Teachable Instant: Anti-Government Standoff in Oregon

This brief activity includes a quiz, reading and discussion about the occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon by anti-government protesters.   


Ask students:  Which of these does NOT describe a current standoff between anti-government militants and the federal government?

a)  John Joe Gray of Trinidad, Texas, bit a state trooper during a traffic stop, refused to show up in court, and for 15 years has threatened to shoot any officers who try to come onto his property.

b) A group of animal rights activists are occupying a federal research lab in Rockwell, Minnesota, to protest the treatment of monkeys in medical experiments. The FBI maintains a 24-hour presence outside the building.

c) Cliven Bundy recruited militia members from around the country to fend off federal law enforcement officers attempting to seize his cattle in payment of $1 million in grazing fees. To date, Bundy still has his cattle and his money.

d) Several dozen armed anti-government militants broke into a federal wildlife sanctuary and announced that they intend to remain there indefinitely to protest the vast ownership of land by the U.S. government. Authorities have so far taken no action to evict the occupiers.


b) Animal rights activists are not occupying a federal research lab in Minnesota. The other stories are true.

Why did anti-government militants take over a wildlife refuge?

Read aloud, or have students read on their own, the following information about the armed anti-government militants now occupying a federal wildlife refuge near Burns, Oregon.

On January 2, 2016, about 300 people rallied in Burns, Oregon, to protest the resentencing of two local ranchers for arson.  Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who are opposed to federal land policies, were convicted of setting fires that burned 139 acres of federal land. The protesters, who came from other western states, share the Hammonds’ anti-government philosophy.

After the rally, about 20 of the 300 demonstrators drove out to the 185,000-acre Malheur Wildlife Refuge and bird sanctuary some 30 miles south of Burns, and occupied the refuge headquarters. Though the men are armed with handguns and rifles, there has been no violence. Authorities have chosen not to intervene, hoping to avoid a violent confrontation.

The leader of the group is Ammon Bundy. Bundy’s father, Clivon Bundy, made national news in 2014 by refusing to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land in eastern Nevada. Bundy has so far successfully prevented federal agents from removing his cattle from federal land.

The occupiers are demanding that the federal land be returned to "its rightful owners."

The Northern Paiute tribe of Native Americans, who were evicted from the land in the 19th century, think that the "rightful owners" might include those who have lived there for thousands of years. Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy said he thought that if the Paiute tried to occupy the land, the consequences would be different: "We’d be already shot up, blown up or in jail. Just being honest; they are used to killing us... They [the occupiers] are white men. That is the difference. That is just how I see it."

The federal government owns up to 47 percent of the land in the West. Since it was taken from the continent's original inhabitants, the land has never been owned privately. The use of these lands has been a source of tension. The government leases some of the land to individuals or companies for grazing or extraction of natural resources, charging prices that are far below market value. Still, many individuals and companies would like to be able to exploit the land further:

  • Logging companies want to clear forests
  • Ranchers want access to grazing land for their cattle
  • Oil companies want to drill
  • Mining companies want to dig the land for coal and minerals
  • Hunters want access to wilderness lands
  • Hikers, bikers, birders, climbers, boaters, skiers, snowmobilers, fishers and others want access to the lands for their enjoyment

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned about the damage these human activities do to the land and its non-human inhabitants.

Many residents of the rural western states have jobs that depend on logging, ranching, or mining on the public lands, and some argue that the federal government should not be allowed to restrict this economic activity.  Some subscribe to a political ideology that opposes government intervention in general. Over the last few decades, a variety of anti-government factions, including white identity groups, militias, anti-immigrant groups, gun rights activists and others, have joined together to challenge the government’s control of public lands. Because they are angry and armed, these groups spark fears of a deadly confrontation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist organizations, the anti-government militia movement grew to 276 groups in 2015. 

The police and other authorities, who often react aggressively to relatively minor infractions elsewhere, have so far not challenged the armed protesters in Oregon. Why? 

One answer is that federal authorities have overreacted to past standoffs with armed anti-government groups, with terrible consequences. In standoffs during the 1990s in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, federal agencies were condemned for being too aggressive and causing needless deaths. Since then, the feds have often chosen to wait out the opposition.


For Discussion:

On the tactics:

  1. Many people have labeled the occupation "terrorism." Is it terrorism?
  2. How should the government respond when a group of activists occupies a government office or land?
  3. Should the response depend on the demands of the protesters? Would your own response be different if the occupiers were Native Americans or environmental activists, for example?
  4. Should the response depend on whether the protesters are armed? How should it be different if they are armed?
  5. Do you think Paiute council member Jarvis Kennedy (quoted above) is right that the government would not be as patient if the occupiers were Native Americans?
  6. Can you imagine yourself occupying a building to protest the government?


On the political issues:

  1. Who should own/control the vast acreage of land in the West?
  2. How much of the land (if any) do you think should be protected from economic exploitation (mining, drilling, grazing, logging)?
  3. Who should decide the use of public lands? The local government, state government or national government? Private interests?  Why?