Earlier this month, Mark Heckert drove nine hours from Puyallup, Washington, to deliver an urgent message to the militia occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. A burly, gray-bearded 56-year-old hunter, Heckert was acting upon a deep reverence for America’s federally protected public lands, where for most of his life he has tracked and killed animals like elk and deer. “It’s part of my identity as an American,” he says. Standing on a snowy bank about 50 feet from the occupiers, Heckert held up a sign that read, “GET THE FLOCK OUTTA MY WILDLIFE REFUGE.” It was a pun referring to the area’s status as one of the great migratory bird viewing sites in North America — and one that also substituted for the more pungent word he’d considered putting on his poster.
The standoff in Harney County, which began on January 2, has exposed a feud between two factions of gun owners claiming a deep connection with the wilderness. Heckert is part of a group of Western hunters who are infuriated by the actions of the ragtag militia, which wants to wrest control of public land from the federal government.
The occupation has so far resulted in 11 arrests and the death of one occupier. Among those taken into custody this week was the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy. His father, Cliven, is the notorious Nevada rancher who in the spring of 2014 got into an armed standoff with the Bureau of Labor Management (BLM) over unpaid grazing fees. Bundy argued the fees were unconstitutional, and believed the government did not have a legitimate claim to the land on which he kept his cattle.
Ammon Bundy and his followers are likewise protesting against the concept of federal control of public land. Bundy’s group wants dominion of the land shifted to local authorities — a notion endorsed by some politicians in western states such as Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona. But the record shows that when lands are transferred out of federal control, they often wind up getting sold to private interests. Nevada, for instance, has liquidated 95 percent of its holdings. Once land becomes private, hunters typically lose their access.
Seventy percent of hunters in the United States are just like Mark Heckert — they do their hunting on protected refuges. For them, it is vital that these vast tracts of open space remain in the hands of the federal government.
“The occupiers, they want to just take the land from us,” says Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a leading voice in the hunting community. “These places of solace — they need to stay in the hands of the American public.” He adds, “That’s why the majority of sportsmen have come out against the occupation. These guys should be prosecuted for their tactics to the full extent of the law.”
Many hunters find it important to stress that the occupiers’ values have nothing to do with their own. “They show up wearing hunting camo jackets,” says Tawney. “It’s frustrating that we could be represented that way.” On Wednesday, one of the militiamen was recorded on camera saying, “There are no laws. This is Armageddon!”
The debate over who should oversee public land has placed the National Rifle Association in a difficult position; as an organization that intends to represent all gun owners — the Bundys and Heckerts alike — taking a side could mean alienating members. So far, the group has remained silent on the issue. “When it’s convenient, the NRA loves to talk about how they represent hunters,” says Randy Newberg, the host of the popular hunting show Fresh Tracks. “But if you want to say you represent us, represent us on issues that are important to us.”
Not all gun right groups are bound by the same constraints. Gun Owners of America, an organization far to the right of the NRA, has long been affiliated with the American militia movement. Larry Pratt, the group’s executive director, tells The Trace, “We’re for selling off federal lands. They represent a broken promise to the American people, who were promised control of the land.” He adds, “We should have listened to the Indians. ‘White man speak with forked tongue.’”
When the Oregon occupiers began their siege, they covered the sign bearing the refuge’s name at the main entrance with a tarp. The gesture was meant to imply that the land no longer belonged to the federal government. Before Heckert headed back to Washington, he ripped it down.
“I’m no liberal,” he says. “But like most hunters, I wouldn’t associate with people like that.”