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Western Sheriffs Are Tacitly Joining Rebellions Against The Federal Government

Even as the Oregon standoff comes to an end, many in the West remain frustrated with the federal government, and rural sheriffs are among the surprising supporters of those who are fed up.

Posted on February 14, 2016, at 5:57 p.m. ET

The Vermillion Cliffs near Page, Arizona.
David Mcnew / Getty Images

The Vermillion Cliffs near Page, Arizona.

In the tense 40-day armed standoff at a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon, militia leader Ammon Bundy was largely unable to persuade local residents to rise up in support of a revolution against the federal government. But he did find at least one person sympathetic to his cause: a nearby sheriff.

The standoff, which began on Jan. 2 after Bundy and others converged on Burns, Oregon, to protest the pending imprisonment of two ranchers, came to an end last week after Bundy was arrested, group spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum was killed by law enforcement, and the final four holdouts surrendered.

The occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge included cattle ranchers and militia members, who flocked from across the West to protest the federal government's control of public wild lands.

Throughout the ordeal, Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer remained a minor but persistent presence. Though the standoff took place in Harney County, the refuge extends deep into neighboring Grant County, where he garnered attention for meeting twice with the occupiers, and making statements that were more in line with the protesters than with other officials.

When FBI agents and state police confronted the leaders of the standoff in a Jan. 26 traffic stop on a remote stretch of highway, the occupiers were en route to a meeting Palmer was attending about 70 miles away in the town of John Day. The occupiers never made it to that meeting and Finicum was fatally shot in a confrontation with officers.

Exactly how deep the relationship Palmer had with the armed occupiers is unclear, but the sheriff told BuzzFeed News in an email that Bundy had sent him messages during the standoff, suggesting Palmer had provided the militants with his cell phone number.

“He sent me one text, one voice mail with an invite and I texted him back saying that I would not go without the consent and blessing of [Harney County Sheriff David] Ward,” Palmer told BuzzFeed News in an email.

To outside observers, it came as a surprise that a law enforcement official was friendly to a group of armed militia members who openly defied the law. But Palmer's sympathy for people who have a beef with the feds isn't especially unique. In fact, sheriffs across the West have for years been supportive in one way or another of rural fights against federal authority.

LaVoy Finicum (center) carries his granddaughter before a news conference on Jan. 8.
Rick Bowmer / AP

LaVoy Finicum (center) carries his granddaughter before a news conference on Jan. 8.

Exactly how many sheriffs and other uniformed law enforcement officers have shown support to anti-government “patriot” movements is not entirely clear, but the Southern Poverty Law Center puts it somewhere in the hundreds. Most work in Western states, Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, said, where ranchers losing fights with the federal government over land or entire ranches often turn to both sheriffs and militias.

The spread of the militia movement, and the tacit support they receive from some law enforcement figures has encouraged such armed groups, many like the Bundy family that has actively sought confrontations with federal agencies.

“The whole situation is genuinely worrying,” Potok said. “We have real-life county sheriffs and legislators like Michele Fiore who are legitimizing this type of madness.”

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“The county sheriff is the line in the sand"

One organization that has actively recruited police chiefs and county sheriffs into their ranks is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which promotes ideas similar to militia groups and sovereign citizen organizations: that the sheriff is the ultimate law of the land and a defender of the people from the federal government.

Like many “patriot” groups, the CSPOA believes sheriffs can supersede, even intervene in laws they don’t agree with. And on its website, the organization describes itself as “the last line of defense.”

“The county sheriff is the line in the sand,” the organization’s website says. “The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.’”

The site lists support from several high-profile sheriffs such as David A. Clarke Jr., from Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Jeff Christopher, from Sussex County, Delaware; Pamela L. Elliott from Edwards County, Texas; and Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona.

The organization's founder, former Graham County, Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack, told BuzzFeed News it has trained more than 450 sheriffs and police chiefs across the country on constitutional rights, though many of those trained do not become members.

“If we don’t have sheriffs standing for these solutions today for people that are terrorized and victimized by their own federal government, and sometimes state government, and we don’t give them a place to go, then shame on us,” Mack said.

A sign shows support for the Hammonds Jan. 5 in Burns, Oregon.
Rick Bowmer / AP

A sign shows support for the Hammonds Jan. 5 in Burns, Oregon.

Mack rose to the national stage when he and another sheriff challenged provisions of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, requiring local law enforcement to perform background checks on gun buyers to discover whether they have had a felony arrest, mental illness, or history of drug use. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Mack, and he has been a prominent supporter of gun rights, and a critic of federal government overreach ever since.

Mack and the CSPOA did not support the armed standoff at the Oregon refuge, but said Harney County Sheriff David Ward should have done more to stand between the federal government and the two local ranchers who were convicted in a federal court for starting a burn near their ranch, on federal land.

Ward has maintained he has no authority to intercede, and has criticized the armed protest.

“I think some day it may come down to arresting federal agents because they don’t know when to back off,” Mack added. “We don’t tell sheriffs to shoot against federal agents.”

Mack — who is also a board member for quasi-militant organization OathKeepers — is also supportive of militia movements and their efforts to confront law enforcement who enforce laws they deem unjust. When he was a sheriff, he said, he counted on the support of a posse of about 150 people, and said the term “militia” has been corrupted by the media and others.

“They are listed in the Constitution,” he said. “To just dismiss them as crazies, it’s just not proper.”

