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Constitution cowboys out of place in Oregon

Constitution cowboys Ammon and Ryan Bundy are as skilled at rounding up reporters as they are at bringing in the strays at their father’s ranch.

These days the sons of Bunkerville cattleman Cliven Bundy have climbed down from the saddle and up on the political pulpit as they lead the takeover of the isolated Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 30 miles south of Burns, Ore.

They’re on site in support of ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond, who reported to federal prison Monday in Southern California to serve their five-year sentences following a 2012 conviction for starting fires on public lands. Although the father and son argued they were attempting to protect their property from invasive species, the evidence failed to support them.

But speaking of invasive species, and evidence of dubious veracity, just who invited the Bundy brothers to drive all the way to Oregon to participate in what Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward calls an “armed occupation” of a federal wildlife refuge in the dead of winter? It’s possible, even likely, no one did.

The sheriff has politely asked the Bundy brothers to pack up and head south like a pair of geese. Residents have echoed those sentiments. A peaceful protest calling out the federal government for its insensitive treatment of the ranchers is one thing. Inviting a bunch of armed Constitution-quoters to the area frightens the children and old folks.

Sheriff Ward’s request hasn’t yet fazed the Bundy brothers. In fact, they’ve told reporters they’re willing to remain at the remote outpost “for years” if necessary to support the Hammond family and the Constitution.

While we’re on the subject of the Bundy’s self-appointed role in the occupation, it remains unclear whether the Hammond family requested the brothers’ presence on the scene as they prepared to march off to prison for said crimes. Although Ryan Bundy has repeatedly said he’s been told the family “appreciates” the support, that’s not much of an endorsement.

Beyond the symbolism and immediate national media coverage, occupying an essentially empty federal facility won’t help the Hammond family or bring greater clarity to the complex issue of the proper use of public lands. But it sure gives the Bundy brothers plenty of face time.

And that enables Ryan the opportunity to express his considered view on the subject, as he did Monday on “KNPR’s State of Nevada:”

“We realize that they are abusing the land and rights of the people all around, but it’s very extreme up here. And so that’s why we’re here at this point. … This wildlife refuge here has been an instrument of tyranny by running people off the land who create this place.”

The wildlife refuge has been carved out of land once used by the region’s cattle ranchers, Bundy said. But it’s not as if the Malheur is a Johnny-come-lately. It was founded in 1908, a fact that didn’t make it into the Constitution lecture.

The Malheur provides a home to 320 species of birds, 58 species of mammals and is a stop on the Pacific Flyway, the airway traveled by migrating ducks, swans and geese. Maybe it’s not such a good thing to light it on fire.

Out in Bunkerville, rancher Cliven Bundy supports the Hammonds from afar with media interviews and on the family’s nifty bundyranch.blogspot.com website.

His Jan. 1 press release says in part, “I, Cliven D. Bundy, have been involved for several weeks in the background striving to understand and comprehend your dilemmas in Harney County, Oregon. … The fires that were set were for a good purpose and had good results.

“The United States Justice Department has NO jurisdiction or authority within the State of Oregon, County of Harney over this type of ranch management.”

The Bunkerville rancher who issues press releases sounds an awful lot like a self-appointed attorney. But it turns out the Hammonds already have licensed counsel. They also have the support of the home folks and undoubtedly will receive plenty of prayers and letters during their prison stay.

I’d let them out of jail if they promised not to play with matches (or poach deer out of season) again, but the federal law on that is pretty clear.

You may think Bundy and his boys are American heroes. Or you may believe they’re all hat and not cattle.

But the undisputed truth is they do have a herd of steers wandering somewhere outside Bunkerville while the boys are away in Oregon. With all that Constitutional wrangling and armchair lawyering, it makes me wonder who’s minding the cows.

Time to get back to the home range, boys.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a fourth-generation Nevadan. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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