By On January 4, 2016
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. 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. 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.”
Photos of the Malheur National Wildlife