Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR with your tax-deductible year-end gift today!

Oregon Jury Acquits Defendants In Wildlife Refuge Occupation


A jury in Oregon has acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other militants who staged last winter's armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That verdict could have huge implications on the militia movement as well as the federal government's control of millions of acres of public lands in the West. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Moments after the anti-government militants Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others were exonerated by the jury, there was elation from a small group of supporters outside the federal courthouse in Portland.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Release the patriots.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Not guilty.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Not guilty.

SIEGLER: During the roughly six-week trial, federal prosecutors had argued the Bundys and their militia conspired to keep federal workers from doing their jobs at the refuge, through threats and intimidation. But defense attorneys claim they were exercising their First and Second Amendment rights in a protest over the federal government's control of public land in the West. Lisa Maxfield is an attorney for one of the defendants.

LISA MAXFIELD: I'm not talking like a grown-up anymore because we're just tickled. (Laughter) I'm thrilled. I just can't imagine anything like it.

SIEGLER: The shock over the verdict was just as strong coming from the other side. Joan Anzelmo is a retired federal land manager from Wyoming.

JOAN ANZELMO: This was a national wildlife refuge that was taken over, essentially, in an act of domestic terrorism, with arms and terrorizing the town, threatening the citizens, threatening the employees.

SIEGLER: The origins of the Bundys' fight with the government is over unpaid fees for cattle-grazing on federal public land. But their movement has lately attracted conspiracy theorists and other far-right groups that aren't associated with ranching. And Anzelmo worries the acquittal of the Bundys in Oregon will encourage more anti-government groups to take up arms against federal employees.

ANZELMO: With the way the country is right now, this is going to embolden militia types who, if they don't like something, they'll take up their arms and, you know, laws be damned. It is a terrible, terrible day for the United States.

SIEGLER: At least for now, the verdict is for sure emboldening the cause of those who want to see vast swaths of federal lands turned over to the states and counties. Michele Fiore is a state representative in Nevada, an ally of the Bundys. She actually negotiated the dramatic end to the Oregon occupation that was broadcast live on YouTube.

MICHELE FIORE: This just send a real loud and clear message to all elected to stand with Americans, with your constituents, with the citizens of America, not tyrannical, corrupt, unlawful government employees such as the BLM.

SIEGLER: The federal Bureau of Land Management is a favorite target of Bundy supporters, even though in Oregon, the wildlife refuge they took over is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But for Fiore, this verdict is a victory and a blow against what she says is an overreaching federal government.

FIORE: We won our first battle in Oregon, and now we're going to win the second battle here in my home state, Nevada.

FIORE: Ammon and Ryan Bundy are still in custody pending the next scene in this drama over control of millions of acres of federal land. They're facing similar charges in Nevada for an armed standoff against federal agents near their father Clive Bundy's ranch in 2014.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.