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Oregon Congressman: Malheur Could Have Been Prevented With Earlier Bundy Arrest

Two Democratic congressmen from Oregon said federal prosecutors should have acted much earlier to arrest Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Had authorities acted sooner, the lawmakers said it might have discouraged militants inspired by Bundy from occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Portland and Peter DeFazio of Springfield on Thursday called for tough federal prosecution against both Bundy and the militants who ended their nearly six-week long occupation the same day.

In April 2014, Bundy led dozens of armed followers who blocked federal agents from seizing his cattle after he had refused to pay grazing fees on public lands for more than two decades. His son Ammon led the Malheur occupation before he and another Bundy son, Ryan, were arrested Jan. 26.

FBI agents arrested the elder Bundy Wednesday night at the Portland airport as he was attempting to travel to the Malheur refuge to speak to the last of the occupiers. They charged him with a series of crimes connected to the 2014 standoff.

“I am very pleased that the federal authorities finally acted to arrest Mr. Bundy,” DeFazio said in a telephone interview. “Unlike tens of thousands of ranchers across the West who get an incredibly sweet deal on federal lands, he’s refused to pay his fees, grazed illegally in protected habitat and threatened federal agents himself and with his friends with guns. He should have been prosecuted two years ago, and Malheur wouldn’t have happened.

“But he thought that he had a way forward and he taught his son, ‘Pull out the guns, the feds back down,’" DeFazio added. “Well, finally, the feds didn’t back down.”

Blumenauer said in a separate interview that he told Attorney General Loretta Lynch before the latest arrests that armed occupations should be a “high law enforcement responsibility” and said that if there had been quicker action against Cliven Bundy, “We may not have had this situation.”

DeFazio said he had asked Department of Justice officials a few weeks ago why the elder Bundy had not yet been charged. He said that he was told that “because it’s going to a criminal case, it has to be airtight. I said, ‘Two years?’ And they were pretty quiet on that.”

DeFazio said Bundy and the occupiers should be "vigorously prosecuted" and added that the government should "get much more aggressive against insurrectionists on the radical fringe."

Other top officials in Oregon were more circumspect in their comments, generally expressing praise the occupation ended without further bloodshed. One occupier, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was shot to death during the Jan. 26 arrests of militant leaders.

“We can all be grateful that today has ended peacefully, and that this situation is finally over," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., whose district includes the wildlife refuge. “Now, life in Harney County can begin to return to normal and the community can begin the long process of healing.”

Walden, who has repeatedly complained about poor federal land management policies since the occupation began, added he'd like to see changes to federal forest and land management policies.

"We need to foster a more cooperative spirit between the federal agencies and the people who call areas like Harney County home,” Walden said.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she would focus on working with Harney County residents to help them recover from the traumatic event. She said she also wanted to work with members of the Burns Paiute Tribe as federal authorities assess potential damage to tribal artifacts kept at the refuge.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., praised law enforcement and said they were prepared to seek aid in helping the community recover.

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<p>Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer.</p>

File photo by Alan Sylvestre


Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.