BURNS, Ore. (AP) — The leader of an armed group occupying a national wildlife refuge in Oregon met briefly with a federal agent Friday, but left because the agent wouldn’t talk with him in front of the media.
The short meeting occurred as the standoff over federal land use policies stretches to the three-week mark and as Oregon officials are putting increased pressure on federal authorities to take action against Ammon Bundy’s group.
Bundy arrived at the airport in Burns late Friday morning, where the FBI has set up a staging area. On Thursday, Bundy went to the airport and spoke to an FBI negotiator over the phone. They agreed to speak again Friday, but Bundy left shortly after he arrived because the FBI agent he spoke with said federal authorities wanted any conversation to be private.
Bundy wants face-to-face conversations in front of reporters.
“I really don’t think, at this point, even having another phone conversation here without him would be beneficial,” Bundy said before leaving.
He also questioned the FBI’s authority.
“If you haven’t got sanction from the sheriff, there’s no reason to be talking to you,” Bundy said.
On Thursday, Bundy met with the FBI. With reporters watching, he spoke on the phone, apparently with an FBI negotiator. The conversation was streamed online by another member of Bundy’s group.
Bundy said his group is “not going to escalate” the situation, and he agreed to speak with authorities again Friday.
But that meeting was very short, and he drove directly to the sheriff’s office.But he did not meet with Sheriff Ward as he was stopped at the gate because he arrived unannounced.
Bundy is upset the FBI had set up what he calls “a standing army.” The sheriff’s deputies made it clear local authorities and federal officials are working together.
Deputies and law enforcement officials refused to argue, so he left.
The FBI did not immediately comment on Friday’s meeting with Bundy, but said in a statement Thursday their “response has been deliberate and measured as we seek a peaceful resolution.”
At 4 p.m., two ranchers from other states are expected to rescind their land-grazing agreements with the federal government in a signing ceremony at in the Malheur Refuge conference center.
On Wednesday, LaVoy Finicum, the Arizona rancher who is the de facto spokesperson for the militia occupying the Malheur refuge, said he and Cliven Bundy — Ammon’s father — are the only 2 ranchers who so far have rescinded their land-use rights to the federal government.
This signing ceremony “will double the amount of ranchers” standing up for their rights, he said.
The armed group announced plans to open up the 300-square-mile refuge for cattle this spring.
Oregon elected officials
Brown sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey, urging them “to end the unlawful occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as safely and as quickly as possible.”
In a statement Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said it was “long past time for this illegal occupation to end and for the people of Harney County to get their lives back.”
The Democrat said he hope authorities could peacefully resolve the situation and hold Bundy’s group accountable.
On Friday afternoon, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty released a statement saying “We want our county back.”
“Many of us are appalled by those who were neither invited nor welcomed, but who purport to speak for our county’s residents.” – Judge Steve Grasty
At community meetings, some local residents have asked Bundy and his group to leave. However Bundy has said he believes his group’s work is appreciated by locals. He said the armed men have been “helping ranchers,” doing maintenance on the refuge because “it’s in a bad shape,” and taking care of fire hazards in the refuge’s fire house.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established on August 18, 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt as the Lake Malheur Reservation. Roosevelt set aside unclaimed government lands encompassed by Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The newly established “Lake Malheur Reservation” was the 19th of 51 wildlife refuges created by Roosevelt during his tenure as president. At the time, Malheur was the third refuge in Oregon and one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi.
KOIN 6 News contributed to this report
Associated Press reporter Gosia Wozniacka contributed from Portland, Oregon.