01/11/2016
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Militia men who occupied wildlife reserve found not guilty

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The armed men illegally occupied the refuge, preventing staff from working by intimidation and threats, initially to protest about two ranchers sent to gaol for the arson of federal lands. Photo: NWRA.
The armed men illegally occupied the refuge, preventing staff from working by intimidation and threats, initially to protest about two ranchers sent to gaol for the arson of federal lands. Photo: NWRA.
A US federal jury has found the armed men who occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, earlier this year not guilty of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs.

Seven heavily armed militant right-wingers led by Ammon Bundy took control of the well-known refuge in a siege that lasted 41 days in January and February this year, during which one of the men – 54-year-old Robert LaVoy Finicum – was shot dead by state troopers while apparently reaching for a weapon.

The shock legal decision Last Friday (27 October) left conservationists "stunned, outraged and extremely concerned for the safety and welfare of staff and visitors on national wildlife refuges across the nation," said the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA).

It continued: "The message this verdict sends to others who would challenge the right of dedicated Refuge staff to do their work and provide for their families is chilling. While we hope this decision is not interpreted as license for others to disregard the public interest and occupy national wildlife refuges or other public lands across the country, we know this concern was on the minds of thousands of Refuge System employees and their families this morning as they went to work.


The arrmed occupiers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, earlier this year. Photo: Dave Blanchard (National Wildlife Refuge Association).


"The employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service have dedicated their careers to public service that benefits each and every American. But who among us would willingly risk going to work knowing that armed occupiers can, without consequence, take over any and every desk, compromise careful research collected over years of field seasons, and urge others nationwide to join them?

Somewhat ironically, the verdict came on the 158th birthday of President Theodore Roosevelt, who designated the first national wildlife refuge in 1903.

The NWRA is a non-profit organisation which promotes the Refuge System as the world’s largest network of protected wildlife and habitat. It called upon Congress to immediately provide the Refuge System with the number of Federal Wildlife Officers needed to keep staff and visitors safe. "Congress must ensure that all Americans can freely enjoy our public lands without the danger of encountering armed occupiers claiming the authority to restrict public access," it said in a public statement.

A petition to push for the extra staff has been set up, and will be delivered to every member of Congress when they return after next week's presidential election.
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