Defuse the West

Public-land employees are easy targets for a violent, government-hating fringe.

On June 5, 2010, Mark Brunk and Tim Rinehart were on a routine afternoon patrol, driving two federal pickup trucks down a dirt road through Happy Camp Canyon in southeastern Arizona. The two Bureau of Land Management law enforcement rangers were scouting for signs of illegal activity related to the Mexican border, among other things. Suddenly, a man in a civilian pickup roared past them, leaning out the window and angrily flipping them off.

The BLM rangers pulled over and got out their binoculars to watch the man for any further indications of trouble. The man stopped as well, climbed out of his truck –– and then opened fire with a high-power rifle.


One bullet smacked the hood of Brunk’s truck close to where he was sitting in the cab. Another shattered Rinehart’s windshield, temporarily blinding him with fragments of glass. As the shooter drove away, Brunk raced after him. Rinehart followed as soon as he cleared his eyes, and later squeezed off a dozen shots with his AR-15 rifle, putting holes in the shooter’s truck. But the man escaped.

Five days later, 69-year-old Tracy Levi Thibodeaux, a former building inspector, was arrested at a rural post office while picking up his Social Security check. Investigators sifted through his history to determine why he’d shot at the rangers. Apparently, the economic recession had pushed him over the edge; he blamed the federal government for some of his problems and thought that it was harassing him, even trying to kill him. He’d frequently expressed anti-government views, calling talk-radio shows and writing letters to newspapers. Initially, he was found mentally unfit for trial, but that decision was later reversed, and in 2013, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to prison.

Thibodeaux’s eruption, though remarkable for its violence, was by no means rare. In recent years, other angry Westerners have fired guns at federal employees and even hurled firebombs at campground hosts. Verbal threats and ugly altercations have occurred with disturbing regularity, as government folks were hit with these insults and worse: “You stupid whore!” ... “You better not write me a ticket! I’ll kick your fucking ass!” ... “There is a bullet with your name on it.” ... “Fuck you, you fucking faggots.”

We know about these incidents, and more, because High Country News has launched a sweeping investigation to unearth the official reports, using the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. We’ve focused on threats and violence against employees of two key federal agencies — the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — both on- and off-duty, from 2010 to early 2014. The agencies have not yet provided HCN with all of the information we’ve requested, but what they’ve divulged so far reveals an ominous pattern of hostility toward government employees.

Of course, such sentiments have smoldered in the West for a long time. History and geography conspired to endow our region with most of the nation’s federal land, and Westerners have responded to the federal presence with both appreciation and hatred. For the thousands of workers tasked with managing the federal lands, enforcing laws and regulations can be dangerous. A few years before Thibodeaux shot at the BLM rangers, for instance, a ranching patriarch in the same area, Luther Wallace “Wally” Klump, refused to obey BLM regulations on cattle on federal land and was jailed for contempt of court. Klump warned The New York Times in 2004 that he might pick up a gun to battle the feds: “The Second Amendment is my ace, and they know it’s my ace. The founding fathers gave the individual a gun to fight the tyranny of the government. What’s that mean? The bearer can kill someone in government if the reason is justified. But it’s never been tested. I told them, you take those cows, I’ll kill you as mandated by the Second Amendment.”

The most extreme anti-federal flare-ups — like the one earlier this year in Nevada, when rancher Cliven Bundy and his gun-toting supporters faced off with armed BLM employees over grazing regulations — garner national headlines. When the BLM tried to round up Bundy’s cattle for trespassing on federal land, some of Bundy’s crew took up sniper positions and threatened to shoot it out, so the BLM temporarily backed off to avoid bloodshed. Right-wing talk shows instantly jumped to Bundy’s defense, lauding him as a hero fighting federal oppressors. HCN’s own investigation began well before Bundy made headlines, because we’d already observed the rising tension and suspected that similar incidents occur pretty much daily without ever making the news.

Paul Lachine

In December 2012, HCN’s then-online editor, Stephanie Paige Ogburn, filed a single Freedom of Information request for reports of harassment of BLM employees in southern Utah. She turned up several incidents, including one in which an all-terrain-vehicle driver, apparently angry over the BLM banning motors on some trails, used his machine to tear up the yard of a BLM employee’s home. This January, we expanded our investigation, seeking reports from more than a hundred BLM and Forest Service offices from Alaska to New Mexico. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in the Washington, D.C., area, offered guidance on tracking down public records, and Marshall Swearingen, HCN’s Freedom of Information project manager, handled most of our communication with the agencies.

From thousands of pages of official reports, we’ve culled dozens of the worst incidents and summarized each one. We passed over the ordinary rowdy encounters with inebriated civilians, focusing on the serious confrontations with anti-government overtones.

We’re letting the official reports do most of the talking. Though they’re prone to bureaucratic language and censored to preserve the privacy of individuals who were involved, they provide vivid, and often frightening, snapshots from the West’s front lines.

We’ve also created a map locating the worst incidents and links to PDFs of the official reports.

From conversations with Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and other federal employees, we know that many incidents go unreported. So we invite anyone who has information to contact us, using a special tipster form on the web page. We’ll consider investigating any tips we receive, and we promise not to reveal the tipster’s identity.

