An afternoon of peaceful protest in Harney County, Oregon took a turn Saturday, when a small group of men armed with pistols and long rifles occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“The main reason we're here is because we need a place to stand,” said Ammon Bundy, the apparent leader of the group.
“We stand in defense,” he said. “And when the time is right we will begin to defend the people of Harney County in using the land and the resources.”
, was a key player in a months-long 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.
He and two of his brothers were among hundreds of conservative protesters who traveled to Burns, Oregon this week to demonstrate in support of two ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, who in 2012 were convicted of arson for starting fires on rangeland.
The men are due to report to a federal prison in San Pedro, California on Monday.
, and many expressed concern that it would undercut their movement's credibility.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, occupied by the Bundys and their supporters, lies roughly a half-hour south of Burns. It was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and is a popular place for birdwatching in the spring.
The occupiers draped an American flag over the welcome sign outside the refuge headquarters, and a pick-up blocked the road.
As the sun set Saturday, the temperature fell to 10 degrees. A group of five men bundled in coats and scarves fed sagebrush branches into a campfire. Only Ammon spoke to the media, but a few of the men quietly identified themselves as longtime residents of the Burns area and supporters of the Hammonds.
Asked how many militia members were at the headquarters, Bundy demurred. “I will not disclose,” he said. “Operational security.”
He also did not confirm a report that militia members have occupied a BLM fire station near Frenchglen, Oregon.
Bundy said the men hadn’t come into any contact with law enforcement while taking over the refuge headquarters, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the men had entered the building or were just stationed outside it.
There was no sign of law enforcement near the entrance to the refuge, though an Oregon State Police patrol car idled by the side of the road just outside Burns.
“We are not hurting anybody or damaging any property. We would expect that they understand that we have given them no reason to use lethal force upon us or any other force,” Bundy said.
Bundy said the men intend to use as little force as possible if law enforcement attempts to remove them from the site.
“We hope that they don't try to do that. We are here and this is the people's facility. It has been abused. This facility has been a tool to destroy ranchers and loggers and miners and many other individual's rights. If they try to come and force that issue, then they make it about a building and facility and lives could be lost because of that,” he said.
Ammon Bundy said he had not asked the Hammonds whether they support the takeover at the refuge.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward said people should stay away from the area, asking local residents to “please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation.”
“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution,” Ward said in a statement Saturday.
Around dinner time, a local couple who owns an RV park just a few miles from the refuge dropped off leftover chili and soup for the men to eat.
“It’s extra. They’ll probably enjoy it. That’s what we do here,” said Ron Gainer. “I agree with a lot of this, I don’t know why the federal government has to be here in the numbers that they are."
“They’re nice guys. And they feel the Hammonds have gotten a raw deal on their rights,” said Linda Gainer.
Ron Gainer estimated he counted about 15 people, a half dozen vehicles and a trailer at the headquarters. The Bundy family had previously told OPB around 150 people had joined their cause at the refuge.
The wildlife refuge is “closed until further notice,” according to its website, and the occupation of the federal building has also prompted the Harney County School District to cancel all classes until Jan. 11.
Earlier in the day, more than 300 people gathered in Burns to march through town, across the packed snow, in protest of the Hammond’s five-year sentence.
Some had traveled 1,000 miles or more. The protesters included a rancher from Moses Lake, Washington, a retired Air Force master sergeant from South Dakota, and a real estate agent from Casper, Wyoming.
They carried upside-down American flags, and described what they saw as the federal government’s many violations of limits established in the Constitution. Many identified as part of the “III Percent” movement — a group that identifies with militias of the American Revolution, and believes around 3 percent of American colonists took up arms against the British.
The marchers came to a stop outside Dwight Hammond's house. Christmas greens hung on the door. Hammond emerged, wearing a baseball cap, and greeted the protesters. He said he felt humbled by the show of support.
"This gathering isn't about me. It isn't about my family. It's about how America has to get its feet back under it and go forward," he said.
Hammond and his son received sentences of a year or less in 2012 for setting fire to federal lands. Federal prosecutors appealed that decision, arguing the Hammonds should have received the mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for burning federal property.
The Hammonds dispute the prosecutor's account, and say the fire started on their ranch before accidentally spreading to BLM land. Still, the government won its case in October, and the Hammonds were ordered to report Monday for the five-year sentence, with time served.
“These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy,” wrote acting U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, in a press release.
Hammond, who turns 74 this month, described his sentence as "a bit of an overkill."
"This is the way the federal government has been coming down on all these people who are here,” he said.
Hammond plans to turn himself in Monday.
"I'm just trying to, as I've always tried to stay within the law," he said. "I fall down once in a while, but hopefully not everybody knows about that."
Many of the protesters outside Hammond's home said they hoped to avoid any confrontation, out of respect for what they had heard were the wishes of the Hammond family.
“My personal goal was to make a public statement,” said Jim Gillmore, a rancher from Washington. “The Hammonds have expressed a desire to go ahead and be incarcerated. Had they expressed otherwise, this might be a different kind of a meeting today.”
Dave Duquette, an Oregonian with the group Protect the Harvest, said he was frustrated by the militia's decision to occupy the wildlife refuge.
"There's a radical fringe, that, although I do understand where they're at, they've taken it a little to far," he said. "I feel that the protest went really well.
"What they're doing right now out there at the refuge is going to overshadow the good," he said.