PRINCETON, OREGON – Federal law enforcement officials on Monday sought a peaceful end to the occupation of the headquarters of a U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon launched over the weekend by a group of self-styled militiamen angry over the imminent imprisonment of two ranchers.
The occupation, which began on Saturday, was the latest skirmish over federal land management in the American West and reflected an anti-government stance held by some Americans.
On Monday morning, a group of about a half-dozen occupiers could be seen outside the facility, with some manning a watchtower and others standing around a vehicle they had used to block the road leading to the building. They chatted quietly among themselves as a large group of media looked on. None was visibly armed.
The occupation followed a protest march in Burns, a small city about 50 miles (80 km) north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, over the imminent imprisonment of ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond.
The Hammonds were found guilty in 2012 of setting a series of fires, including a 2001 blaze intended to cover up evidence of deer poaching that went on to burn 139 acres (56 hectares) of public lands, according to federal prosecutors.
They were initially sentenced to 12 months in prison, below the federal minimum for arson, but a U.S. district judge in October raised the sentences to five years.
The FBI declined to give details on plans by federal officials for dealing with the occupiers.
Law enforcement officials and the leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, declined to say how many people were occupying the refuge headquarters.
Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose family staged a 2014 armed protest targeting federal land management officials that ended with authorities backing down, citing safety concerns.
Ammon Bundy told ABC News on Monday that members of his group were armed.
“It’s important that we stand and people know that we’re serious,” he said. “We understand that in order to truly express our First Amendment rights, we have to have our Second Amendment rights.” The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech, and the Second protects the right to bear arms.
In a statement, the FBI said it was seeking a “peaceful resolution to the situation,” but offered few details.
“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.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said late Sunday that all of its staff from the facility were safe and accounted for.
A lawyer for the Hammonds sought to distance his clients from Bundy and his armed band, saying they did not speak for the family.
Hammond and his son were convicted in 2012 of setting fires that inadvertently spread to public land. On Sunday evening, they traveled to Los Angeles to surrender to federal authorities, according to their lawyer, W. Alan Schroeder. They were to be sent back to prison after federal prosecutors won an appeal that resulted in their being re-sentenced to longer terms.
The occupation was part of a decades-old conflict between ranchers and the federal government over Washington’s management of hundreds of thousands of acres of range land. Critics of the federal government say it often oversteps its authority and exercises arbitrary power over land use without sufficient accountability.
The Hammond ranch borders on the southern edge of the Oregon refuge, a bird sanctuary in the arid high desert in the eastern part of the state, about 305 miles (490 km) southeast of Portland.
The Bundy ranch standoff in 2014 drew hundreds of armed protesters after the Bureau of Land Management sought to seize Bundy’s cattle because he refused to pay grazing fees. Federal agents backed down in the face of the large numbers of armed protesters and returned hundreds of cattle.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 292 sq. miles (75,630 hectares), was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a breeding ground for greater sandhill cranes and other native birds. The headquarters compound includes a visitor center, a museum and the refuge office.