FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- The Fish and Wildlife Service and its allies ultimately prevailed in the 40-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, said FWS Director Dan Ashe.
While the seizure led by anti-federal lands activist Ammon Bundy took a major toll on the 16 employees of the 188,000-acre refuge and likely cost federal, state and local governments tens of millions of dollars, it also galvanized supporters of federal lands and discredited the movement to privatize them, Ashe said.
"The way that most of America was hearing about [the occupation] is these guys are a bunch of buffoons," Ashe said Thursday in a speech here at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's annual media summit. "In the end, it was a winner for us."
Bundy and his followers seized the unoccupied refuge Jan. 2 to protest the imprisonment of two Harney County, Ore., ranchers and to demand the United States relinquish roughly 640 million acres of federal lands to states and citizens. It was a dramatic twist in an intensified debate over the management of the West's vast landscapes, coming two years after Bundy's father, Cliven Bundy, led an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over the impoundment of his cattle.
The Malheur occupants lost the public's sympathy as major, urban newspapers portrayed them as rogue and out of touch, Ashe said. Even Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R), whom Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker described as an "old sagebrush rebel," condemned the occupants despite sharing their frustrations over federal land management, Ashe noted.
"I think the occupants looked foolish," Ashe said, adding that many in neighboring Burns, Ore., urged them to leave. "The Fish and Wildlife Service and the federal government came out looking better."
Ashe said he was heartened at the public display of support FWS received during the occupation from conservation groups including TRCP, the National Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
He recalled his frustration when the FBI advised him to keep quiet during the takeover so as not to provoke the occupants. Conservation groups aired the anger he could not express, he said.
"Not everybody in the conservation community did," he said. "We had some, I'm not going to name them, but we had some large and traditional conservation organizations who said, 'Well, we don't view this as a conservation issue.' And they sat on their hands."
The FBI performed admirably, Ashe said. While the death of LaVoy Finicum during a police traffic stop north of the refuge was tragic, the bureau did a "miraculous job" minimizing potential violence, Ashe said.
But he said it was a traumatic time for his employees who had to be relocated outside of Burns for their safety. Ashe said roughly half of that staff are looking to leave.
"I definitely would not want to go through it again -- and it was devastating to our people," he said. "From the standpoint of employee morale, it's been a big bullet."
Five individuals involved in the Malheur takeover have plead guilty -- Wes Kjar, Corey Lequieu, Eric Lee Flores, Geoffrey Stanek and Jason Blomgren.
Key leaders including Ammon and Ryan Bundy and about 20 others still face felony counts. Cliven Bundy and more than a dozen others face separate felony charges for alleged roles in the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nev.
Earlier this month, Ashe told Greenwire that the Malheur occupation highlighted the inherent risks of managing remote refuges with a shoestring law enforcement staff. FWS has about 300 officers, about one for every two national wildlife refuges, Ashe said.
"The most sobering aspect of the Malheur conflict is thinking about how few law enforcement officers we have," he said.
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management announced the creation of a new law enforcement office to oversee the security of BLM facilities nationwide (Greenwire, May 24). The timing was notable -- just last week, a Utah man who opposed federal land ownership was arrested for allegedly attempting to blow up a BLM cabin in northern Arizona (Greenwire, June 24).
Ashe warned that the social and political movement to transfer federal lands is gaining traction. He pointed to an effort by Republican lawmakers to allow 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to be transferred from the Interior Department to the Puerto Rican government as part of a bill to restructure the island territory's debt.
The transfer provision was nixed amid objections from conservationists, Democrats and the Obama administration.
"We have to get smarter," Ashe said. "We have to have a better strategy than [land transfer proponents] have, because right now, they are winning. They're putting together ground game, and it's a long ground game, and they are changing the minds of voters."