Harney County Sheriff David Ward at the meeting Wednesday. (Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images)

BURNS, Ore. — This small community has been the focus of national attention since an armed group arrived and occupied a nearby wildlife refuge, holding periodic news conferences to say they had no plans to leave and to insist that they were there to help residents. But the sheriff has his own message for the occupiers: Please go home.

“They’re welcome to leave, and I’ll escort them out of the county,” Harney County Sheriff David Ward said at a community meeting Wednesday evening.

Ward met with rancher Ammon Bundy, leader of the occupying group, Thursday afternoon to personally ask him to leave. After the meeting, Ward’s office said he planned to speak with the occupiers again Friday.

A day earlier, Ward had been greeted by a standing ovation before he even began to speak to hundreds of people who flocked to a community meeting about the occupation of the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

While the occupiers have drawn the bulk of the media attention, many in the region have championed the sheriff, who has become the public face of Harney’s response to the occupation.

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Ward’s popularity was on display late Wednesday. The sheriff, who marked his first anniversary on the job the day the occupation began, said he understood the frustrations of people in the community with the federal government. He acknowledged having his own frustrations with the country’s direction.

But he also said he wanted the occupiers to leave so residents could “get back to our lives.”

”I don’t believe that just a small handful of people can come from outside and tell us how to lead our lives,” Ward said. He added: “You’re not invited to come here and bother with our citizens. That’s not okay. That’s not how we live our lives in Harney County.”

Several local ranchers at the meeting offered to ride out to the refuge on horseback to formally ask Bundy and his band of mostly out-of-town supporters to leave the refuge they have occupied since Saturday. Another Harney resident suggested the entire county make the trek to the refuge and demand that the occupation end.

Ward asked how many of the attendees at the community lived in the county. Almost everyone raised their hands. When he asked how many wanted to see Bundy and his supporters leave, almost all of the hands remained in the air.

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Through a spokesman for the investigation, Ward declined an interview request Thursday.

“I don’t have any interest in talking to anybody from outside our community about this,” Ward, who speaks in a deliberate, measured tone, said in a video message addressing residents earlier this week.

Ward is an Oregon native who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army, Oregon Army National Guard and the Army Reserves, and he served combat tours in Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.

He has called for a peaceful resolution to the occupation, saying at the meeting that problems with the government should be solved by voting, writing letters and reaching out to elected officials. He criticized those who have turned to intimidation, telling the crowd that his parents have been followed, as have some of his deputies and some of their families.

“Somebody flattened my wife’s tires recently,” he said. “She packed up and left town. Sometimes, the stress is a bit much.”

Some at the meeting argued that the occupiers had given the community a megaphone to highlight vital issues. They vented about what they described as the government’s intrusion into ranching rights and overbearing federal regulations and pointed out that without the occupiers, their complaints about government behavior would not be so widely heard.

“I’m not sure I want them to go home,” Kim Rollins said. “Those people brought us a voice.”

The wildlife refuge occupation began Saturday, after an armed group left a protest held to support two ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — convicted of arson on public land. That case and the protests and occupation that followed highlighted the fraught relationship many in the West have with the federal government, which owns much of the land in a handful of Western states.

Community members spent nearly an hour and a half on Wednesday stepping up to a microphone. They mostly said they wanted Bundy and his band to go home.

Merlin Rupp, 80, who has lived in the county for seven of his eight decades, offered praise for the Hammonds, who reported to federal prison Monday.

“They’d do anything for me at the drop of a hat,” he said. “The Hammonds got a raw deal!”

He also lauded the occupiers for what their effort did to the community. “They brought us all together,” Rupp said. “They’re waking us up!”

Louie Smith agreed, saying of the occupiers, “These guys, I hate to say it, woke every one of you up.”

Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, said some community members have expressed support, bringing the occupiers supplies such as soup. This week, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) brought vegan snacks.

Ward has urged community members not to give the occupiers any assistance.

“I think if one person gives them a Snickers bar, they’re going on national media and claiming that the community supports them,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting earlier this week. “If you’re giving them support, you’re just prolonging the situation.”

The occupiers have said they will leave only after they know the Hammonds are on their way out of prison and that land is transferred away from the federal government.

“There is a time to go home, we recognize that,” Ammon Bundy said at a news conference Wednesday. “We don’t feel it’s quite time yet.”

Berman reported from Washington. Wolf is a freelance writer. Lisa Rein contributed to this report. 

Related:

What spurred the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon

In Oregon, frustration over federal land rights has been building for years

[This story has been updated.]