The seizure of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon by armed anti-government extremists has attracted national attention and raised questions about whether the takeover is a powder keg about to blow.
But experts who monitor the anti-government movement say an even greater concern is lurking behind the confrontation that erupted Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the high desert of eastern Oregon.
The militia movement, they say, is in the midst of a massive growth spurt at levels even greater than in the early 1990s after the Waco, Texas, standoff and the siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. It peaked after the Oklahoma City bombing.
“It’s bigger than anything we’ve seen before,” said Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “And it’s not simply a resurgence of the ’90s militia movement; it’s different in many ways. Now it’s much broader.”
The growth of an “insurgent militia movement,” Zeskind said, is the result of a combination of events, including a renewed effort to strengthen gun control laws and the revival of the white nationalist movement over the Confederate flag issue.
An annual report of militias released this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 276 militia groups in the U.S. — a 37 percent increase over the 202 groups identified in 2014. The Star reported on the rise of militias as part of a series on domestic terrorism last year.
The current expansion, according to the Law Center, came in the aftermath of a 2014 standoff between federal authorities and hundreds of armed anti-government activists on the property of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. The government said Bundy owed $1 million for years of grazing his cattle on federal land. It ended peacefully, but authorities were criticized for not prosecuting those involved in the standoff and not collecting the fees.
Although the Oregon takeover is small in comparison, it was “entirely predictable” based on the outcome in Nevada, the Law Center said.
“We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement.
Beirich noted that Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, are among those occupying buildings at the wildlife refuge in Oregon.
“When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint, it energized the entire movement,” Beirich said. “The fact is, Bundy is still a free man and has not paid the money he owes to the federal government — and the militiamen who aimed rifles at federal agents have gotten away with it.”
The Oregon confrontation stems from a case involving two ranchers in Harney County who were convicted in 2012 of setting fire to public land.
Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, said that they’d set the fires on their land to stop an invasive plant species and prevent the spread of wildfire, and that the blazes had spread unintentionally to federal Bureau of Land Management property. But prosecutors said the ranchers set the fires to cover up their illegal poaching activity. Both were found guilty. Dwight Hammond served three months in prison; Steven served one year. They were then released.
Recently, however, a judge ruled that they hadn’t served enough time under federal law, and they were ordered to report to prison this past Monday. The action prompted an outcry from anti-government groups and ranchers in the area, and the Bundys also took up the cause.
On Saturday, demonstrators participated in a rally and march in the county seat, Burns, Ore., to support the Hammonds and protest what they said was an out-of-control federal government. The rally was peaceful, authorities said, and drew about 300.
But afterward, a group of armed militants split off, went to the wildlife refuge 30 miles away and took it over. Ammon Bundy has been acting as the group’s leader, and they say they won’t back down until the government relinquishes the federal refuge to the people.
The refuge was closed at the time of the seizure and there was no conflict, but the militants have been occupying it ever since. They won’t say exactly how many are involved, but some observers estimate fewer than 20. The refuge, described as “a mecca for birdwatchers,” is in a remote area about 305 miles southeast of Portland.
Demands of the militants occupying the refuge have been vague, but they have said they will leave if the government cedes control of the refuge to ranchers, loggers and other landowners. They also want freedom or reduced sentences for the Hammonds.
Many local residents, militias and “patriot” groups have denounced the action, and the Hammonds reported to prison on Monday. Their lawyer said they did not ask for help from the militants and did not support the seizure.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said the fact that others in the movement aren’t supporting the action or that the group may be small doesn’t ease concerns about the situation.
“What this resembles to me is the ramp-up to something more nefarious,” Levin said. “Let’s not get caught in a head fake where we kind of dismiss the risk of anti-government extremism based on what’s going on in this non-standoff.
“We have seen this frayed wire running through American history. And sometimes it sparks and starts a wildfire.”
The Oregon takeover, Levin said, “is a symptom of something many of us are very concerned about.”
“This is the sneeze that everyone’s hearing,” he said. “We are seeing growth in anti-government extremism. And there are more poisonous cherries able to fall off the tree because this pool of people who are susceptible to the message is growing. This is in some ways a snapshot of where we’re going. But it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Why are feds waiting?
Although the FBI has been criticized for failing to act promptly at the Oregon refuge, others say the agency has learned from past missteps.
Twenty years ago, federal authorities found themselves in the midst of another confrontation with armed extremists.
Just three years after a raid at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco left more than 75 dead, including children and four federal law enforcement officers, FBI agents came up against the Montana Freemen, a group that claimed the government had no jurisdiction over them or their property.
But this time, the FBI worked from a different playbook.
