January 04, 2016
U.S. authorities worked Monday to resolve a standoff at a federal wildlife center in the northwestern state of Oregon, where anti-government militiamen have declared they are prepared to stay for years after settling in Saturday.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, said all of its staff are safe and the site is closed until further notice. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said multiple agencies are «working on a solution» and advised people to stay away.
The armed protesters said as many as 100 people make up the loosely organized group. Their leader is Ammon Bundy, whose family was at the center of a 2014 standoff over grazing rights on federal lands.
«We will be here as long as it takes,» Bundy told reporters Sunday. «We have no intentions of using force upon anyone. If force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.»
The refuge occupation is an offshoot of a larger protest in support of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced to five years in prison for setting fire on federal land they had been allowed to use to graze their cattle.
Bundy said their case is a symptom of a «huge, egregious problem,» occurring across the country, with the government imposing too many restrictions on land use and causing economic harm to local populations.
A sign in front of the occupied refuge building accuses the government of «doing what they do best, ABUSING POWER.»
Ryan Bundy talks on the phone at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016.
‘Light up the whole country’
In the Hammond case, the father and son were originally given shorter sentences, but a federal appeals court ruled in October that the first judge erred in ignoring the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime and said they should be given five-year terms.
The Hammonds said they started the fires on their property to kill invasive species and the flames accidentally spread to federal land. But witnesses said they illegally killed deer, then distributed matches to others to be lit and dropped to «light up the whole country on fire.»
A Hammond family statement said the two men only want to turn themselves in and serve out their prison terms. The family said no «patriot group or individual has the right or authority to force an armed standoff … against their wishes.»
The anti-government militiamen who took over the wildlife refuge are angry that the court ruled to send the Hammonds back to prison, with credit for the time they have already served.
After the peaceful protest in the nearby town of Burns, the group took over the offices at the refuge, which were closed at the time. Photographs showed the militia members moving fuel and food onto the refuge.