Supporters of Oregon ranchers say feds caused damage at refuge

Special to

Witnesses at Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge who were on hand during the standoff earlier this year between ranchers and government agents say the agents were responsible for damage caused to the refuge.

The eyewitnesses made their case during four simultaneous news conferences in four states on March 29. They disputed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s claims that there were $6 million in damages left behind by the protesters at the refuge.

Related: The Clintons, uranium and the Oregon shootout: Report addresses unasked questions, March 8, 2016

Finicum family
LaVoy Finicum’s family and supporters.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said $1.7 million is needed to restore the refuge headquarters, $2 million to catch up on fire prevention and $2.3 million to increase security at wildlife refuges around the west.

“Numerous testimonies from eyewitnesses at the refuge show no damage reported,” Sandy Alderson, one of the final protesters at the standoff, said.

“After LaVoy Finicum was murdered, they [the remaining occupiers] abandoned their belongings and fled for their lives. There was no damage, only minimal disarray left behind. They didn’t have much time.”

Alderson also said federal agents damaged the protesters’ campsite by “running it over with a bulldozer.”

The witnesses also demanded the release of followers of ranchers LaVoy Finicum and Ammon Bundy who “are being held in jail without bond.”

“Since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the DHS have built reputations for unconstitutional searches and seizures, labeling the victims ‘domestic terrorists’ or ‘anti-government militants,’ ransacking homes and causing permanent damage to private property,” a statement from the March 29 press event said.

“These unconstitutional acts terrorize citizens without arrest warrants, violating the Fourth Amendment protections, which was also the case with the citizens of Harney County. The occupiers were the peaceful protesters; it is the federal government – the FBI and its contractors – that must be held responsible.”

The ranchers’ supporters are also demanding “a line item accounting” of the government’s damage claims.

“We’re asking for transparency and disclosure. We want the procurement applications, the invoices and the proof that justifies the outrageous bill we are paying. The occupiers were peaceful. At no time did they brandish guns. It was the federal government that brought in the military equipment and SWAT teams that we are now told cost over 2 and a quarter million. It was the presence of military artillery and vehicles that terrified the townspeople,” the March 29 statement said.

“During the 41 days of the occupation, ranchers and patriots did not break any laws. They actually improved the condition of the refuge after the government employees let it fall into disrepair,” one of the visitors to the refuge said.

Nevada Assemblyman John Moore commented: “The government bears the burden of proof, and taking this case to the media is not a court of law where physical proof is actually required.”

Utah resident Sharla Christie, a visitor at the refuge during the standoff, said “this is not about grass, trash or cows. It’s about freedom. LaVoy’s and Ammon’s message is about how government has disregarded our laws. The feds are violating the law, not the ranchers or the people that supported this protest.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service refuted the protesters’ claims. Jason Holm, the agency’s assistant regional director for external affairs in Portland, said “with the exception of the three screen shots of occupier social media, all photos were taken by employees of the US Fish & Wildlife Service upon our return to the refuge.

“We are confident that the chronicle of the occupation, both in social media and traditional media, provided the American public ample evidence of the motivations and behaviors of the occupiers. Though our photos aren’t evidence, we trust these questions will be sufficiently answered at the conclusion of the legal proceedings.”