Federal land managers were threatened or assaulted 360 times in recent years, study says

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Members of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters stand guard near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 4, 2016. A new government report says there have been more than 360 assaults or threats against federal land managers in recent years.

Washington • Federal land managers have been threatened or assaulted more than 360 times in the past few years, with some of the attacks coming from anti-government activists, a new government study says.

That includes, in one instance, an attempted murder of a federal worker as well as scores of other incidents that the FBI investigated as potential domestic terrorism, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report and in testimony before Congress on Tuesday.

“Federal land managers and law enforcement personnel have been followed around in stores, have their home staked out and have even faced attempted murder at the hands of those who promote anti-government ideologies,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. “I hope that we can all agree that this is unacceptable.”

The GAO report said there were undoubtedly more cases of harassment of federal workers because many see such actions as a “normal part of the job” or reported their concerns to local and state authorities.

It was unclear how many cases the FBI investigated, though the GAO said it was fewer than 100.

Haaland, in Tuesday's hearing, said that elected officials are adopting the “anti-government rhetoric” that translates into actions by those managing federal lands.

“Attempts to push this ideology into the political mainstream has a very real impact on people's lives,” she said.

Haaland noted a study by a University of California San Diego professor who found an 11 percent increase in violence directed at federal land managers after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law requiring federal agencies to give public land to the state.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said he abhorred attacks against federal workers but that he doesn't lay the blame on people who live in Western states and are angered by policies that affect public lands around them.

“No one in this room on either side of the aisle condones violence or threats against federal employees,” Curtis said. “It's unfortunate that I feel I need to even make that statement.”

That said, Curtis took issue with the title of the hearing — “No More Standoffs: Protecting Federal Employees and Ending the Culture of Anti-Government Attacks and Abuse” — that he says vilifies rural residents who have legitimate complaints about federal land policies.

“Being from the West and representing a state with a high percentage of public lands, I would like to set the record straight: calling for local ownership and control of public lands does not embody an attack on the federal government,” Curtis said. “As a matter of fact, me and my constituents feel just the opposite. The vast majority of my constituents impacted by the federal government’s public lands management decisions are hardworking taxpayers raising families and contributing to their communities.”

The GAO study, which looked at threats or violence against federal land managers from the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service from 2013-2017 in Western states, including Utah, pointed out that none of the agencies have completed a required assessment of security at their facilities and three had no plans to do so.

The GAO said in testimony to the House Natural Resources public lands subcommittee that the range of incidents it looked at ranged from threats by phone to an attempted murder, including one case where an employee was stabbed outside a government building.

In one instance, people followed a young girl wearing a BLM shirt around a grocery store and threatened to burn her house down. Other federal workers reported shots being fired over their heads while working in the field.

The FBI, the report said, investigated a case where a BLM law enforcement officer received more than 500 harassing phone calls and death threats after someone posted personal information on Twitter. Most of the incidents the GAO reported were against BLM employees.

Whether the threats or violence against federal land managers has increased recently wasn’t part of GAO’s findings, though there have been several high-profile incidents in recent years, including armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon.

President Donald Trump last year pardoned the two ranchers, convicted on federal arson charges, whose prison sentences were the impetus for the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. One of the standoff leaders, Arizona rancher Robert “LeVoy” Finicum, was killed at a law enforcement roadblock outside the refuge, over which the family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.