, where the occupiers want to present their plans to local residents. Members of a so-called Harney County Committee of Safety, who have worked with Bundy and say they want to take over his cause, are threatening to file a complaint against the county for refusing to allow the militia to use its buildings.
Regarding the wildlife refuge, the Burns Pauite Indian tribe and federal government officials said they were worried about possible damage to cultural resources, artifacts, sensitive records and local wildlife habitats.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service strongly condemned the occupiers for building the new road.
“It’s deplorable,” spokesman Jason Holm said in an email. “I’m not sure what part of the [occupiers’] interpretation of the constitution promotes the destruction and desecration of culturally significant Native American sites … This is disgusting, ghoulish behavior.”
Holm also said the fish and wildlife service had received reports that the occupiers were accessing federal records at the refuge, raising concerns about a possibly dangerous data breach. He said the government was now contracting with a data protection and credit monitoring service to safeguard refuge employees whose personal data may have been compromised.
Rodrique said that when refuge officials undertake projects that disrupt the land, they consult the tribe’s leaders and archaeologists to ensure that there is no damage to burial sites or potential artifacts.
“There is so much history in that area,” she said. “We’ve gotten to a point where everyone is cooperating and working together to preserve archaeological historical sites.”
If the militiamen damage or steal tribal artifacts or confidential documents related to Native American history, Rodrique said, she hoped federal officials would prosecute the men to the fullest extent of the law.
Asked about the tribe’s concerns, Finicum said Native Americans should be working with the militia.
“We’re here for the natives,” he said. “The federal government has been their biggest oppressor.”