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We don’t seize refuges in Wyoming

A delayed flight out of Tucson. A bald, overweight man ahead of us in line is talking in a loud voice about his chances of making a close connection in Denver: “They need to take on more fuel and push that throttle!” he says.

It’s apparent from his wife’s face that this isn’t his public speaking voice — this is his voice all the time. I consider offering her my ear plugs, but she is likely half-deaf already. Her husband is, despite his precarious flight connection, jovial, enjoying himself.

“It takes me longer to get through,” he says to me, but loud enough for everyone to hear, “because I travel armed. I always travel armed.” No one asks him to elaborate, but he does. He says darkly, riot in his eyes: “I grew up outside of Baltimore.”

So did my spouse, and I, too, think it might be wise to arm myself when we visit her family’s property outside of Baltimore. It’s overrun with deer. The suburban gardeners in the area are not happy. We could help them thin the pests, and put some venison in the freezer.

It’s a problem we have in Lander, too. I’ve got three healthy young bucks who spend most nights behind the spruce tree, by the flower garden, which they have cropped like a putting green. Despite the deer invasion, the Lander City Council is trying to craft an ordinance to limit broadhead bow-hunting within the city limits. I’m thinking of naming our house-sitters Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.

But I digress.

My new friend in the Tucson airport: A balloon-bellied, myopic man in an ill-fitting shirt, at least 60 years old, boasting loudly about weapons he carries and telling the nonplussed baggage checkers how he would fly the airplane. Glances are exchanged among those of us in line: We don’t want him carrying a gun any more than we wanted him flying a Boeing 757.

Which brings us to Ammon Bundy. Well, not exactly, but we’ll get there.

Bundy, as everyone knows, is a bird-watching enthusiast who is camping at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of sighting an olive-sided flycatcher. Bundy and his followers are also there to defend the Constitution, return to the people government-owned land that the people were historically not all that interested in owning (though they used it anyway). They’re also there to protest the imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond, who burned some public land and, according to a Hammond relative who testified at their trial, poached some deer there.

That may be why Bundy and his friends brought a lot of weaponry to the refuge. Deer are a problem everywhere.

Okay, just having some fun here, that’s not what Bundy is there for. But why exactly is he?

Well, he came north — from Phoenix, where he runs a herd of valet cars — to join many others in a peaceful protest for the Hammonds, local ranchers who are going to jail for setting fires that burned onto public land. But when Ammon Bundy occupied the refuge, he did so without the Hammonds’ approval, or, it appears, the participation of any of the Harney County residents he hopes to liberate, or, for that matter, the backing of his Mormon Church, despite his suggestion that God sent him on this mission.

What Bundy is there for, clearly, is attention. He wasn’t going to get on television walking in little Burns, Oregon, among a peaceful crowd of protesters who dislike the way public lands are managed. He certainly wasn’t going to get on television by entering the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s labyrinth appeals process to overturn objectionable regulations. No, the way to a camera’s heart is to take over a wildlife refuge, peacefully brandish guns, and call on other patriots to join you at the barricades. (Well, not exactly: there are no barricades, the refuge is largely unstaffed and unvisited in the winter, and law enforcement is lying low at the coffee shop in Burns.)

The Bundys’ love of publicity — patriarch Cliven has also bathed in television lights for “standing up” to the feds on public grazing lands in Nevada — has only hurt the beleaguered community of ranch families who have gripes about public land management worth listening to. Like the people of Harney County, Wyoming ranch families often think public land managers over-manage, and they want their complaints heard … but not voiced by someone who has, in his own capacious mind, unilaterally disbanded the federal government.

And then, the Bundys intentionally tie their fanciful constitutional claims to armed resistance, and invite self-declared militias pocketed around the West to bring their weapons and “de-escalate” the stand-off. It’s entirely possible my friend from the Tucson airport is on his way. That should make us all feel safer.

In Burns, Oregon, residents would be happy if the Bundys just headed back to the ranch … no, wait, back to Phoenix. Then they could turn back to the various nagging problems of life in a small community.

Like deer, and whether we can hunt them in town. (Ah, we got there…)

There were no cameras at the Lander City Council when they dealt with the question of bow-hunting deer in the city limits. People got up and talked in calm voices with the mildest rhetoric about the pros and cons of it — the nuisance of over-populated deer; the pleasure of teaching a child to shoot arrows at a target in the backyard; state wildlife agency definitions of what a broad-head arrow tip is; the liability issue if the police chief okays a city hunter and his arrow ends up in a neighbor’s door.  

A local man noted that he’d taken three deer in city limits in the last five years, without a problem; another worried that restrictions on arrows would be a “backdoor” to getting rid of hunting. A city councilman (a hunter himself) said: “I’m worried about a fallible person using something that is specifically designed to kill in a small residential area.”

There were no threats. There was no drama, no show of arms. City government was not overthrown, or threatened with overthrow. A practical issue faced in a small community was addressed.

Update, 8:12 a.m. Jan. 12, 2016:

When I walked out to the shed this morning, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner looked at me reproachfully from their refuge behind the flower bed. It’s the sixth month of their occupation. No action from law enforcement. We’re drinking coffee and keeping an eye on them.

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About the Author

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Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote vantage in Wyoming’s Red Canyon. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002), and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989), and several other books. Contact Geoff at [email protected]

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4 Responses to We don’t seize refuges in Wyoming

  1. Pat Gabriel January 18, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    Another fine piece of journalism from Geoff. WyoFile continues to bring unique stories to the state and I appreciate the efforts of the entire staff.

    Laramie, Wyoming

  2. Bill Stuble January 12, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

    It’s not normal for Geoff to inject humor. We need more Geoff Twain.

    Cora, Wyoming

  3. Steff Kessler January 12, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Delightful, Geoff, thanks for the great writing – again!

    Steff Kessler

    Lander, Wyoming

  4. Lynn Carlson January 12, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    What I most appreciate in this piece is what it is lacking. No brandishing of rhetorical weapons, no threats, ultimatums or once-and-for-all solutions. A wry look at our wacky world. Thanks for the perspective–it’s a great way to start my day.

    Lynn Carlson

    Cheyenne, Wyoming

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