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A man stands guard after members of the "3% of Idaho" group and several other organizations arrive at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, Jan. 9.
Rick Bowmer / AP

A man stands guard after members of the "3% of Idaho" group and several other organizations arrive at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, Jan. 9.

Officials elsewhere across the West fall on a wide spectrum when it comes to the federal government, but many are deeply sympathetic to the quarrels ranchers and others have had with it. Local law enforcement joining, or at least sympathizing, with so-called "Sagebrush" rebels — named after the movement started in the 1970s as rural westerners bucked under the pressure of the federal government — is a widespread phenomena in the region and comes in many iterations.

One of the higher profile acts of rebellion occurred in 2014 when an elected Utah official led an unauthorized all-terrain vehicle ride through a sensitive area filled with ancient Native American sites that the Bureau of Land Management had closed off to motorized vehicles.

Pictures of the protest led by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman showed demonstrators — parents, kids, and others with large guns — rumbling through Utah's Recapture Canyon on four-wheelers, mostly smiling and waving.

But in the background of those pictures was something curious: uniformed men on horseback.

Demonstrators rode ATVs into Recapture Canyon in Utah on May 10, 2014, to protest what they called the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands.
Trent Nelson / AP

Demonstrators rode ATVs into Recapture Canyon in Utah on May 10, 2014, to protest what they called the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands.

The men were sheriff's deputies, not there to arrest the protesters, but to support them.

The deputies provided a kind of escort for the protesters. Though San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment, Lyman described him as helpful, adding that among other things Eldredge coordinated the patrol for the protest.

"The sheriff was with me on this every step of the way," Lyman said.

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ATV riders drive past Kane County Sheriff Deputy Rob Johnson in Recapture Canyon outside Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters

ATV riders drive past Kane County Sheriff Deputy Rob Johnson in Recapture Canyon outside Blanding, Utah, May 10, 2014.

Eldredge may not be a Sagebrush rebel himself, but the incident illustrates the way western law enforcement officials have found ways to support — either tacitly or not — those who are frustrated with the government.

During the first Bundy standoff, when family patriarch Cliven Bundy faced off with the feds in Nevada, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie clashed with the BLM, refusing to send deputies to Bundy's ranch, and sharply criticizing the way federal authorities handled the situation.

Gillespie — who retired at the end of 2014 and who could not be reached for this story — was critical of Bundy as well, but his response, like Eldredge's, was nevertheless notable for its pushback against federal authorities.

And law enforcement support for protests in the West against the government goes back many years. In 2000, Demar Dahl helped organize the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade in Elko County, Nevada. The protest involved hundreds of people clearing a road closed by the U.S. Forest Service, and Dahl, who now serves as a county commissioner, said the sheriff at the time was "supportive" of the effort — which was technically breaking the law.

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In Utah's Iron County — an expansive ranching region near the state's southwest corner — Sheriff Mark Gower told BuzzFeed News that he has seen friction over federal land management his whole life. Like many of the officials who spoke with BuzzFeed News, Gower condemned the standoff in Oregon, saying he "can't condone breaking the law."

Still, Gower criticized federal land management as "out of control," saying grazing rights and wild horse regulations has rankled locals and stirred friction.

"I'm very sympathetic," Gower added of his frustrated constituents. "I stand with them on their issues."

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"We're going to keep the cattle on the range and the roads open"

Sheriff James "Danny" Perkins, from Utah's Garfield County, expressed a similar sentiment. Perkins spoke to BuzzFeed News while in Salt Lake City to participate in the "rural caucus," a gathering of lawmakers and interested parties to discuss what one participant described as "cowboy issues" like grazing rights and land use.

Perkins comes from a ranching family himself, but said that running cattle has become increasingly difficult in the face of a growing list of demands, environmental impact reports, and shrinking permits. He also criticized the erosion of the timber industry, which he said used to employ 400 people.

"They just basically want wilderness and that's pretty tough if you're trying to make a living," Perkins said of federal policymakers.

The sheriff criticized Bundy-style armed resistance, but called the BLM a "dysfunctional organization" that doesn't respect local law enforcement.

The "health safety and welfare of my citizens is my top priority," he said. "We're going to keep the cattle on the range and the roads open," referencing two areas federal managers have focused on.

Barbara Berg rides past an open range sign during a relay horseback ride from Elko, Nevada, on May 29, 2014.
Max Whittaker / Reuters

Barbara Berg rides past an open range sign during a relay horseback ride from Elko, Nevada, on May 29, 2014.

What exactly happens to these sheriffs over time, and as conflicts rage, remains to be seen.

Back in Oregon, Sheriff Palmer's relationship with the leaders of the armed occupation at the wildlife refuge raised concerns it could throw gasoline onto an already volatile situation. And the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association is considering a citizen request to investigate Palmer, though he insists he has done nothing wrong.

“I was invited to go to the refuge by Ammon Bundy; I declined,” he told BuzzFeed News. "There is nothing else to it."

Palmer said in his email that he is refusing to comment to any and all media because his comments have been taken out of context.

Mack, however, defended Palmer, noting it was the Grant County Sheriff who was honored with the first Sheriff of the Year award by the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association.

“He didn’t ambush anybody, and the militias didn’t ambush anybody,” Mack said, adding that Palmer has been “fighting the federal government” for 15 years.

“They just don’t get it, not to abuse people in their community, and he has taken a very courageous stand,” Mack said. “A man like that should be honored.”

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