Malheur occupation impacts linger throughout the West

Sagebrush Rebellion flareups cooled off after Bundy arrests but the standoff’s effects ripple out.


The trial of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other participants in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is three weeks in, and it doesn't seem to be going well for the defendants. U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown has reprimanded Ammon’s attorney several times for defying orders in the courtroom, and she’s shot down the defense’s argument that the occupation was “adverse possession” — a principle that means taking land into one’s possession by occupying it — and thus lawful.

The Malheur occupation as well as the standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014 galvanized the nationwide Patriot movement and the West-based Sagebrush Rebellion. Most ranchers disagree with the Bundys’ actions, but some were inspired by the displays of bravado and vowed to make their own stands against the federal government. Local intervention as well as news of the Bundy cohort arrests defused some of those copy-cat conflicts. Here’s a roundup of hotspots and what’s happened there since Malheur.

IN NEW MEXICO, a rancher who visited the Malheur refuge during the occupation and threatened to terminate his grazing contract with the Forest Service, is now all paid up. In January, Adrian Sewell, who uses 33,000-acres of public land near Silver City, New Mexico, made a public statement while at Malheur: “I am hereby giving notice of termination of all contracts between me and the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest service – I shall no longer require their help in managing my ranch.” But Forest Service District Ranger Diane Taliaferro said in an interview last week that rancher Adrian Sewell’s permit was never canceled and he has continued to pay his fees on time. 

“He’s asked if he could put more cattle on the allotment, and we’ve allowed him to do that, as long as it’s within the amounts in his operating planI’ll be honest, I barely have seen him. He’s been pretty elusive.”

“Everything is good from this end,” Taliaferro said. “He’s asked if he could put more cattle on the allotment, and we’ve allowed him to do that, as long as it’s within the amounts in his operating planI’ll be honest, I barely have seen him. He’s been pretty elusive.”

Exactly how Sewell went from being fired up enough to travel to Oregon to support the Malheur occupation, to quietly cooperating with the Forest Service is hard to tell. But it seems that local ranchers — themselves with mixed views on the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Bundys and the land transfer movement — nipped Sewell’s one-man revolution in the bud.

In January, Lavoy Finicum, a spokesman for the occupation later shot and killed by law enforcement in a confrontation, gave Sewell a list of people who would provide protection during the New Mexico rancher’s stand against the government. In February, locals held a community panel to address fears of Silver City becoming “another Burns.” Panelist and local sportsman Jason Amaro told High Country News he saw armed out-of-towners “all in new matching Carhartt pants and denim jackets,” escorting Sewell in town around the time the rancher declared he would stop paying grazing fees. Two people from Las Vegas also appeared at the community forum to tout the Bundy agenda.

“From my understanding, several ranchers and permit holders engaged Sewell (in February) and made it clear this isn't a battle that he should take on,” Amaro says. “I also think that there was a lot of pushback from non-hobby ranchers that understand that any type of disruption could impact their businesses.” A Silver City rancher who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation also told HCN that ranchers spoke with Sewell to encourage him to stop his anti-federal antics.

Locals say they have not seen any more out-of-towners or militia activity in the Silver City area since then. Sewell could not be reached for comment. 

IN UTAH, the base level of vitriol around land management is often a level above most other places in the West. And the current battle over whether to create a Bears Ears National Monument in the southeast corner of the state is riling residents again, opening the festering wound of the 1996 designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

A new group launched last December to mediate conflicts between ranchers and the government. Ten months ago, the state’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office hired Redge Johnson, a former ranch real estate agent and Nature Conservancy staffer, to lead a small “grazing working group” made up of state officials to address “hotspots” of tension between ranchers and the feds — and sometimes the state. “It was a response to frustrations going on here in Utah,” Johnson says. “Tempers were hot… There’s been a good 20 to 30 years of growing frustration.”

Just weeks after the group formed, the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur refuge began, fueling tensions with the feds in Utah and elsewhere. In February, eight ranchers reportedly agreed to sign letters denying federal authority to regulate grazing. Johnson, in one of the grazing working group's first meetings asked the ranchers not to send in the letters. “That’s not the way to go,” he told them “Please give me a year or two before you do anything drastic.” Johnson doesn’t know if what he said had a direct impact on the ranchers, but he asked federal staffers in June if they ever received one of those letters and they said they had not.