By highlighting the danger that federal employees face, we hope to put those who foment the hostility on notice: It’s time to rein it in before more people get hurt. Range magazine editors and writers covering the Bundy standoff, for instance, didn’t help matters by describing the BLM as a communist and “eco-jihad” force that uses “potentially murderous aggression” to drive ranchers off federal land. They also praised “the everyday Americans showing up from all around the West ... bearing semiautomatic .223 rifles” to resist the BLM’s “jihad.”

Other irresponsible pundits include some of the talking heads on Fox News, who embraced Bundy’s armed rebellion and his claims that federal land and related regulations are an illegal imposition on Westerners. Sean Hannity, a Fox celebrity who also hosts a nationwide radio show, compared Bundy’s rebellion to our nation’s 1776 war for independence from British rule: “We would never (have) won any of these wars from the Revolutionary War on up if we didn’t have faith and courage and fighting for something.”

Those who should rein it in also include Utah’s Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, who told a congressional hearing in July that, “Right or wrong, some equate BLM’s law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era.” That comparison basically encourages Westerners to take up arms against BLM employees the same way that heroes resisted Nazi genocide of European Jews.

The vast majority of Westerners respect the role of government and are willing to work with federal employees to solve our region’s problems. We hope to encourage them to speak out for civility and reasonableness. There’s more than enough violence and extremism in the world today. Let’s do our part to try to defuse the West.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund. Map created by Brian Calvert and Marshall Swearingen. 

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Montana. Marshall Swearingen is a former HCN intern, now serving as HCN’s FOIA project manager and freelancing; he’s also based in Bozeman.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Oct 30, 2014 06:27 PM
All these idiots are encouraged and even empowered by the Republican party. I know HCN wants to be politically neutral but people need to know that voting right wing Republicans out is the first step towards ratcheting down the violence, or at least finding the political will to refrain from praising these idiots instead of arresting and trying them in criminal courts.
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Nov 01, 2014 11:12 PM
On your timeline you forgot to mention the tortoises that the BLM are killing, or this:http://www.washingtonpost.c[…]eb-6c0037dde2ad_story.html, or this:
November 1, 2014

This morning my twelve year old daughter and I tried to fly to Salt Lake City from Phoenix for a special event of a loved one. We had to be there by 1:00 pm in order to be a part of the occasion. Everything was going as planned until we came to the Gate B check station and the first TSA agent looked at our boarding passes. He seem a bit alarmed and asked me if my name was Ammon, I told him yes, he then circled my name and sent me down the line. I could tell there was suspicion but thought it may be because my daughter was a minor, or because my name is unusual and sometimes taken as Arabic.

When we reached the actual check station the Second TSA agent saw my boarding pass and immediately called for a Commanding Officer on the radio. Over the coarse of several minutes he called multiple times for assistance, meanwhile the line behind me was stopped and backing up. When the Commanding Officer finally came the two agents conversed privately as they looked at my barding pass and drivers license. The Commanding Officer then directed me to an area and confiscated all of our possessions along with the normal clothing checked such as my boots, belt jacket and so on.

By this time, we were feeling a bit scrutinized and those around us were staring and talking among themselves of the matter. They then escorted us to a back area were they rummaged through our items, testing it with devices and inspecting each article. The agent then began to check me physically and boy was that uncomfortable, no cavity check was completed but everything else was.

I asked the agent why we were being treated so differently and why we were selected out. He told me it was because my boarding pass was tagged with the bold letters "SSSS". He also told me that this will happen every time you fly because you are marked. Beyond that he did not disclose of anything else. My daughter then asked him if she could put her shoes back on. The agent said that she could, but that I was not to touch my possessions. He then called for his Commanding Officer.

After a few minutes, the Level Three Officer (LTO) showed up and asked me several question and wrote the answers down on a yellow sticky note. This Commanding Officer then went to a computer and began typing and reading. The whole thing was very interesting to me. I thought to myself, "WOW, Harry Reid really tagged me in the federal database as a Domestic Terrorist". I have never been charged or prosecuted with anything in my life, and yet Senator Reid, without due process, has declared me, for life, as a Domestic Terrorist. He unilaterally named me, Ammon Bundy, a terrorist against the people of this country, the people I love and would so willingly to give my life for.

After the Commanding Officer typed a few things in the computer, my boarding pass was written on and hole punched 5 times with stars mostly over the SSSS (see picture). Our possessions were then returned and we were free to go to the boarding gate. When we left the security area many people were looking at us in curiosity. The entire process took about an hour, and my daughter and I did not make our flight. We knew we would not make it to the event even if we got on another flight so we left the boarding gate area and went to ask for a refund from US Airlines.

U.S. Airlines resisted to give us a refund at first, they insisted that they could not be held accountable for what the government chose to do. I showed them the boarding pass and the SSSS, then told them why I believed I was marked and harassed. They immediately began to process the refund request, one lady said "that sends chills up my spine that they would do that to you". I thanked them and we left the airport.

