The House hearing was called to examine threats against federal land management employees, but it was a former elected official from rural Oregon who was put at risk.

Dan Nichols, a hearing witness and a former county commissioner in sparsely populated Harney County, appeared last week before the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands.

That prompted what reads like a veiled Facebook threat from Ammon Bundy, the 44-year-old anti-government militant who led the 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The occupation started as a protest about federal land policy. 

Bundy accused Nichols of being an FBI informant who “helped murder a good man” — LaVoy Finicum. Finicum was a spokesman for the occupiers when he was killed during a confrontation with law enforcement officers after he left the refuge. The local district attorney said the shooting was justifiable “and, in fact, necessary.”

“Dan was a huge part of the ambush that killed Levoy,” Bundy wrote on Facebook. He called Nichols an FBI informant but, in an interview with The Washington Post, denied making any threats. 

Nichols is a rancher and was a Republican Harney County commissioner for 20 years. Malheur is in Harney County.

Nothing in the post directly says Nichols, who visited with Bundy and others during the siege, should be attacked. Still, labeling him an FBI informant who helped murder Finicum is a menacing message.

Finicum “has been escalated to the status of a martyr and even, I would describe it, almost as a saint . . . within the anti-government Patriot militia movement,” said Peter A. Walker, a University of Oregon geography and environmental studies professor. He wrote a book about the Malheur takeover and was also a hearing witness last week. 

Bundy’s post was “cold and dangerous . . . and reckless,” Walker added in an interview. “To accuse any individual of having participated in LaVoy Finicum’s quote-unquote ‘murder’ pushes the buttons of anti-government, right-wing folks, militia folks . . . in ways that I think are potentially dangerous.”

Walker said the post “creates the possibility that some of [Bundy’s] followers who have engaged in violent actions will go after” Nichols. “It’s a form of terrorism.”

Reached by phone, Nichols did not want to talk about the Facebook post. Regarding Bundy’s accusation about being an informant who helped set up Finicum, Nichols would only say, “I had absolutely nothing to do with any of that. That was law enforcement, the FBI. I had nothing to do with it.”

Ironically, Nichols was a voice of understanding at last week’s hearing, making points that would probably please Bundy’s crowd.

While he described the takeover as creating “total anarchy in our community,” Nichols also said “rural Americans, especially in the largely federally owned and managed 11 western states, are not being listened to, much less heard. . . . Much of what is often described as anti-government is really coming from a place of feeling excluded or being on the losing end of unbalanced natural resource management.”

Nichols promoted Harney County’s “culture of collaboration” and did not mention Bundy’s name. But that did not stop Bundy from targeting him.

Nichols “was working as a foreign agent to a different jurisdiction while representing the people in another government,” Bundy wrote. “He did not serve the people in Harney County well but he did serve the federal bureaucrats very well.”

The Facebook post, Bundy insisted by phone, was not a call for action against Nichols. “I don’t know what others would do,” he said. “I don't think that that would be the case.”

Calling Nichols an FBI informant who helped murder Finicum was not a threat but “speaking the truth,” Bundy said, which was not “in any way condoning or asking or promoting or anything, any violence towards him. It’s simply the truth.”

Bundy said he spoke with Nichols during the occupation about Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, father-and-son cattle ranchers in southeastern Oregon whose convictions on federal land arson charges helped spark the Malheur siege. In an act of comfort for anti-government militants, President Trump pardoned the Hammonds last year.

Bundy claimed Nichols learned of the occupiers’ plans to travel to a neighboring county during those conversations and shared that information with the FBI. Finicum was killed during that trip.

The occupation began on Jan. 2, 2016, and lasted 41 days. Bundy was arrested outside the refuge on Jan. 26, the same day Finicum was killed. Bundy was acquitted on charges from the Malheur standoff. 

Citing comments from elected officials, subcommittee chairwoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) told the hearing that “extremist ideologies do not develop in a vacuum.”

Without mentioning Bundy’s name, she added, “this rhetoric often turns into violence.”

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