The Malheur Takeover: If You Didn’t Know… Here’s How This Started

Malheur-National-Wildlife-RefugeA group of men, between 15 (according to the Oregon State Police) and 150 (according to their leader, Ammon Bundy) are holed up in a bird-watching station at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. They say they are there to protest the sentencing of Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, for arson on public land. The Hammonds and their supporters, though, have said numerous times that they wish Bundy and his group would go home (none of the group are from Oregon).

The Hammonds were convicted of arson in the 2001 Hardie-Hammond Fire, which witnesses said was set to conceal evidence of poaching on federal land, and the 2006 Krumbo Butte Fire, set as a backfire to protect grass growing on land the Hammonds were leasing from the government. Both fires burned out of control, which is typical of intentionally set range fires. This is why the federal government never allows tenants to set fires. Even fires set by professionals often run out of control.

Federal law says anyone convicted of arson on federal land must be given a sentence of not less than 5 and not more than 20 years in prison. The Hammonds persuaded the judge to give them a lighter sentence, but the government appealed and the Hammonds were both given the legal minimum. People sympathetic to the Hammonds gathered in protest, including Ammon Bundy (son of Cliven Bundy, who has himself squatted on federal land for several years) and others he persuaded to come join him, bringing their weapons.

Bundy and his group may have seized the station hoping to goad the federal government into attempting to arrest them, resulting in a violent confrontation and deaths. One, who would identify himself only as “Captain Moroni,” declared flatly, “I didn’t come here to kill. I came here to die.” The occupiers are heavily armed but brought very little food or warm bedding, suggesting they did not expect to have to wait long for reprisals.

At press time, though, the authorities are waiting for the group to leave voluntarily, hoping to deny them martyrdom.

By John M. Burt