The end result was an odd status quo in eastern Oregon, as a remote wildlife refuge usually known for bird-watching was again the focus of national attention. The occupation followed a peaceful march and rally held over the weekend to support two local ranchers convicted of arson. Both ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — reported to federal prison on Monday.
After the march Saturday, a group of armed activists, led by rancher Ammon Bundy, traveled to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and announced plans to stay indefinitely.
Bundy’s father, Cliven, is a Nevada rancher who has sparred with the government for years and who in 2014 had an armed standoff with federal agents trying to prevent him from illegally grazing his cattle on federal land. After the federal authorities backed down, experts said that the showdown “invigorated” anti-government groups in the United States.
The FBI said it was working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, the Oregon State Police and other local and state agencies in response to the situation in eastern Oregon, the latest chapter in an ongoing fight over federal land use in the West.
“Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved, we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response,” the FBI said in a statement.
On Monday, Ammon Bundy said his group of occupiers had taken on a name: Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. He also said the group wanted to help people in the county “in claiming their rights, using their rights as a free people” and did not offer any further specifics on how long they intended to stay.
Bundy also said at a news conference Monday that law enforcement officials had sent messages to the people at the refuge saying that authorities did not intend to approach the occupying group. He also said he did not believe officials would try to forcibly remove the protesters from the refuge and did not answer questions about what would happen if this took place.
The elder Bundy told a reporter in Oregon that “150 militia men” had occupied the federal land over the weekend, at least one person who saw them leave for the refuge said there were “maybe a dozen” people. On Monday, Ammon Bundy did not answer a reporter’s shouted question about the number of people there.
As news of the encampment spread, along with photos of armed men on a snowy refuge, it drew national attention even as it was affecting people in the region. Officials in the area shuttered local schools for at least a week, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the refuge “is closed until further notice” because of the situation.
President Obama is aware of the Oregon situation, but the White House considers it “a local law enforcement matter,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
“We are hopeful that that situation can be resolved peacefully and without any violence,” Earnest said during a briefing.
In Burns, a city about 30 miles north of the refuge, hundreds had rallied to support the Hammonds over the weekend. Some residents were angry that the peaceful demonstrations were overshadowed by the armed takeover of federal property.
“That was very peaceful. That was very appropriate,” Patty Hodge, a bartender, said of Saturday’s protest. “What happened [with the occupation] angered everyone in Harney County, and from what I understand, it angered the militia.”
Law enforcement officials also dismissed the occupiers as being separate from the protest over the Hammonds, saying they came to the region with a specific and different goal.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said in a statement Sunday. “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.”
On Monday, speaking at a brief news conference, Ward was blunt in his message to those at the refuge.
“It’s time for you to leave our community,” Ward said. He urged those occupying the refuge to return to their families “and end this peacefully.”
In a video posted on Facebook late Sunday, Ammon Bundy said an unidentified “county representative” told him the FBI was intimidating local officials, but he did not elaborate on that charge.
Republican presidential candidates were largely quiet about the takeover Sunday, including those who had supported the elder Bundy and made their own calls for limiting federal control over Western land.
On Monday, some began to speak more about the issue. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called on the occupiers to “stand down peaceably” and avoid a violent confrontation, while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told KBUR radio that while the government has too much control over land in the West, “you can’t be lawless.”
“I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics,” said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “That’s why I entered the electoral arena. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy.”
The case that initially drew attention to the Burns area involved Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46. The two men were sentenced to five years in prison in October for committing arson on federal land.
They were convicted in 2012, but while arson on federal land carries with it a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, the Hammonds argued that such sentences were unconstitutional. The trial court agreed and sentenced them to less time, but an appeals court disagreed and vacated their sentences and ordered them to be resentenced.
Both Hammonds were convicted of burning federal property, sparking a fire that eventually consumed 139 acres of public land, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for Oregon. The Hammonds said the fire was needed to burn off invasive species, but witnesses testified it took place after an illegal deer hunt on property owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The younger Hammond was also convicted of starting fires in 2006 during a burn ban.
The Hammonds turned themselves in Monday afternoon and were in federal custody in in California, Ward said.
“Dwight and Steven Hammond respect the rule of law,” attorneys for the Hammonds said in a statement. “They have litigated this matter within the federal courts for over five years and, in every instance, have followed the order of the court without incident or violation. That includes serving the entire sentences imposed in this case by the judge who heard the evidence at trial and who concluded that imposition of a five-year sentence under these circumstances would ‘shock the conscience.'”
The two men plan to seek clemency from Obama, their attorneys said.
To their supporters, the Hammonds are the latest in a long line of poor farmers and landowners struggling against the federal government and its land regulations in Western states, such as Oregon, where the federal government owns much of the land.
“Most Americans, if they knew the story of the threats and the charges brought against these ranchers, they would say this isn’t right,” said Jeff Roberts, one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally. “We really wanted to show the family support and let them know that they’re not alone. That Americans don’t turn their backs on them.”
Ammon Bundy, speaking to reporters Sunday, said the situation involving the Hammonds is “just one example, a symptom of a very huge egregious problem. It’s happening all across the United States.”
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough. Their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty,” Bundy said.
LaDell Schott, a resident of the area, said everyone knows everyone in Burns, where the town’s main drag takes travelers through a couple of stoplights and then onto more than 130 miles of highway lined with sage and tumbleweed.
Her husband, Nick Schott, said the occupation that shut down local schools prompted his 6-year-old son to write a letter to the Bureau of Land Management.
“’Because they put my friends in jail and shut down school,’” Nick Schott said, quoting his son. “It molded the mind of a young man against the government. And that’s not coming from me.”
Buzz about the occupation drifted through local bars, where talk bounced from government overreach to how kids will make up lost school days to how the occupiers holds good intent but mindless tactics.
“It’s anarchy,” said Len Vohs, a former mayor of Burns. “Why are people bearing arms in our city? I would never think of it. There’s no reason to fight here. There’s only reason to communicate.”
Berman reported from Washington. Wesley Lowery, Peter Holley, Juliet Eilperin, Katie Zezima and David Weigel contributed to this report. Wolf is a freelance writer.
[This post has been updated.]