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The Oregon Militants' Grievances Might Be Real, but Their Tactics Are All Wrong

A recent compromise, hammered out to protect sage grouse, shows it's possible for conservation and business interests in the West to work together.
Ammon Bundy speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 6, 2016, near Burns, Oregon. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ammon Bundy speaks to members of the media in front of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on January 6, 2016, near Burns, Oregon. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

By many accounts, the residents of Burns, Oregon, don't necessarily support the tactics of the armed militants who have been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters since Saturday. Yet the outside protesters and Burns residents do share many of the same grievances: As the Washington Post reports, ranchers, miners, and other citizens in Western states have been clashing in recent years with officials over their right to cut trees, mine for minerals, and graze cattle on the vast tracts of publicly held land in the West. The same agencies that hand out licenses for these private and commercial uses of the land are also increasingly being tasked with protecting its indigenous plants and animals, leading to conflicts between locals and officials, as Vox reports.

In our July/August 2015 issue, Pacific Standard got a glimpse of just one source of that conflict when journalist Gabriel Kahn reported on an enormous wind farm that conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz was planning for his ranch in Wyoming. Before gaining approval to build their turbines, Anschutz's staff had to first prove to regulators their windmills wouldn't harm protected species, including the iconic sage grouse. In his story, Kahn found that, even on private land like Anschutz's, working to appease environmental safeguards can be a taxing, costly process. Anschutz's staff ended up hiring a team of biologists, tagging hundreds of grouse on the land with $4,000 transmitters, and tracking the birds over five years. "It is the most sophisticated study of sage grouse ever conducted," Kahn writes.

Yet, cumbersome as they are, Western states' regulations around the sage grouse might represent a peaceful way forward for conflicting conservation and business interests. Wyoming's Governor Matthew Mead set up his state's regulations in a bid to prevent the federal government from stepping in to protect the bird, Kahn reports. Mead didn't want the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the sage grouse as endangered, which would come with further restrictions and, he feared, might "cripple the economy of our state."

It seems Mead's efforts worked after all. In September, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not list the greater sage grouse as endangered, citing these successful conservation efforts. The decision was an example of state and industry interests working to pre-empt federal regulation—which the Burns, Oregon militia opposes—by meeting a conservation goal in their own way.

There's a lesson here for the Burns armed protestors. That is, there may be a peaceful, policy-oriented means of accomplishing some of their goals. Before leaping to their guns—especially at a time when many federal employees who work on Western land have faced threats and violence—Bundy and his ilk would be wise to first consider offers of compromise and unarmed, peaceful dissent.


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.