PRINCETON, Ore. (Reuters) - A group of self-styled militiamen occupied the headquarters of a U.S. wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon to protest the imminent jailing of two ranchers, officials said on Sunday, in the latest skirmish over federal land management in the West.
The occupation, which began on Saturday, followed a march in Burns, a small city about 50 miles (80 km) north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in support of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond.
Hammond and his son, convicted in 2012 of setting fires that spread to public land, traveled to Los Angeles on Sunday evening to turn themselves in to federal authorities, according to their lawyer W. Alan Schroeder. They were to be sent to back to prison after federal prosecutors won an appeal that resulted in their resentencing to longer terms.
Their ranch borders on the southern edge of the 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 protest was being led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, owner of a ranch in Nevada where his family staged an armed protest against the Bureau of Land Management in April 2014. The agency sought to seize Bundy’s cattle after he refused to pay grazing fees. Federal agents finally backed down, citing safety concerns, and returned hundreds of cattle to Bundy.
Federal and state authorities have not said how they planned to respond to the occupation of the refuge’s headquarters in Princeton, Oregon.
It involved an unknown number of people, Jason Holm, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, said in a statement. No employees were in the building.
Holm described the occupation as a break-in, although federal justice and Interior Department officials contacted later declined to say whether any crimes were committed in the occupation. Wildlife refuge buildings were closed over the holiday weekend.
In an interview posted on Facebook, Bundy said the occupation was in reaction to the government intrusion into the rights of private-property owners.
“It is the people’s facility, owned by the people,” Bundy said. “It has been provided for us to be able to come together and unite and make a hard stand against this overreach - this taking of the people’s land and resources.”
Bundy told CNN some of the occupiers were armed.
The Hammonds distanced themselves last month from the Bundys, according to a letter Schroeder, wrote to the county sheriff on Dec. 11.
“I write to clarify that neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone with his group/organization speak for the Hammond family, Dwight Hammond or Steven Hammond,” Schroeder wrote in the letter, which was seen by Reuters.
The incident is part of a decades-old conflict between ranchers and the federal government over Washington’s management of hundreds of thousands of rangeland. Critics of the federal government say it often oversteps its authority and exercises arbitrary power over land use without sufficient accountability.
Bundy told a news conference on Sunday he had yet to communicate with any law enforcement officials. He said occupiers planned no violence unless that was justified by actions taken against the occupants. He would not say how many people were inside the headquarters.
He encouraged anyone opposed to overreach by the government in the management of federal lands to join the occupation at the refuge.
“For those that understand what is going on, and those who want to and feel a need to stand, we’re asking them to come,” he said. “We have a facility that we can house them in.”
“We will continue to monitor the situation for additional developments,” Holm said in the statement. He did not immediately return a phone call seeking further details. No one answered a call to the phone number of the refuge.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward was critical of the protesters and their motives, and advised local residents to stay away from the refuge.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 292 square 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.
Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Mo.; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Peter Cooney and Michael Perry