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Federal Land Agencies Failing To Protect Employees From Anti-Government Threats, Watchdog Says

Heath Druzin
Boise State Public Radio
A sign for the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Federal land agencies like the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aren't doing enough to keep employees safe, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

That concern was heightened by armed standoffs, like the takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

Agency employees reported 360 threats from 2013-2017, according to the GAO report, ranging from telephone harrassment, to online threats, to attempted murder. But due to underreporting and confusion about whether to report to local or federal officials, the actual number of threats over this period could in fact be higher, the report says.

The four federal land agencies included in the report are:

  • The National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service (FWS)
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Some of indcidents spurred the FBI to open domestic terrorism investigations,most often centered around anti-government extremists. According to the GAO report, “FBI data showed that the majority of the domestic terrorism investigations involved BLM, and the majority involved individuals motivated by anti-government ideologies.”
Andy Suppiger is a National Federation of Federal Employees local president in California, representing BLM employees across the West. He said threats from extremists are wearing on BLM employees.

“With current anti-government sentiment being pushed by a lot of these groups as a national agenda, prospective employees no longer look at federal government and service as attractive anymore,” he said.

Among the challenges facing federal land agency employees when it comes to safety according to the GAO report, is their job itself.

The remote nature of their work can make it challenging to ensure their safety.

“Agency officials stated that it can be difficult to protect employees because, as part of their field work, employees may be dispersed across hundreds of miles of federal lands and may be located hours or days away from the nearest agency law enforcement officer,” the report says.

In addition, their professional responsibilities requiring them to be identifiable and engage with the community also make them targets, according to the GAO report. And while federal agencies have law enforcement divisions to protect employees in the field, their numbers have dwindled in recent years, the GAO report notes. There is just one field law enforcement officer for every 1,262,887 acres of BLM land.

The GAO report lists six recommendations for the four agencies, mainly dealing with conducting or improving facilities security assessments to be completed for each of the agency’s locations.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.