An armed anti-government group said Sunday it would continue to occupy a wildlife refuge building in rural Oregon until the land was removed from federal government oversight, in protest of the government’s treatment of two local ranchers.
Federal officials said that they were monitoring the takeover, but there did not appear to be an imminent plan to confront the protesters.
The Oregon State Police warned local residents to stay away from the wildlife refuge Sunday “for their safety” and said it was working with other law enforcement agencies to bring the occupation to an end.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” the Oregon police said in a statement Sunday.
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The occupation began Saturday afternoon following a peaceful demonstration in which more than 100 people marched through downtown Burns to protest the prison sentences of two ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands, Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46. The Hammonds have been ordered to report to prison in California Monday after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served for arson were not long enough under federal law. The Hammonds and their attorneys argued that the fires had been set on their own property — once to prevent the spread of an invasive species of plant and once in attempt to prevent the spread of a wildfire — and had inadvertently burned onto public lands. But prosecutors said the fires were set in attempt to destroy evidence that the Hammonds had been illegally hunting deer on the federal lands.
After Saturday’s rally some of the protesters traveled 30 miles southeast of Burns and took over the unstaffed headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an area in Harney County operated by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
Estimates of the number of people at the site varied widely, from 15 to 150.
The group appeared to be led by Ammon Bundy, a Montana rancher whose family became a symbol of anti-government sentiment in 2014, when his father, Cliven, inspired a standoff between local militias and federal officials seeking to confiscate cattle grazing illegally on federal land in Nevada. In a statement captured on video, Bundy said Sunday that his group was “prepared to be out here for as long as need be” and would leave only when the people of Harney County “can use these lands as free men.”
Ryan Bundy, Ammon Bundy’s brother, told the Associated Press the protesters’ ultimate goal is to turn the land over to local authorities so people can use it free of federal oversight.
They want to “restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources” for ranching, logging, mining and recreation. “I understand the land needs to be used wisely, but that’s what we as stewards need to do. A rancher is going to take care of his own ranch,” Ryan Bundy said.
In a video posted on Facebook Thursday, Ammon Bundy called on members of “different militia groups” to participate in the protest Saturday.
“This is not a time to stand down,” he said. “It is a time to stand up and come to Harney County. We need your help and we are asking for it.”
By Sunday afternoon, temperatures hovered just below freezing. Cattle ranches dotting the flat rangelands were blanketed in about 6 inches of snow, and travel was slow along the rolling, icy two-lane road leading from Burns south to the refuge.
Amanda Peacher, a reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting who was near the wildlife refuge Sunday, posted pictures on Twitter of people bringing in supplies and blocking the refuge’s entrance.
Regulars at the Oasis, a restaurant in Juntura, Ore., — about midway between Ontario and Burns — said groups of travelers coming from Idaho had been stopping for food and gas on the way to Burns, where they hoped to lend support to the protesters. They didn’t want to talk about it too much. The subject was too sensitive, they said.
A lawyer for the Hammonds last week distanced his clients from the Bundys, writing they did not speak for the Hammonds.
Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susan, said that her family and the Bundys “share a lot of sentiments in regards to our government, and the overreach into management of our country.” But, she said, “I don’t know those people that well, except that I just see from the outside that we have a lot of things in common.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established Aug. 18, 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds,” according to the park’s website.
“The Refuge represents a crucial stop along the Pacific Flyway and offers resting, breeding, and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife,” a statement on the site says. “Many of the species migrating through or breeding here are highlighted as priority species in national bird conservation plans.”
Dwight and Steven Hammond admitted they lit fires in 2001 and 2006 on land they leased from the federal government, but said it had been to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species, court documents show. They were convicted of arson three years ago, and the father served three months in prison, while the son served 11 months.
But a judge ruled recently that their terms had been too short under federal statues and ordered them to return to prison for about four years each.
The decision caused a local uproar, but it really touched a nerve with far-right groups like the one headed by the Bundys that routinely challenge federal authority.
The Bundys have been organizing opposition to the government case against the Hammonds on social media in recent weeks, which they described as a tyrannical use of federal authority.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough,” Ammon Bundy said in a separate video posted to Facebook Saturday.
He called the prosecution of the Hammonds “a symptom of a very huge, egregious problem” that he described as a battle over land and resources between the federal government and “the American people.”
”The people cannot survive without their land and resources,” he said. “We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point that it puts us in poverty.”
Bundy described the federal building as “the people’s facility, owned by the people” and said his group was occupying it to take “a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources.”
“We pose no threat to anybody,” Bundy said. “There is no person that is physically harmed by what we are doing.” He added that if law enforcement officials “bring physical harm to us, they will be doing it only for a facility or a building.”
However, in an interview with The Oregonian earlier Saturday evening, Bundy and his brother, Ryan, said they would not rule out violence if law enforcement officers tried to remove them from the building.
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy told the newspaper. He said he planned to remain in the building for “years.”
Asked by an OPB reporter how many militia members were at the headquarters, Bundy didn’t divulge.
“I will not disclose,” he said. “Operational security.”