Dear Armed Protesters: Your Little Occupation Is Very Expensive

The takeover is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Oregon governor says.
Ammon Bundy, left, approaches an FBI gate at the Burns Municipal Airport in Oregon on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Bundy is th
Ammon Bundy, left, approaches an FBI gate at the Burns Municipal Airport in Oregon on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Bundy is the leader of an armed group occupying a national wildlife refuge to protest federal land policies. The stunt hasn't come cheap.

WASHINGTON -- Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) this week urged federal authorities to do something about the armed protesters wreaking havoc in the state's rural community of Harney County. The militants are costing the state about $100,000 per week, she said, a staggering sum given the occupation's small size. That cost doesn't include salaries paid to federal employees who can't work, or the fence protesters ripped apart with a stolen government excavator.

Militants took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 30 miles from the town of Burns, on Jan. 2. The group includes the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and they're a small, ragtag operation. During the first week, only a handful of non-reporters could be seen wandering the refuge grounds at any one time. Later, a horse named Hellboy showed up. Occupiers have quit their jobs and lost their children, and they collect food donations, including soup and jerky.

They are protesting the imprisonment of two local ranchers, as well as land stewardship by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Some locals share their concerns, but the community has taken issue with the militants' tactics and repeatedly asked them to go home. The occupiers have refused, and the community is now stuck with a staggering bill.

Multiple law enforcement entities are helping the local sheriff keep the peace. (Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said that deputies have been followed home, and someone flattened a tire on his wife's car.) The $100,000 per week represents the costs of labor, including overtime, travel reimbursement, lodging and meals for those personnel, said Kristen Grainger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Brown.

"This approach is not sustainable," she added.

Earlier this month, Harney County Judge Steven Grasty broke down the costs in more detail. He said that during the first week of the occupation, school closures due to safety concerns cost the community over $35,000 per day. He added that at least 13 officers were working overtime, and money also went to setting up a command center for federal and local law enforcement.

"My fear is we've got a good community with good people, and we've got crazies who have come in here and they're undoing us," Grasty said.

The Bureau of Land Management office in Burns, which covers about 120 permanent and temporary employees, closed over safety concerns when the occupation started. From then until Jan. 8, the government spent $125,000 in administrative leave costs, because employees were unable to work or were teleworking. The office remains closed, and those costs have continued to rise, a BLM spokesperson said.

The occupation has likely racked up other costs as well. The protesters have vowed not to disturb the refuge, but they have nonetheless destroyed part of a fence, pawed through artifacts belonging to the Paiute tribe and been accused of using government vehicles.

Someone has to pay for all this stuff. Cliven Bundy already owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. His son, Ammon Bundy, has started talking to federal authorities, but it's not yet clear what charges he and the other protesters may face. Federal law makes it a felony, with a sentence of up to 10 years, for anyone who "converts to his use" government property worth over $1,000 without authorization. Individuals convicted of crimes also generally pay restitution to victims. Ammon Bundy did not immediately return a Facebook message seeking comment on the price of the occupation.

The Bureau of Land Management is keeping its legal options open, a spokesperson said. Brown is seeking an appropriation during the February 2016 legislative session, and will pursue strategies for federal reimbursement of the state's expenses. Earlier this month, Grasty said that he planned to send the occupiers a personal invoice. The bill would be symbolic, but he hoped it would raise awareness.

"The world is going to know what this cost," he said.