(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump pardoned Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son on Tuesday, who had both been convicted on arson charges, sparking the 2016 occupation of a wildlife refuge, according to a White House statement.
The Hammonds’ case led to the armed 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, during which one occupier was shot dead by police. The takeover was the latest flare-up in a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres of public land in the Western United States.
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who did not attend the reserve occupation but advised his sons there from afar, said the pardons vindicated his family’s cause.
“I’m thankful that these men have got some possibilities and have freedom now,” he said in a telephone interview from his ranch near Mesquite, Nevada. “It’s a great day for the Bundys, it’s a great day for the ranching community, and it’s a great day for America that there’s some justice here.”
Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son, Steven, 49, were convicted in 2012 for setting a fire that spread onto public grazing land.
The two were initially sentenced to less than the legal minimum five-year prison sentence for their crimes and later released, the father after three months and the son after a year. But, in 2016, a federal judge ordered the pair back to prison to serve the full five years.
The order to return to prison inspired the refuge occupation. In a statement on Tuesday, the White House called it “unjust.” As of 2018, Dwight had served approximately three years in prison and Steven had served four, according to the White House.
The leaders of the 2016 Malheur standoff, including activist Ammon Bundy, were cleared of federal charges for their role in the protest in October 2016. One of the occupiers, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was shot dead by Oregon State Police during the takeover.
Ammon Bundy and his father Cliven also orchestrated a 2014 standoff in Nevada between scores of armed ranchers and supporters and law enforcement agents over cattle grazing rights.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 292 square miles (75,628 hectares), was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a breeding ground for greater sandhill cranes and other native birds.
Reporting by Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis