In 1908, the former US President Theodore Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Langston 15). His aim was to safeguard the populations of water birds that were being killed by wanton decimation by the plume trade. The Refuge rests on an approximately 188,000-acre piece of land, representing some of the most crucial bird species on the Pacific Flyway (Littlefield 11). It is regarded as one of the crown jewels of the country’s Wildlife Refuge structure owned by Americans. In the wake of 2013, the Refuge embraced a lasting management plan created via an inclusive, cooperative procedure that saw the state and federal agencies, local community, tribes, conservation groups and other stakeholders work together. Since then, these stake holders have been working in collaboration to implement this strategy that focuses on one of the largest wetland restoration attempts ever undertaken.
In January 2013, a loosely organized movement of armed anti-government extremists headed by Ammon Bundy seized control of the Oregon-based Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their action is attributable to the fact that two local ranchers, Steve and Dwight Hammond had been ordered to report to the government prison for an arson sentence (Littlefield 39). According to the extremists, this punishment was unjust because the Hammonds had already served sentences handed down during a previous sentencing. After the seizure of the headquarters, the group has declined to vacate and instead are using social media platforms intensively to garner support from individuals and other right-wing extremist movements. More so, the national mainstream press has similarly been flocking the scene, interviewing as many of the occupants as possible, about the takeover.
The motive behind the refuge occupation was the use and control of the federal land, which the militias wanted, transferred to Harney County control or private ownership (Langston 40). For the longest time, we have seen conflicts of interests between dozens of citizens on federal lands, particularly in the case of ranchers and environmentalists. There is a long history of ranchers using government land to graze livestock, which remained unregulated until the implementation of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Overgrazing destroys and damages livestock habitats and wildlife themselves. The primary goal of environmental policies like the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the National Environmental Act of 1969 are to protect the environment and wildlife. Such policies have been increasing with time and imposed a burden on ranchers and sometimes push them out of business. A particular example is the case of Cliven Bundy, the father of one of the militants, Ammon Bundy. In this case, federal argued that Bundy’s livestock had damaged habitat belonging to desert tortoise, thus endangering the species. Subsequently, he was ordered to cut the number of cattle on government range land on which he owned grazing rights. However, Bundy declined and subsequently stopped remitting grazing fees. The government reacted by removing the trespassing livestock, leading to the 2014 Bundy standoff (Littlefield 48).
Since the settlement into the refuge, the militants adopted defensive positions. Though law enforcements have distanced themselves from the refuge, they have implemented various security measures within the surrounding areas. Nonetheless, the militia leaders argue to have roughly 150 armed followers on location contrary to media reports that not more than a dozen militias are on the scene. According to the Oregon police department, roughly 30 people are present on the site and have assumed defensive positions (Langston 84).
The seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by an armed, external militia has rendered one of America’s vital wildlife refuges at risk. It has violated the basic standards of the Public Trust Doctrine thus holding hostage public resources and public lands to fulfil the extremely narrow political interests of the occupiers. Moreover, the occupiers are using the flimsiest of pretests as a justification of their move; the sentencing of two local ranchers in a case involving poaching and arson on public lands. Importantly, neither the individuals sentenced nor the local community has endorsed or requested the occupation or the support of the militia movement.
The refuge occupation triggered a public debate regarding whether the militias should be categorized as terrorists. Besides, some commentators have greatly criticized the government’s decision to "wait out the occupiers rather than charge in with guns blazing" (Steubner 61). These commentators see the response of law enforcement to the refuge occupation as much lenient compared to the treatment given to protestors of the Black Lives Matter, terming it as a relevant example of white privilege. On the other hand, this situation could be argued to be a case of the wealthy being awarded special treatment, both by law enforcement and in the media. As such, racial inequality is being applied to distract the public from the wider issues of social inequality.
After months of refuge occupation, the armed extremists finally labelled themselves as “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom”. However, many Americans are left to wonder the identity and background of the so-called “Citizens” (Steubner 90). Specialists within the Anti‐Defamation League’s Center on Extremism have been trying to unravel the identity of the as many of the extremists as possible. They have been reading and watching interviews and sourcing thousands of videos and profiles on social networking channels. The identification has proven to be impossible because the extremists tend to avoid attention and have been using pseudonyms. In addition, some militants have departed the scene while new recruits continue to appear from time to time. Therefore, this critical analysis must be regarded as the best possible attempt to shed light on the situation, which is constantly evolving.