Boise, ID – Western Watersheds Project is disappointed that the government’s acquiescence to ongoing law-breaking on public lands across the West has led to the armed occupation of one of America’s premier bird sanctuaries. This weekend’s militia takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is another battle in the “War on the West” that extractive industries have been waging for 150 years.

The occupying militia is led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven Bundy, the notorious rancher who has refused to pay his fees for years and continues to illegally trample fragile desert tortoise habitat with his trespassing cows. The militia initially claimed the occupation was to support local ranchers and convicted arsonists Dwight and Steven Hammond, although the Hammond family has distanced itself from the Bundys’ recent activities. The Bundy group has moved onto generally railing against federal land ownership and legal limits on environmentally destructive activities like logging and ranching.

But what Ammon Bundy considers tyrannical treatment of grazing permittees is actually a generous welfare program: between 1995 and 2012, Hammond Ranches, Inc. received $295,471 in federal payouts. There is enormous subsidization of public lands livestock grazing. While the going rate for grazing a cow and a calf on private land for a month in Oregon is $17, the equivalent fee on federal public lands is only $1.69.[1] This artificially low fee creates a national deficit of at least $12 billion dollars every decade– hardly a sign that the federal agencies are trying to put ranchers out of business.

“The ongoing occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is a reaction to the perceived mistreatment of public lands livestock operators and other extractive users of American’s wild spaces. This perception is inaccurate, considering the systemic support and financial subsidies that our government gives these industries despite the adverse ecological impacts and profound debt they create,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, an advocacy group dedicated to ending public lands livestock grazing.

In fact, even the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is controversially open to livestock grazing use, despite the Refuge system’s mandate to protect wildlife habitat. The spectacular wetland complex is a mecca for birdwatchers due to its role as a major migratory bird stopover. Thousands of Americans visit the refuge each year to enjoy the unique species that frequent the Pacific flyway, pouring over $1.9 million into the local economy annually.[2] When Ammon Bundy promotes his agenda of using the resource, he’s overlooking the many Americans who “use the resource” to enjoy quiet recreation like bird-watching.

Widespread livestock grazing occurs on nearly 220 million acres of public land in the western states, and this is a leading cause of soil loss, species endangerment, invasive species infestations, and predator killing. Only 22,000 ranchers have the privilege of using federal lands for their operations, a business opportunity mistakenly referred to as a “right” by those that would seek to establish it as such. The courts have affirmed that there are no “grazing rights,” and the Bundys’ use of the term does not make it so.

“There are no grazing rights,” said Bruner, “but there are lots of grazing ‘wrongs.’ The federal agencies failure to rein in the worst abusers of public lands livestock allotments has emboldened people like the Bundy brothers and others across the West to take land management into their own hands. It’s time to stop caving in to their demands and manage wildlife habitat in the true public interest.”

About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

42 Responses to Reality Check on Public Lands Ranching: A reaction to the rhetoric of the Bundy militia in Oregon

  1. avatar JB says:

    While the mainstream media has largely missed their own hypocrisy, Twitter users have not. Some of my favorite so far: #vanillaISIS, #yallQaeda, and #yeeHawdists

    Also enjoyed the “White Terrorist Lives Matter”

  2. avatar Theo Chu says:

    Please stop calling them a militia which to some infers 2nd Amendment creds. They are nothing more than common criminals.

  3. avatar Jim Thurber says:

    I will remind the old timers here on grazing issues that the book, Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, now out of print unfortunately, deals in part with the damage done by public land ranching at this very wildlife refuge, to the point of making the habitat unsuitable for the very native species the refuge was created to protect. Johanna Wald of the NRDC, now retired, will just be shaking her head once again that the ludicrousness of public land ranching and all it entails.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      I have email “It was some Hammonds who roughed up Denzel and Nancy Ferguson (authors of Sacred Cows at the Public Trough), breaking Denzel’s glasses, at a dance in the Diamond Valley some 40 years ago.”

      • avatar Louise kane says:

        Thugs with guns holding public lands hostage should not be tolerated
        If there are enough funds in government coffers to subsidize ranchers enough must exist to quash the people purposely inciting riot and mayhem and desecrating lands that belong to the public
        These guys are frightening
        I fear for the wild animals they encounter
        If they are capable of arson to conceal poaching they are capable of anything

        • avatar The WiZaRd says:

          I totally agree with you, Louise.
          The BLM and those gun-toting
          redneck neanderthals have no place
          in wildlife refuges, and to be quite
          honest, they have no place anywhere
          on this planet in the 21st Century
          and beyond.
          They’re old fossils from the barbaric
          19th Century that should have been left
          buried back in the past 100 years ago.

          And besides, our Native American brethren
          were here first for thousands of years
          before the Inquisition invaded this
          continent and messed things up.
          And thus, the “occupied” area is sacred
          ground to the tribe, and it is to be honored and respected as such. 🙂

    • avatar Jerry Black says:

      “Sacred Cows at the Public Trough”…..available for .01 at Amazon

      • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

        Jerry Black, Thank you! I had wonder if it was still available. Folks should get a copy and read it before they talk about the wonderful public land ranching in southeast Oregon and the West in general.

        • avatar Jerry Black says:

          Can’t go wrong for .01
          I’ve bought numerous copies and passed them out to interested people….They’re usually shocked at what really goes on in the ranching community

        • avatar Jim T says:

          Welfare Ranching, edited by GeorgeWuerthner and Mollie Matteson…also still available and worth having on your shelves. I am looking at our copy right now as well as Lynn Jacobs’ book, Waste of the West..Public Land Ranching.

  4. avatar Real Nice Guy says:

    How long would authorities wait if Black Lives Matter were to occupy an abandoned storefront in a poor urban neighborhood demanding fairer treatment for African American youth?

