The armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon has drawn national focus to a small, remote stretch of land otherwise notable for being a prime bird-watching destination. It has also brought renewed attention to anti-government groups in the United States, which experts say have surged in number.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported Monday that the number of anti-government militia groups nationwide increased by more than a third last year, rising from 202 groups in 2014 to 276 such groups in 2015.
All told, the SPLC said that the number of “extreme anti-government groups” — which includes the militia groups as well as Patriot groups and others — has spiked since President Obama’s election in 2008. There were 149 of these groups in 2008, but within four years there were more than 1,300. That number had fallen to 874 in 2014, the most recent year for which the SPLC had data before Monday, but that easily eclipsed the average of 147 such groups the organization said it tracked each year during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Experts say a situation like the one playing out in Oregon is not surprising, given the recent history involving anti-government groups and federal authorities.
“We knew something similar to this was inevitable in the Pacific Northwest, because the anti-government extremists have been itching for a confrontation with the federal government,” said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, one of the country’s leading specialists on right wing radicals.
Pitcavage said right-wing extremists were emboldened by the 2014 standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights. Hundreds of armed militia members showed up to stop the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from rounding up cattle they said Bundy was illegally grazing on federal land. The government backed off and has made no effort to collect the more than $1 million in grazing fees officials say Bundy owes.
The SPLC also said in an earlier report that the standoff between Bundy and federal agents — which included guns being pointed at BLM agents — was seen “as a dramatic victory” by people with a strong hatred of the federal government. The situation “invigorated” domestic extremists in the United States, the report said.
“When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint that energized this entire movement,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “When you have a big win like they did at the Bundy ranch, it emboldens people. . . . It is definitely a recipe for disaster.”
A group of armed activists, led by Bundy’s son Ammon traveled to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday and announced plans to stay there indefinitely. Ammon Bundy said at a news conference Monday that his group had named itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and denounced what he described as “cruel and unusual punishment” handed down by the federal government.
Pitcavage said that the Bundy ranch showdown in 2014 led “anti-government extremists [to believe] they had forced the federal government to back down.” Since then, he said, there have been a rising number of cases of extremists seeking out confrontations with the government.
Earlier this year, armed extremists intervened in a dispute between the BLM and the owners of the Sugar Pine Mine on BLM-controlled land in southwestern Oregon. A federal judge defused the situation by ruling that the BLM could not enforce an order halting work at the site.
According to the SPLC, one of the armed people who came to the mine was Eric “EJ” Parker, who had also participated in the Bundy ranch standoff. The center said Parker is a member of the III Percent movement, an anti-government extremist group that has grown rapidly in recent years.
They were joined at the mine by members of the Oath Keepers, a group of mainly former military and law enforcement officers who vow to “protect the Constitution.” Armed Oath Keepers also participated in the Bundy ranch standoff.
A similar stand-off occurred last year at the White Hope Mine in Montana, where armed members of the Oath Keepers arrived to help defend mine owners from the BLM in a dispute over mining rights.
Given those recent incidents, Pitcavage said, “something like this was in the air. This is their new cause célèbre.”
The anti-government movement is united by a general antipathy toward federal authority. But while the different groups and factions overlap, the specific grievances can vary, said J.M. Berger, a researcher and analyst who focuses on extremism in the United States.
“There’s no leadership that’s really spelling out exactly what the movement’s about,” said Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “These movements tend to attract people who are kind of individualistic.”
But the armed gathering in Oregon appears to involve “the fringe of the fringe,” he said, and has been disavowed by people involved in other anti-government groups. “These guys are on the edges of a movement that’s already on the edges of American political thought,” Berger said.
Local law enforcement officials say the group came to eastern Oregon with a specific goal in mind.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said in a statement Sunday.
The current situation in Oregon differs in tactics from most right-wing extremist group actions in the past, Pitcavage noted. He said they usually fall into two main categories: The first is when anti-government extremists rally to the support of someone who is perceived to be under attack by the federal government, such as in the Bundy ranch standoff. Second, he said, is a barricade situation where an extremist is a fugitive or wanted on criminal charges, such as the deadly 1993 Branch Davidian confrontation in Waco, Tex.
The anti-government group in Oregon has chosen to seize a symbolic piece of federal property, which Pitcavage said is rare. But he echoed the sheriff’s words in saying that he believed the group was looking for a fight.
“They believe the federal government deliberately tries to kill dissidents,” Pitcavage said. “And they want to create an armed force to respond when the government does something like that. They are seeking out confrontations with the federal government.”
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.