Three weeks ago, a group of approximately twenty ranchers formed a militia and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal government building in Oregon. Led by Ammon Bundy, their official goal was to protest the arrest of two local ranchers convicted of torching 130 acres of public property belonging to the Bureau of Land Management. Other demands made by the group included immediate freedom for imprisoned local ranchers, the secession of Federal land to private owners, county control over the refuge, and the termination of the Federal grazing permit system. The Bureau of Land Management is a branch of the Federal government that tends to fly under the radar of most Americans because its actions are felt predominantly in the Western Hemisphere of the country. But what is the Bureau of Land Management, why are these white men so angry, and what does the situation in Oregon mean for the Bureau?
The militia group includes roughly 120 people and is lead by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, a rancher who, in the 1990s, refused to pay his grazing permit fees but continued to graze his livestock on public land. This led to an armed dispute between him and the Bureau, which is still legally unsettled. The militia group is also protesting the arrests of Dwight and Steve Hammond, two ranchers who burned 130 acres of Federal land. They were sentenced to five years in prison, which the militia claims is cruel and unusual punishment.
According to its website, the Bureau of Land Management serves several functions. It oversees national wild fire management efforts, manages the nation’s wild horse and burro (donkey) population, and centralizes planning efforts for public lands. The bureau is also in charge of what land is grazed on, what land is conserved, what land is set aside for recreation, and what land is developed for green energy.
The protestors in Oregon hope that their presence will force the Bureau to succumb to the pressure and change how they treat ranchers in the future. This outcome would be great for the ranchers, but what if they are not the victims that they make themselves out to be? In truth, ranchers are a pretty big deal in rural Western America. They lease 155 million of acres of public property at a steep discount of approximately 93% off the market value to graze their cattle and sheep. (For reference, one acre is about 91% of a football field.) Their livestock occupy nearly half of public protected land. As a result, the Bureau is also responsible for providing optimal grazing conditions for the livestock. This means working with other agencies, such as the U.S Forest Services and U.S Wildlife Services, to kill millions of predatory animals that put ranchers’ livestock at risk.
Another method for optimizing conditions for ranchers’ livestock are the highly controversial mustang and burro round-ups. These round-ups occur frequently. The BLM rounds up approximately 10, 000 horses each year. The “gathers,” as the Bureau calls them, result in many unnecessary deaths and trauma for the animals. Furthermore, once the horses and burros are rounded up, the agency spends upwards of $40 million to sustain these rounded-up herds on their lands, instead of allowing them to roam free at no extra cost. Over half of the BLM’s budget is spent on these “holding” costs, such as healthcare and feed. There are auctions to sell the horses, but they are often bought for as low as $100 by ranchers and then re-sold to slaughterhouses. It should be noted that the Bureau considers round-ups a more humane method of population management, as prior to the round-ups private landowners would hunt wild horses or poison water sources. However, many activists feel that implementing other methods of fertility control could prove to be just as effective and much more humane.
Others have concerns that the Bureau’s population control efforts and low grazing fees result in a harmful influx of inbreeding, a lack of biodiversity in wildlife, overgrazing that leads to soil loss, and increased infestations of invasive plant species. The programs to control populations, such as killing predatory animals and rounding up wild horses, are very expensive, and cost upwards of $125 million for taxpayers. While the Bureau claims they are necessary to promote diversity in grazing for all animals, these efforts are done at the sake of wild animals and in the name of protecting ranchers’ livestock.
However, the protest in Oregon is about more than what happened to the Bundys in the 1990s, more than the arrest of the Hammonds, and more than cattle. The protestors feel like the Federal government has infringed upon States’ rights, stolen their public land, and wrongfully prevented them from accessing their own property. It should be noted that this opinion is not uncommon. Many rural Americans share this sentiment, but not all feel that seizing a refuge is an effective means of communication. Directors of the refuge have even protested state control, claiming that they would not have sufficient funds to operate it without Federal support. The militia in Oregon is a group of Federalists who want to demand public land back from the Federal government. They have specified that they respect all state laws, just not Federal ones.
So who is the real victim? Are the ranchers suffering because they don’t own the land their livestock graze on, and are forced to pay fees to the Federal government? Or is the Bureau to be sympathized with because it struggles to rake profit from its grazing and wildlife management programs? Is natural wildlife the victim of the population control methods it is forced to endure? Or are American taxpayers the ones truly suffering because their tax dollars promote a cause they don’t care about or know about? To many ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management is the tyrant that prevents their sheep and cattle from full grazing privileges. To wild animals, the Bureau is the ominous and dark presence that looms overhead, threatening to kill or round up these animals to preserve the land for the sake of ranchers’ livestock. To the general public however, the Bureau is simply a mysterious Federal agency and the occupation in Oregon is another insignificant, passing event.