Last Oregon Occupiers Surrender, FBI Searches Refuge for Explosives

Authorities and demonstrators wait at the Narrows roadblock near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, on Feb. 11, 2016, near Burns, Ore. (Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP)

The last four holdouts at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon ended a 41-day occupation of the headquarters and visitors center today as they surrendered to the FBI.

Federal agents surrounded their encampment yesterday after one rode an ATV past barricades established by the militia and fled back inside after being approached by officers. That resulted in a tense standoff broadcast live on Internet radio, with Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore trying to talk down the agitated occupiers while traveling to the scene.

Sandy Anderson, 47, of Riggins, Idaho, Sean Anderson, 48, of Riggins, Idaho, David Fry, 27, of Blanchester, Ohio, and Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nev., were taken into custody as Fiore and Rev. Franklin Graham helped defuse the situation.

“I want to make it very clear that we will continue to enforce the law with respect to the refuge and other federal properties,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing said at a press conference this afternoon. “Anyone who chooses to travel to Oregon with the intent of engaging in illegal activity will be arrested. Saying that, I want to reassure those Harney County residents who simply visited the refuge or provided food to the occupiers—we are not looking into those events. We are concerned about those who have criminal, violent intent.”

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was arrested at Portland International Airport on Wednesday night, charged with conspiracy to interfere with a federal officer — same charge that his sons Ammon and Ryan, as well as more than a dozen others, face — and weapons charges. Another member of the original group of occupiers, Blaine Cooper, 36, of Dewey-Humboldt, Ariz., was arrested on the conspiracy charge by FBI agents in southwestern Utah.

Before the refuge can re-open to visitors, agents were thoroughly searching the property to ensure no one else is hiding there, Bretzing said. Bomb technicians “will methodically work their way through the property to locate and mitigate any explosive-related hazards.”

Then, the FBI’s evidence team will move in to comb the scene. “In addition, FBI forensic examiners from the Northwest Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory will work to recover and process computers and electronic devices. It will likely be several weeks before the evidence teams complete their work on the refuge, and it will likely be a number of months before the forensic examiners complete their analysis,” he said.

After that, the Art Crime Team will process the scene along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Burns Paiute Tribe “to identify and document damage to the tribe’s artifacts and sacred burial grounds.”

It will “likely take a number of weeks” to determine if the militia members were in violation of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Protection Act (NAGPRA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA).

Bretzing added that the occupiers and their outside supporters tried “to drive deep divisions between those who live and work here.”

“We have seen some residents leave their homes, fearing violence against their families. We have seen the confusion, concern and trouble that the occupiers’ actions have caused for this community,” he said.

The wildlife refuge said in a statement that “while we are now able to look forward to a new beginning, there is still much that needs to be done so that the community and the larger public can be welcomed back to their refuge.”

“We will be available, at the request of the FBI, to help in the long and painstaking job of processing the crime scene. At the same time, we will be working to assess and repair damages caused by the occupation. Above all, we will begin to revitalize our deep connections in the local community and resume the dialog that has made Malheur a model of collaborative conservation.”