Law enforcement agencies are keeping plans to end Militia’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters confidential. Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement late Saturday that “a collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution.”
Oregon Live Reports:
BURNS – Law enforcement agencies are remaining mum about plans to end militiamen’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.
A splinter group of militia in town to support a local ranching family took over the federal office Saturday afternoon in a development that stunned the community and visiting militia.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement late Saturday that “a collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution.”
Here’s a summary of key elements of this unfolding story:
The backdrop: Militiamen from several states came to Burns to protest the impending imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers. They participated in several community meetings and organized a rally and protest march that occurred without controversy on Saturday. The march lasted about an hour and involved about 300 people – a mix of militia and local residents. At the county sheriff’s office, marchers threw pennies — meant to symbolize citizens buying back their government.
The occupation: Some time after the rally, key militia leaders broke off and drove across the high desert basin south of Burns to the wildlife refuge. They said they took over the refuge headquarters, which was unoccupied for the holiday weekend. They also have blocked the access road. Indications are that this has been planned for some time. Accounts of how many militia are at the refuge range from their own claims of up to 150 to accounts from reporters at the scene that there may be no more than 15.
The refuge: Established in 1908, the refuge is one of the premier migratory bird habitats in the U.S., featuring Malheur Lake. Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge headquarters includes the main office, a museum, and homes. No workers were on duty when the occupiers arrived.
Who’s involved: Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, is acting as the leader, conducting a steady stream of media interviews. Other key militia leaders have joined him, including Ryan Payne, an Army veteran from Montana involved in last year’s armed standoff in Nevada with federal agents; Blaine Cooper, an Arizona militiaman who also participated in the Nevada standoff, and Jon Ritzheimer, who made headlines last year for anti-Muslim rhetoric. Days before the refuge takeover, Ritzheimer posted what struck some as a farewell video to his family.
What they want: Ammon Bundy has said in several interviews that the occupiers want federal land returned to Harney County ranchers and loggers. They say the federal government has oppressed local people with its ownership and control of land. Payne and others have insisted that under the Constitution, the federal government has no legal right to Harney County land.
Law enforcement response: During Saturday’s rally, not a police officer was visible. And so far law enforcement agencies have not approached the refuge or blocked access to the territory. The FBI is in charge because the refuge is federal property. The Harney County Sheriff’s Office and the Oregon State Police are engaged as well.
Militia response: Members of state and national militia organizations issued statements Saturday denouncing the occupation. Several leaders said they knew nothing of plans to occupy the refuge. Many remain in the Burns area.
Community reaction: Harney County residents are mad and concerned about the occupation. Militia members, including some of the occupiers, vowed in a community meeting with residents on Friday that they intended no violence. Burns-area schools will remain closed the entire week. They were scheduled to re-open Monday after the holiday break.
The ranchers: The case of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven brought Ammon Bundy and his supporters to Burns.The two men scheduled to report to federal prison on Monday after they were convicted in 2012 of arson. They set public land on fire near their ranch south of Burns. The occupiers are demanding they not be imprisoned. The Hammonds have had several run-ins with the government, including a 1994 episode involving the refuge. The Hammonds got into a dispute over access to water for their cattle after refuge officials began fencing off part of the refuge. Dwight Hammond was arrested in connection with the episode but was never prosecuted.
What’s next: Because the refuge is so remote and no government employees are at risk, law enforcement isn’t likely to immediately confront the militia. But law enforcement will be under great pressure to act because of the Bundys’ confrontation in Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management retreated from that confrontation and has yet to publicly act against the Bundys to collect $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. That retreat has emboldened militia members as they now face the prospect of another standoff.