Thus far, the grazing group has held 17 meetings with ranchers and county commissioners across the state to hear concerns ranging from piñon juniper encroachment on cattle forage to conflicts with recreators. After each meeting, Johnson’s team convenes with federal agencies to relay ranchers’ concerns and occasionally arranges sit-downs between the ranchers and feds. But the ranchers aren’t always forthcoming with complaints, says Johnson, because they fear retribution from federal officials regarding their permits.

That distrust goes both ways: According to a 2014 HCN investigation, federal employees, too, are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution by members of the public, due to the threats of violence they receive on a regular basis.

Some Utah ranchers are still trying to rally support for the Bundys, but Johnson says tempers have mostly cooled since Malheur. The group has several more meetings scheduled through the end of this year.

IN IDAHO, some of the state’s most ardent Cliven Bundy supporters are laying low — in a detention center near Las Vegas, Nevada. Four self-styled militiamen who participated in the Bunkerville standoff were arrested this past March and await trial slated for February.

One of those apprehended was the former vice president of militia group Three Percent of Idaho, Eric Parker, made famous by a widely shared photograph of him aiming a rifle toward federal agents during the 2014 standoff near Bundy Ranch in Nevada. Parker was also present in Burns, Oregon, during the Malheur occupation.

During the standoff in Nevada in 2014, Eric Parker from central Idaho aims his weapon from a bridge as protesters gather by the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy were being held, near Bunkerville, Nevada. J
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Last week the Idaho Statesman reported that 36 members of the Three Percent of Idaho resigned because they say their president, Brandon Curtiss, spent $2,900 intended for the four detainees on himself. Curtiss was a key figure in Burns attempting to "de-escalate" the situation during the Malheur occupation.

In the political arena, Idaho's sagebrush rebels have had mixed results this year. In May, Idaho County commissioner Jim Chmelick, who has made a name for himself in the land transfer movement traveling Western states to marshal support and speak about federal overreach, lost reelection in the Republican primary. Three other state legislators who were ranked highly by the conservative lobby group and land-transfer proponent Idaho Freedom Foundation, also lost.

Still, Bundy supporters are making waves in northern Idaho and this election season could test how much influence they hold post-Malheur. Tea Partier and state Representative Heather Scott is up for reelection. Scott supports the emerging far-right Redoubt Movement that promotes a politically conservative perspective and encourages like-minded people to move to an area that includes eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In his most recent audio update, Parker mentions that his wife recently met with Scott to discuss ways to support the cases of the detained Bundy supporters. Scott is one of three Idaho representatives who visited the occupiers at Malheur in February.

“I think this is going to bring us to a really interesting turn of events in northern Idaho,” says Derek Farr, who works with Conservation Voters for Idaho. “If (Scott) goes on to second term, I think that’s a bellwether of how quickly northern Idaho is headed to this really bizarre right-wing place.” 

IN NEVADA, the Bureau of Land Management has continued to deal with illegal grazing, while trying to avoid high-profile conflicts with ranchers. 

Cliven Bundy’s cattle are still grazing illegally, and in 2015, ranchers Eddyann and Dan Filippini followed suit by releasing cattle onto land that the federal agency had closed due to drought. The BLM says the cattle are grazing legally. The agency reportedly struck a deal with them in which the agency was not giving explicit permission to graze, but also would not interfere for the next three years. “We’re not going to come out there and have a big confrontation,” Nevada BLM spokesman Rudy Evenson told the Elko Daily Free Press last summer. And according to a Forest Service spokesperson, the cattle of the now-deceased sagebrush rebel, Wayne Hage, are still on the range as of this week without permits.

Some environmentalists say that all the negative press and threats of violence have forced the BLM to capitulate to ranchers’ desires more than before the Bundy standoff. “I’ve been looking at these places for 20 years, and the degree of degradation that took place this year without BLM doing anything about it was astounding in Idaho, eastern Oregon and Nevada,” says environmentalist Katie Fite of WildLands Defense. “It was a very dry summer this year. Places are just beat to death and BLM just sat back and let it happen. The agency’s been beaten back to this new low.” 

On the legislative side of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Nevada passed a bill in 2013 to study the viability of a land transfer, and a current bill proposed by Republican Rep. Mark Amodei would transfer federal lands to the state.

While there don't appear to be any imminent violent uprisings brewing, a conviction in the Bundy case could provoke a backlash. For now, people like Redge Johnson in Utah are hoping to lay the groundwork for more productive communication for years to come.

Tay Wiles is associate editor at High Country News and is based in California. Email her at [email protected] 

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