  5. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    Perfect Quote –
    “You know you’re a badass Tea Party patriot when your militia takes over an unprotected bird sanctuary.”

    • avatar rork says:

      It was easy for supporters to show up at the Bundy ranch area too. So while that quote succeeds at making fun of them (which is easy), it’s missing the point a bit. One of the commenters at Oath Keepers had a good harangue about taking over a stinking toilet in the middle of nowhere that made several points about how it was a dumb tactical move – but that it was easy to do wasn’t one of them. The main post did that too, without any humor. As I mentioned elsewhere I worry a bit about those guys, cause they aren’t all amateurs. Some of them may have studied at Carlisle (army war college).
      I can report that in my local Michigan rags/blogs the thugs get constant bashing and teasing by columnists and commenters, but that’s easterners who know almost nothing about the history. I’m not in a laughing mood I suppose. I actually do have some empathy for the difficulties some people have faced out west as logging and ranching get harder – not that it justifies being outlaws. If the people can really be convinced, the soap box and ballot box suffice (no ammo box needed).

      • avatar Nancy says:

        IMHO, the human species is failing, big time, when it comes to addressing our inability to control our own numbers. Whether its in Burn, OR or around the world. We just keep breeding, with little thought, ignoring our huge impact on the planet.

        I have little empathy for logging or ranching woes Rork, because I live in the west and I’ve seen first hand, how the land is used by those who claim to be “stewards” until the Price is Right 🙂

        Okay folks, lets open door # 1

        A really nice ranch, includes all buildings and over 6 thousand acres of incredible grazing land, timber, springs and stream running thru it.

        Sad fact is, not enough folks (or good organizations) with the money, are able to buy and let this ranch just drop out and rest, for wildlife.

        And I’m pretty sure Elk has been monitoring the comments and can lend some thoughts about real estate values and who’s buying land, out here in the west.

      • avatar WM says:


        What is the source of your statement that some of these guys may have studied at Carlisle (national war college). From my understanding just to enroll (which is highly competitive) a military officer must have at least a 4 year college degree, and be a 15 year senior officer of no lower rank than an 0-5, which is a LT. Colonel in the Army/Marines. This is the school where generals are trained.

        Strikes me there isn’t even a competent enlisted man or junior officer in this group of self-described half-wit “patriots,” let alone one with the necessary pre-reqs for study at the war college.

        • avatar rork says:

          WM, just conjecture on my part. I’ve not studied the individuals deeply.
          Nancy, I’m mainly aware of things like saw mill closures in Idaho in my youth affecting people who weren’t anything like big land owners. Folks were pretty disgruntled when I’d go hiking there. The lost jobs seemed inevitable, but folks blamed the federal government anyway.

  6. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    Sometime a few graphics can make a point that mere text does not.

    The Armed Oregon Ranchers Who Want Free Land Are Already Getting A 93 Percent Discount

  7. avatar jonathan says:

    A WELL REGULATED militia …

    Pioneer Militia Legislation — An Act Authorizing the Fomation of the Militia of Jefferson County, PA

    A further supplement to the Act Entitled ‘An Act For the Regulation of the Militia of this Commonwealth’

    SECTION I. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the part of the ninety-ninth regiment of the fifteenth division of Pennsylvania militia, lying within the county of Jefferson, shall form a separate battalion, and shall be entitled to elect one lieutenant-colonel and one major, and the election of the officers thereof shall be held as soon as convenient, agreeably to the act to which this is a supplement; the field officers of this battalion shall, as soon as practicable, proceed to organize said battalion into companies, so that the number of officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates in the several companies thereof may, if they think it expedient, be reduced to fifty.

    Approved April 10, 1826.

    The election under this act was held at Port Barnett, November 6, 1826, when the following officers were elected for the pioneer battalion of Jefferson County:

    Lieutenant-colonel, Hance Robinson; major, Andrew Barnett.

    The militia of Pennsylvania ceased to muster in 1849, under the provisions of the act of April 17 of that year, entitled “An act to revise the military system and provide for the arming of such only as, shall be uniformed.”

    (Source: A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania, McKnight, W.J., M.D., J. Lippincott Co., 1905, Ch. 31.)

  8. avatar Nancy says:

    What do you call a bunch of white guys with guns? From the Washington Post:

    My favorite among the comments 🙂

    “I’d call them tiny willie ammosexuals but alas, that option was not offered. Oddly”

    I think a sign should be erected outside the building letting the bird watchers (who are probably anxious to get back to bird watching) know that a flock of Southwest Loonies have descended on the refuge and have taken up residence in the building. Please do not feed or harass. Officials are hoping they realize, they are off course and will leave on their own.

  9. avatar Kathleen says:

    “Decemberists singer’s #BundyEroticFanFic taunts Oregon militants”

  10. avatar Nancy says:

    “I don’t understand why they are continually allowed to do this without consequences”

    Boondoggle comes to mind Ida.

  11. avatar Yvette says:

    If you need a little cheer and a hearty laugh here is the medicine.

    “We’re hoping this is an isolated incident and we’re asking the elderly not to knock any more militants on their ass,” said the grinning FBI agent.”

  12. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    No Bundy protest to this?

    Texas Billionaires Set Sights on Montana and Idaho Land; Deny Access to Hunting and Recreation

    As far as the disappearing prosperity sob story [insert violin music], times change, prosperity doesn’t last forever, especially if natural resources are treated as neverending.

  13. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    Ransacked? You know, part of me was hoping there wouldn’t be much damage, but I also expected it.

    • avatar Leslie says:

      We won’t know the details until the feds can get in there to see for themselves. The video on that link just showed some people around a truck with trash outside. There should be many more charges once Mahler is opened up for all to see the damage.

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January 2016
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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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