BURNS, Ore. — Federal agents on Wednesday sealed off an Oregon wildlife refuge that remained occupied by armed protesters after one of the most prominent occupiers was killed in a shootout with authorities, escalating a month-long confrontation over federal land rights in the West.
FBI and state officials set up checkpoints and roadblocks around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, calling on those still inside to leave. The sudden crackdown followed Tuesday’s arrests of eight people who were among a small group of men and women who took control of the federal facility in early January. A ninth occupier, LaVoy Finicum, was fatally shot at a traffic stop after refusing to surrender, authorities said.
Even as federal officials defended their response as measured and deliberate, they did not detail what additional steps were being taken to end the standoff in a remote swath of southeastern Oregon, once best known for its birdwatching. Meanwhile, the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, who was among those arrested, encouraged the heavily armed people left inside the refuge to pull out.
“To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families,’’ Bundy said in a statement read by his attorney.
It was not immediately clear whether Bundy’s words would have any effect. Initially, at least, the remaining occupiers gave no sign of backing down.
“Right now, we’re doing fine,” Jason Patrick, an occupier who remained at the refuge, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”
Patrick would not say how many people remained there with him.
Three hundred miles away in Portland, Bundy and six of the seven other people arrested were brought Wednesday to a federal courtroom, where they heard the charges against them: conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from performing their official duties through force, intimidation or threats.
Their attorneys asked the judge to release them on bail. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman refused, saying that the defendants posed a flight risk and that they should be kept imprisoned to prevent them from rejoining the occupation at the wildlife refuge. They remain held in the Multnomah County jail.
The court appearance came nearly a month after the group took over the refuge, aiming to support two local ranchers sentenced to prison over arson charges. The confrontation has drawn new attention to long-standing frustrations with federal management of land in the West, where the government is the main landlord across much of the region.
The quiet court hearing belied the violence that erupted Tuesday on a remote Oregon highway after some of the occupiers had left the refuge. Five were arrested, including Bundy. But gunfire erupted, leaving one occupier dead.
The FBI and Oregon State Police have declined to say how many shots were fired or who fired them, or to officially identify the deceased. But a government official said LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the group who had previously said he would rather die than go to jail, was fatally shot after refusing orders to give up.
On Wednesday, a simple sign along that road read “Road closed” and blocked access to the refuge headquarters about three miles away. About half a mile past the sign, law enforcement officers were gathered.
Three other people tied to the standoff were later arrested in Oregon and Arizona.
The arrests come amid weeks of mounting pressure from the local community to end the siege, which closed local schools and businesses. Federal officials have not explained why they suddenly chose to act, after weeks with no visible law enforcement presence around the refuge. Occupiers came and went as they pleased, with the group’s leaders freely leaving the refuge for meetings with residents and law enforcement officials.
The FBI put the blame for the roadside violence squarely on the occupiers. “They had ample opportunity to leave the refuge peacefully,” Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland division, said at a news conference. “And as the FBI and our partners have clearly demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”
He said that the arrests constituted “the first steps to bring this occupation to a conclusion” and that authorities were working to “empty the refuge of those who continue to illegally occupy” the land.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official elaborated on the FBI’s thinking, saying the bureau wanted to avoid a repeat of past sieges involving anti-government protesters that ended violently in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said there was no need to act more hastily because the occupation involves empty buildings in an isolated area, no hostages and no one being directly threatened.
“This was a very, very good outcome,’’ the official said.
The authorities took action after state and local leaders made it clear that the prolonged standoff was tearing the community apart. As far back as Jan. 6, residents at a town hall meeting asked law enforcement to do more to shut down the occupation, while local ranchers offered to ride to the refuge on horseback and ask the occupiers to leave.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) wrote a letter to federal officials urging a “swift resolution” to the situation, and Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward seemed Wednesday to channel the emotions of a community exhausted by events.
“If we have issues with the way things are going in the government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner,’’ Ward said as he nearly choked up at the news conference. “We don’t arm up. We don’t arm up and rebel. . . . This can’t happen in America, and it can’t happen in Harney County.”
But Ward expressed mixed emotions about the results of the roadside arrests and violence. “I’m disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly,” he said. “It didn’t have to happen. We all make choices in life. Sometimes our choices go bad.”
The standoff has divided residents and sparked fear after some complained of harassment by Bundy’s supporters. At least one business shut its doors last night out of concern for employees’ safety and their ability to navigate roadblocks to get home.
“They didn’t accomplish anything,” Primrose Truesdell said of the occupiers. Her husband, Ken, echoed her thoughts between sips of coffee at the Doughnut Hole in downtown Burns.
“No one wanted them here. They can go back to wherever they came from. I’d wave them goodbye,” Ken Truesdell said, amid tables that buzzed with talk of the arrests.
Conservationists and public officials expressed relief at the arrests, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) applauding the law enforcement response. “I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” he said in a statement.
The standoff unfolded as the latest chapter of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-long movement that challenges federal control of public land across the West. The group occupying the refuge calls itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and took over the facility on Jan. 2 after a Burns rally protesting the imprisonment of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were told to report back to prison after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served for arson were insufficient.
Ammon Bundy — the 40-year-old son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who was involved in a 2014 standoff with federal officials over grazing fees — and his supporters had vowed to occupy the refuge until vast tracks of public lands are released to local control.
At the court hearing in downtown Portland, seven of the defendants heard the charges against them. Bundy and his 43-year-old brother, Ryan, along with fellow occupiers Ryan Payne, Brian Cavalier, Shawna Cox, Joseph O’Shaughnessy and conservative YouTube journalist Peter Santilli, appeared in light-blue scrubs. Ryan Bundy greeted the judge with a hearty “Good afternoon! How are you today?”
They are set to appear in court again Friday for a detention hearing, at which the court will decide whether any of them should be released.
The eighth defendant, 32-year-old former Marine reservist Jon Ritzheimer, turned himself in to police in Arizona on Tuesday and will appear in court separately.
Adam Goldman and Sarah Kaplan in Washington and Leah Sottile in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.