“We adopted the lessons learned from Waco,” said Robin Montgomery, the former head of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group who handled the Montana Freemen case. “I mandated that everybody wear blue jeans and that we have police cars at the roadblocks and not military stuff.”
And unlike previous confrontations, they didn’t barge in with force.
Montgomery, now police chief in Brookfield, Conn., said the Critical Incident Response Group was created in the aftermath of Waco. The Freemen standoff, he said, was the “maiden voyage for its concept.”
“We learned that you’ve got to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “You want to personalize the issue so that whoever is doing the talking isn’t looked at like just another government face. You need to take things slowly and find someone who can speak the extremists’ language.”
The FBI found that someone in Kirk Lyons, a lawyer who at the time was director of a North Carolina foundation that had represented a former Texas Ku Klux Klan leader and survivors of the Waco raid.
After other attempts by negotiators failed, Lyons and two associates helped persuade the Freemen to end their 81-day standoff without violence.
Lyons told The Star this week that during the Freemen standoff he contacted the U.S. attorney in Montana.
“We said, ‘Look, we can help. We talk these people’s language; we can end this thing and bring those people out.’
“Once they decided we could help, they put us on a plane and we were out there the next day,” he said.
Lyons told The Star that authorities gave negotiators time to work with the Freemen.
Lyons said he’s “reasonably confident” that the FBI will handle the Oregon standoff properly.
“If somebody would give them a sympathetic ear and figure out some way that they’re not going to all end up the rest of their life in a federal prison, it probably will defuse peacefully,” he said. “But if they charge in there, the excrement will hit the oscillator, so to speak.”
Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, agreed the appropriate response is to take things slowly and be careful not to do anything to increase the risk of violence.
“There are no hostages, it’s not in the middle of a community, it’s isolated,” he said. “You can wait them out, you can talk to them, negotiate with them, let them get tired or bored or angry with each other. This is a situation where the government has time on its side.”
Levin, a former New York City police officer, said the militants “have a tremendous opportunity to save face.”
“Having the county sheriff involved is a smart move, because the sheriff is the person they answer to in much of the movement,” he said. “The sheriff tells them to leave, they get to surrender to the sheriff, they get charged with whatever, and it’s done. And the sheriff comes in wearing a cowboy hat and Wranglers.”
Levin said the takeover plot didn’t seem that well-organized.
“This is a grassroots, hodgepodge collection of people who broke off from the others,” he said. “Their biggest mistakes were in choosing this particular location for a standoff. Outside of like Mars, it’s hard to find a more desolate place.”
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously, Levin said.
“If played correctly, this will be a very short-lived story,” he said. “But the problem is that when you have an unfiltered, ragtag collection of extremists with different gripes and temperaments who are all armed, law enforcement can galvanize them by playing the wrong cards.”
Though the situation is calm now, many fear things could escalate.
One of the militants, Jon Ritzheimer, made a video that was posted to YouTube several days before the takeover, saying he took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, and tearfully telling his wife and children goodbye.
Ritzheimer also has been involved in numerous anti-government and anti-Islamic activities, including organizing an armed protest outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. His Facebook cover page is a photo of an American flag and the words “Three Percenter” with the slogan, “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.”
Three percenters take their name from the percentage of colonists that are said to have taken up arms against the crown in the American Revolution. Supporters vow to use force if necessary to resist gun control laws.
Mike Vanderboegh, former leader of the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment Constitutional Militia and a longtime figure in the movement, said Ritzheimer and the others are fools. Ammon Bundy, he said, “has got a John Brown complex,” and he said that some of those involved are federal agent provocateurs on a mission to hurt the movement.
“What Bundy and this collection of fruits and nuts has done is give the feds the perfect opportunity to advance their agenda to discredit us,” he said.
Though most of those in the movement condemn the militant tactics, Vanderboegh said, they also won’t tolerate any reckless violence on the part of authorities.
“The federal government needs to understand that as much as we disagree with these people, as much as we suspect the motives and the character of the people behind it, we won’t stand idly by and give the feds a free pass to kill them,” he said. “If they go in and take these people down violently and kill some people, there will be a national response to that. There are no more free Wacos.”
He said the actions by the militants are frustrating because the movement was gaining ground.
“We were making our case,” he said. “The executive overreach that Obama was resorting to with gun control, that was bringing people on our side. Even liberals were out there buying guns, spurred on by Obama and ISIS.”
Vanderboegh said while he and other leaders in the movement are closely monitoring the situation, they have no plans to go to Oregon.
“It’s absolutely the most volatile thing I’ve seen since Waco,” he said. “You can make all kinds of arguments about who owns what land out there, but after the first shot is fired, it won’t make a damned bit of difference. The American people will not understand this. They will understand only that so-called militia terrorists took the first step.”