BURNS, Ore. — The FBI has taken charge of the law enforcement response to an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, saying that it will work with local and state authorities to seek “a peaceful resolution to the situation.”
“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.
Federal authorities are 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.
The occupation of a remote federal wildlife refuge followed a peaceful march and rally held over the weekend to support two local ranchers convicted of arson. The two ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven — are due to report to federal prison on Monday.
After the march on Saturday, a group of armed activists, led by rancher Ammon Bundy, traveled to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and announced their 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.
While 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.
As news of the encampment spread, along with photos of armed men on a snowy refuge, it drew national attention while it was affecting people in the region. Officials in the area shuttered schools in the area for at least a week.
In Burns, a city about 30 miles north of the refuge, hundreds had rallied to support the Hammonds over the weekend. But 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.”
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.
Bundy told reporters at a news conference Sunday that he had not heard from law enforcement since moving onto the property Saturday.
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 last October for committing arson on federal lands.
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.
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 — like 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 U.S. 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 and Peter Holley in Washington contributed to this report. Wolf is a freelance writer.