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Trial For Ammon Bundy, Oregon Wildlife Refuge Occupiers Set To Begin


In Oregon today, jury selection has begun for the trial of anti-government militia leader Ammon Bundy and six other defendants who staged an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in January. The siege at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural eastern Oregon lasted 41 days. NPR's Kirk Siegler covered the refuge occupation this past winter and joins us now. Hey, Kirk.


SHAPIRO: What charges are the defendants facing?

SIEGLER: Well, there's a litany of charges, but the main one here is federal conspiracy. The government is alleging that the defendants conspired to impede federal officials at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from doing their jobs. They alleged that they did this through the use of force, threats and intimidation.

SHAPIRO: Give us some context of how this occupation took place. The back story is not exactly black and white.

SIEGLER: Exactly. So this started as a protest on behalf of two local Oregon cattle ranchers who were convicted of federal arson charges by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages millions of acres of public lands in the West. Now, their case got the attention of the Bundy family down in Nevada. And they're militia supporters who are vehemently opposed to the federal government's management of Western lands.

And led by Ammon Bundy, they drove up to eastern Oregon from around the country actually to protest on behalf of these local ranchers. And at one point some of the militants splintered off and went to the wildlife refuge. Armed, they seized control of it. It was a holiday weekend in winter. It was mostly vacant. And they claim that they're going to, quote, "take the land back" - take the federal land back - and return it to the local people there in Harney County, Ore.

SHAPIRO: The Bundys have a history of defiance against the federal government. Tell us about that.

SIEGLER: At the heart of this, this all comes back to the Bundy family patriarch, Cliven Bundy, Ammon and Ryan Bundy's father - the defendants in this case. He led an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management back in 2014 when the government came out to round up his cows that had been illegally grazing on federal land for some 20 years. They came out to round up the cattle, and they eventually had to stand down because Cliven Bundy and his militia supporters - there was a tense standoff there.

And, you know, there's good reason to think that his sons did feel emboldened to do what they did in Oregon because, at that point, it had been almost two years since the Nevada standoff. And the government had not acted against Cliven Bundy. And then we had this Oregon occupation drag on.

SHAPIRO: It dragged on for 41 days. A lot of people asked why authorities didn't just go in and arrest people early on. Any further clarity on that?

SIEGLER: Well, I think there's still some questions. There was a lot of pressure, as you said, at the time for the government to come in and act. You know, it's apparent, though, that the FBI wanted to wait them out. The situation between the government and these militia groups was - and I think you can say still is - as tense as it's been in decades out here in the West. And there was a huge concern of violence. In the end, one militant was killed.

It's not clear whether this movement - this anti-federal government movement - western lands movement - has died down, but it still has its supporters. But what we do know now is that while the occupation was going on, the government was quietly building its case against the militants. As we stood out there each day during their daily news conference out on the snowy, high desert there in Oregon, you know, they'd be speaking their - about their plans and what they were doing on CNN and YouTube, even on their own media channels. And now it's clear that prosecutors are going to use some of those statements they made against them in this trial.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler covering the trial in Oregon of the militia leader Ammon Bundy and six other defendants. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.