MALHEUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, ORE. — Though an armed occupation was in progress, the snow around much of the headquarters in this remote federal wildlife refuge was untrampled and pristine. Inside, a refrigerator contained a handful of condiments and a single muffin. Two lonely sleeping bags were tucked in an out-of-the-way corner.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more Oregonians here,” marveled Steve Turner, a retiree from Sandy, Ore., who had driven nearly 300 miles to join the occupation. Instead, he found himself wandering Tuesday in search of a bathroom — and any self-described occupiers.
As the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge entered its third day, the occupiers appeared to be outnumbered by a few curious locals and a huge gaggle of journalists who swarmed this vast tract of sage-studded grassland.
“Thank you for being here,” Ammon Bundy, the Idaho rancher leading the occupation, said at his regular 11 a.m. news conference. “I realize the role the media has in defending rights.”
The takeover occurred late Saturday after a peaceful march in nearby Burns, Ore., held in support of two ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — who had been convicted of arson on public land. The Hammonds had already served time, but a federal judge ruled that they had not served enough. They surrendered peacefully on Monday to be sent back to prison.
Meanwhile, Bundy and his supporters took up arms and set off to occupy Malheur. Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, who led an armed standoff with federal agents over grazing rights in Nevada in 2014.
Cliven Bundy calls his supporters “militiamen.” His son has dubbed his followers Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. He says the group wants to help people “in claiming their rights, using their rights as a free people.”
Although the Hammonds have surrendered and the local sheriff has asked Bundy to go home, Bundy and his supporters said Tuesday that they plan to stay, pending an investigation of land-transfer records that could help unwind the public ownership of Western lands. According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, the federal government owns 27.4 percent of all U.S. land, but the vast majority of that territory is concentrated in a handful of Western states, including Oregon, where the federal government owns 52.9 percent.
“There are a lot of good things that are happening,” Bundy said. “We have been very active . . . in helping the people of Harney County claiming their rights.”
How exactly that has been accomplished was a bit murky, as was the size of the occupation. For security reasons, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum said he could not reveal how many people were staying at the refuge. He said most occupiers hid out when reporters came around.
Meanwhile, fewer than a dozen occupiers spoke to the news media. And a tour of park headquarters revealed few occupiers and many rooms that looked untouched.
Bundy’s crew has attracted some support. On Tuesday, ranchers Jessica and Scott Wells drove nearly 200 miles from John Day, Ore., to check things out. Scott Wells said the couple are advocates of private property rights who “support the cause” but added, “I don’t know if I support the group yet.”
Turner was more enthusiastic. He likened his presence to a civic responsibility — such as voting — and said he plans to stay as long as he can.
“I just hope they have some success and this ends without people getting hurt,” he said.
But violence seemed an unlikely outcome. Occupier Michael Stettler, who lives about 100 miles away in Christmas Valley, Ore., said the occupiers are spending most of their time fielding calls from the news media and watching Fox News.
“These guys aren’t hardened militia,” he said. “Most of them couldn’t even run a mile.”
Wolf is a freelance writer.