A sign welcomes visitors to the Maheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. In early 2016, a group of men and women, mostly from out of state, took over this remote bird sanctuary for 41 days.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Maheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. In early 2016, a group of men and women, mostly from out of state, took over this remote bird sanctuary for 41 days.

Rob Manning/OPB

Testifying Tuesday in federal court, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation leader Ammon Bundy said that community members in Burns were made aware of the plan for the refuge takeover before it happened. On the stand, Bundy said that he spoke openly about the takeover plan with members of the Harney County Committee of Safety, a group that he helped form.

Yet local members of that committee contradicted Bundy’s testimony, saying they had no knowledge of the plan to occupy the refuge. But one rancher told OPB that Bundy did speak broadly about the idea of seizing government buildings before the occupation began.

This is the first time that anyone from the Committee of Safety has acknowledged to OPB that they had any inkling that an occupation was planned.

Committee of Safety member Duane Schrock said Bundy did talk about the possibility of a takeover at a committee meeting on Dec. 16, 2015. But, Schrock said, the proposed target was a remote fire station in a tiny outpost south of Burns.

“There was a discussion of buildings being taken, but the buildings that were being talked about were was [sic] the fire station at Frenchglen,” said Schrock. “Because it had a kitchen and half a dozen houses. But at that time, that was the only thing that was discussed on the meeting on the 16th.”

A Harney County rancher, Schrock said he doesn’t remember Bundy mentioning the Malheur refuge specifically. “The only thing we were made aware of was that something like that might happen,” Schrock said. “He never said ‘refuge headquarters.’”

Schrock emphasized that most of the discussion at that meeting was about the broader objectives of the then newly-formed Committee of Safety. The possibility of taking over a government facility was a small part of that meeting, and he said it may have come up in smaller group discussions rather than with the entire committee.

Ammon Bundy never asked Committee of Safety members to be part of the plan, Schrock said. “We were basically in the dark also.”

In the fall of 2015, Bundy helped form the local Committee of Safety with the goal of limiting federal authority on land in Harney County. He helped organize the original meeting where committee members were elected, and build a website for the local group.

But several days into the occupation, the committee criticized the occupation and formally asked Bundy and the other militants to leave Harney County.

Chris Briels, also on the Harney County Committee of Safety, contradicted Bundy’s testimony in court Tuesday. When prosecutors asked Briels, who was serving as a witness for the defense, if Bundy shared his plan to take over the Malheur refuge, Briels said no.  

“No, we didn’t know anything before it happened,” Briels told OPB. “We had no idea that he was going to take it over.”  

OPB asked Briels if Bundy spoke to any among the Committee of Safety about a plan to take any government buildings. “I didn’t know anything about it, as far as I know none of the rest of them did,” Briels responded.  

Briels said that the contradictory testimonies were probably because of the way prosecutors questioned Bundy.

“Ammon Bundy is probably the finest man I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Briels said.