BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - The leader of a group of armed men who took over a U.S. wildlife refuge in remote southeastern Oregon said on Wednesday they know they will have to go home, but they want results from their protest and feel it is not “quite time yet.”
The takeover that began on Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles (48 km) south of the small town of Burns, is the latest skirmish in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.
Launched following a bigger demonstration in support of two imprisoned local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, the occupation has been marked by daily media briefings from the protesters, and by federal law enforcement agents keeping watch from a distance.
“There is a time to go home, we recognize that. We don’t feel it’s quite time yet,” protest leader Ammon Bundy told a news conference at the refuge on Wednesday.
“We feel like we need to make sure the Hammonds are out of prison, or well on their way. We need to make sure there is some teeth in these land transfers. And also that those who have committed crimes, those are exposed as well.”
Bundy said the group was compiling evidence to clear the Hammonds, who began longer prison terms this week for setting fires that spread to federal land. Bundy said witnesses told them the blazes were started by federal agents.
“We believe we have enough of this to exonerate the Hammonds,” he said. “If that is the only thing that is accomplished, then it will be well worth our effort.”
Many residents of Burns see the occupation as the work of outsiders, and the Hammonds’ lawyers have sought to dissociate themselves from the protesters.
Bundy is the son of a Nevada rancher who, along with a large group of armed men, stared down federal agents in 2014 when they tried to seize his cattle over unpaid grazing fees.
Asked what would need to happen for his group to quit the refuge, Bundy said: “Enough is enough when there’s actual action that is happening, and when things are actually transpiring, and we’ll know when that happens.”
In a sign of simmering tensions, a Reuters witness said there was angry shouting and that the protesters, several of whom had been eating dinner, grabbed their rifles to investigate an unexpected arrival at the site late on Wednesday.
The occupiers later said three men had turned up, one of them known to the protesters, prompting an altercation and minor injuries to one of the occupiers. They said the three men, whose identities remained unclear, left in the direction of town.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward had told a packed community meeting in Burns earlier on Wednesday that the protesters had hijacked a peaceful rally and needed to leave now.
“Go home. Work your differences with whoever out through the appropriate channels, and let us get back to our lives,” Ward said to applause.
“I don’t want to see a single person hurt. ... In fact, when I wake up tomorrow, I want to have pleasant thoughts about you - that you did the right thing, that you packed your bags, and you went home.”
Neither protesters nor authorities have said how many people are involved in the occupation. About a dozen protesters have been visible at the site. They have not been showing weapons in recent days.
U.S. Representative Greg Walden, whose congressional district includes Burns and Malheur, said on Wednesday he had been on the phone to the county judge and local ranchers until late on Tuesday night.
“Americans have the right to protest. It should not take this form. And it is time for those who are there to depart. They’ve made their case,” the Republican congressman told reporters in Washington. He also said he viewed the five-year sentence imposed on the Hammonds as excessive.
The reactions in Burns, a town of 3,000 people about 280 miles (450 km) southeast of Portland, have included sympathy for the well-known Hammonds, suspicion of the federal government’s motives, and criticism of the occupiers.
At a news conference on Wednesday, leaders of the Burns Paiute Tribe, whose reservation is not far from the wildlife refuge, said it was time for the protesters to say good-bye.
“We as Harney County residents don’t need some clown to come in here and stand up for us,” said the Native American tribal council’s sergeant at arms, Jarvis Kennedy.
He mocked the protesters’ assertions they want to help the community, while local children stayed home because schools were closed over concerns about possible violence.
“They’re scaring our people,” Kennedy said. “They need to get out of here.”
Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Jim Urquhart; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Tait