BURNS, Ore. (KOIN) – A militia overtook the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge hours after more than 100 protesters marched through the streets of Burns to support 2 Oregon ranchers convicted of arson on federal land.
The refuge is about 50 miles from Burns, where protesters on Saturday showed their support of ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond. The Hammonds said they will surrender to officials this week to serve their prison sentence.
A self-proclaimed security detail stood guard by a bonfire to see who came and went at the federal building in an effort to keep those inside the occupied headquarter safe. A US flag now covers the sign at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and one militia member placed a copy of the Constitution in front of the flag.
“The constitution, man. That’s what we’re up here for,” one militia member said.
Group leader Ammon Bundy said the federal government has expanded the refuge land at the expense of ranchers. “This facility actually has been a tool for the federal government to do all those things they have done to the Hammonds,” he said.
Asked how long the group will stay, Bundy told KOIN 6 News, “As long as is necessary.”
His father, Cliven Bundy was also locked in a legal dispute with federal officials in Nevada that developed into an armed confrontation. He remains hopeful officials will not try to forcibly remove the group.
“We hope they will not do that, because we pose no threat to anybody,” Bundy said.
Ammon Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns is located. Below the video is this statement: “(asterisk)(asterisk)ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED.”
In an interview with reporters late Saturday night that was posted on Facebook, Bundy said he and others are occupying the building because “the people have been abused long enough.”
“I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be no longer able to do so,” he said.
Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy said. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation, the Oregonian reported.
“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation,” Ward said in a statement.
Cliven Bundy statement
Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Saturday night that he had nothing to do with the takeover of the building.
Bundy said his son felt obligated to intervene on behalf of the Hammonds.
“That’s not exactly what I thought should happen, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “You know, if the Hammonds wouldn’t stand, if the sheriff didn’t stand, then, you know, the people had to do something. And I guess this is what they did decide to do. I wasn’t in on that.”
His son Ammon told him they are committed to staying in the building, Cliven Bundy told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“He told me that they were there for the long run. I guess they figured they’re going to be there for whatever time it takes_and I don’t know what that means,” Cliven Bundy said. “I asked him, ‘Well how long can ya, how long you going to stand out there?’ He just told me it was for long term.”
Beth Anne Steele, an FBI spokeswoman in Portland, told The Associated Press the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge. She made no further comment.
Ryan Payne, a U.S. Army veteran from Montana, told The Oregonian he was among a group occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
An Idaho militia leader who helped organize the earlier march said he knew nothing about activities after a parade of militia members and local residents in Burns past the sheriff’s office and the home of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven.
The parade involved some singing, a few short speeches, flowers and some tossing of pennies at the locked door of the local courthouse.
Dwight Hammond told the KOIN 6 News, “Remember: It’s not about me, it’s about America and somehow we have to get the wheels back on this wagon because they are flying off.”
At 73, Hammond said he feels his upcoming prison term is a life sentence.
“I’m not very happy about that. Just don’t know what to say,” Hammond said. “It just seems like a little overreach for having burned 127 acres.”
One of the people attending the protest in Burns was Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights. Ammon Bundy was among those organizing opposition to the Hammonds’ new sentence.
Ammon Bundy and a handful of militiamen from other states arrived last month in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.
In an email to supporters, Ammon Bundy criticized the U.S. government for a failed legal process.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.