This incident reaffirmed to me the danger that the American people are in. When a very small group of elitist use the peoples power without authority, and are willing to destroy the lives of those who disagree or stand up to them, when this type of unlimited power is commonly exercised without checks and balances the people are in danger.

Ammon Bundy
How about this one you didn't report on:
When you report try some true investigative reporting instead of spreading more propaganda that is tearing our country apart. You also forgot to report that the BLM was caught on film planting Humpback Chubs in a rancher's creek in Montezuma County, Colorado. You are supporting two agencies, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service in all their nasty deeds.

Isabella Perez
Isabella Perez
Nov 01, 2014 11:19 PM
As an employee of a federal land management agency, in the west, I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that one's right-leanning political persuasion immediately pits them against federal land manager's; ever hear of Defenders of Wildlife or The Sierra Club? They are serial litigants whose efforts to stymie any and all resource management practices fritters away their members' donations, tax dollars, and agency employee's valuable time and talent. I'm not sure, but I bet most of these grid-locking "environmentalists" don't want you to know most of their efforts benefit lawyer's pockets only. And if these organizations that repeatedly balk at opportunities to find common ground with agencies aren't leftists with lawyers instead of riffles then I have to pay better attention to the public I proudly serve. It comes down to all citizens who disagree with federal land management decisions are very impassioned regardless of political party affiliation.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Nov 03, 2014 01:45 PM
Whoa, way to go, Bob Abbey, ending with the formulaic blaming of everything on excessive litigation! HCN, thanks for doing this.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Nov 03, 2014 06:18 PM
Barbara - Harry Reid?!? Really? You are doing your side no favors. Isabella - Lawsuits are not the same as shooting at Federal Agents, in fact lawsuits are how non-idiots settle their differences. Ammon - Bundy is a thief and a liar, and a racist idiot to boot. There's no reason for anyone to defend that criminal. If anyone is tearing this country apart it's idiots like him and idiots that support him.
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Nov 03, 2014 09:50 PM
No it's the idiots and liars at the BLM. Before calling someone a racist maybe you should have better facts.
For the employee of the BLM, I am wondering if you are familiar with the case filed in the 10th Circuit Court, whereby, the court found in favor of SUWA.(Southwestern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Bureau of Land Management, 425 F.3d. 735, 754 (10th Cir. 2005) ("SUWA")) The BLM got caught red handed in their dirty deeds.
ken last
ken last
Nov 10, 2014 08:55 AM
It's never ok to abuse anyone, GOV or not. But the article was one sided. We used to be free. I have driven the roads for 40 years but now they are closed. They close an area and herd you to their campgrounds and picnic areas that you have to pay. They will always gain more control, will always close more roads, will always add more rules. I am not free anymore. And for someone who needs to feel free, that feels like prison. Some people in the West accumulate there because they need to feel free. It's like a last stand because there is no where else to go. Some suggestions, If I am not doing anything wrong, leave me alone. Don't ask who I am, don't ask what I am doing or where I am from. Try, really try, to open the roads and leave them open.
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Nov 10, 2014 03:17 PM
Amen! to the above comment. Another fact that was not mentioned in the slanted article or in the comments, the BLM had the guns bearing down on citizens, not the other way around. Then came reinforcements from The People and turned the playing field around where it should be.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Nov 10, 2014 04:41 PM
Ken - you should move to Somalia. There's no government there, and you can be as free as you wish.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Nov 11, 2014 03:18 PM
Ken, you sound like an off the grid Western nut case, Barbara, stop getting your propaganda from Fox News. Everyone who supported Ammon Bundy should be rounded up and deported to Afghanistan. Thank god for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups who use talented attorneys to keep the West from becoming a giant strip mall.
This may shock the idiots who think they can do whatever they want in this country, but we are a nation governed by the rule of law, not Western misfits who scream "my freedom and cling to their guns." Lock em all up.
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Nov 11, 2014 11:07 PM
Fortunately, I stay away from Fox News. Another main stream media source that does not report on facts.
Who came knocking at Japanese Americans doors and took them out of their homes and put them in prison camps? Agencies of the U.S. government. Who had guns pointing at innocent people in Nevada? Agencies of the U.S. government. I go directly to the source for my information. Everything the government is doing or has done is written. There are resources that one can use to get any information available: they are called FOIAs and CORAs.
Pat Finnegan
Pat Finnegan Subscriber
Mar 17, 2015 08:23 PM
Ray and Marshall, good job! I appreciate the article very much.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jan 12, 2016 04:46 PM
WOW!! October 2014.....and nothing has changed by January 2016. Ammon Bundy and company are still the star performers and the hand of the deftly manipulating Plutocrats of the Deep State still at work behind the scenes....the public face only being Faux News AKA Murdoch and Ailes!
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Jan 13, 2016 07:00 AM
The facts never end and go unpunished.[…]chers-home-and-cattle-alive
Barbara Hulet
Barbara Hulet
Jan 15, 2016 12:27 PM
In reference to your article: The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended
Today's movement is a radical, perverted version of the 1970s-80s rebellion.
Why aren't you reporting on what is really happening in the west.[…]chers-home-and-cattle-alive