Armed militants' 40-day occupation of a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, is likely to end today as the last four holdouts surrender to the FBI.
The FBI arrested Cliven Bundy, the 74-year-old Nevada rancher whose 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management inspired the Oregon takeover. Bundy, whose sons led the Oregon takeover before their arrest January 28, was taken into custody at the Portland airport on his way to Burns.
Bundy faces a charge of conspiracy to interfere with a federal officer and weapons charges, according to the Oregonian, which reported that the charges are related not to the Oregon standoff but to Bundy's clash with the federal government in 2014.
If that's true, the FBI's move is symbolic — Bundy's standoff with the federal government, which was viewed as a victory for the militants, emboldened the movement that led to the Oregon takeover.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff is almost over
The FBI surrounded the four remaining militants Wednesday afternoon, after one tried to drive an ATV through the FBI barricade around the site, the FBI said in a statement.
The ensuing standoff streamed live on YouTube: The occupiers were on the phone with Gavin Seim, a supporter of the militants, who broadcasted the audio.
Michele Fiore, a Nevada Assembly member who supported Cliven Bundy in 2014, began serving as a sympathetic go-between, reassuring the occupiers that they had sent a message while encouraging them to stay calm. Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist and son of Billy Graham, is also on his way to Oregon for the end of the standoff.
By the end of the five-hour broadcast, Fiore and one of the occupiers were joking about wanting to avoid taxpayer-funded overtime for the FBI, and the four occupiers had tentatively agreed to leave at 8 the next morning.
"They have given us their word that they are going to stand down tonight," Fiore said, "and in the morning when you guys are going to come out, me and Graham will meet you at that point, and they have promised us that. They've promised us. … I expect them to honor their promise."
But the live stream shut down a few minutes before 10 pm Pacific time — about 15 minutes before Bundy was arrested at the Portland airport. It's not yet clear if his arrest will make the remaining militants change their minds about cooperation.
The Oregon takeover's leaders were arrested January 26 in a confrontation with the FBI. The FBI also shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, a northern Arizona rancher who was the takeover's unofficial spokesperson.
Cliven Bundy might finally face charges for his actions in 2014
The end of the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014 was widely perceived as a victory for the militants and a loss for the federal government. For 20 years, Bundy had refused to pay grazing fees he owed to the Bureau of Land Management, and by 2014 he owed more than $1 million.
When the BLM began confiscating Bundy's cattle and arrested his son Dave, the situation turned into a tense, armed standoff between the BLM and Bundy, backed by more than 1,000 supporters — many of them members of militias.
Eventually, the BLM withdrew due to "serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public."
Experts on the militia movements argue that the federal government's decision to withdraw emboldened Bundy's supporters, sending a message that they could get away with breaking the law.
"I don’t think we can undercut the importance of that event for emboldening an already sizable militia force in this country, and also leading to what’s happening in Oregon today," Ryan Lenz, a senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project who tracks the militia movement and other right-wing groups, told Vox in January.
The Bundys escalated the situation this time, using rancher Dwight Hammond's arson charge as an excuse to take over a federal building, Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst, said in an interview at the time.
"I think there’s a perception within these extremist movements that the government is kind of turning a blind eye and letting them get away with things," Johnson told me. "It emboldens them and feeds into getting more recruits and radicalizing people. They think they can escalate the tactics "
By arresting Bundy — however belatedly — the FBI is now sending a different message about how much it will tolerate from the militia, perhaps hoping that history doesn't repeat itself yet again.