Rebecca Boone / AP Photo

FBI seeks peaceful end to Oregon militia occupation

Standoff at wildlife refuge headquarters is latest skirmish over federal land management

Federal law enforcement officials on Monday sought to bring a peaceful end to the weekend occupation of the headquarters of a U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon by self-styled militiamen, while authorities said all staff at the facility were safe.

The occupation, which began on Saturday, is the latest skirmish over federal land management in the western United States. It followed a march in Burns, a small city about 50 miles north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in protest over the jailing of ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond. They  reported to federal prison Monday, said David Ward, sheriff of Harney County in Oregon. He provided no other details.

The Hammonds, convicted in 2012 of setting fires that spread to public land, traveled to Los Angeles on Sunday evening to surrender to federal authorities, according to their lawyer W. Alan Schroeder. They were sent back to prison after federal prosecutors won an appeal that resulted in their re-sentencing to longer terms.

The armed occupation was led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose family staged a 2014 armed protest against federal land management officials that ended with authorities backing down, citing safety concerns. The Oregonian newspaper reported that Ammon Bundy’s crew at the wildlife refuge now includes 20 to 25 people, some of them women.

Bundy and others in his group held a press conference on Monday at the wildlife refuge, where they criticized the federal government’s treatment of the Hammond family.

A woman named Shawna Cox read the group’s “Notice Redress of Grievance,” which called for an independent body to investigate allegations against the Hammonds. She also said the group wants the Hammonds to not have to report to federal prison until the investigation is complete.

Bundy said that he met with the Hammonds starting eight weeks ago, but had not spoken to them in several days. 

A lawyer for the Hammonds sought to distance his clients from Bundy and his armed band, saying they did not speak for the family.

Also on Monday, two of the occupiers, Blaine Cooper and Jon Ritzheimer, posted a video on OregonLive.com asking for more people to come and join them.

"We need you to get here and stand with us. That's what we need more than anything," said Ritzheimer. "That's what's going to prevent any bloodshed." 

Ryan Bundy of the so-called Bundy Militia told Oregon Public Radio that he and the other occupiers would leave the federal buildings if that is what the local community wants. 

“This is their county — we can’t be here and force this on them,” Bundy said. “If they don’t want to retrieve their rights, and if the county people tell us to leave, we’ll leave.”The incident is part of a decades-old conflict between ranchers and the federal government over Washington's management of vast areas of range land. Critics of the federal government say it often oversteps its authority and exercises arbitrary power over land use without sufficient accountability.

"Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved, we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response," the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

The Hammond ranch borders on the southern edge of the Oregon refuge, a bird sanctuary in the arid high desert in the eastern part of the state, about 305 miles southeast of Portland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said late Sunday that all of its staff members from the facility were safe.

"Thanks for your concern re the situation at Malheur NWR," the agency said on Twitter. "We are working to resolve this peacefully."

The Bundy ranch standoff drew hundreds of armed protesters after the Bureau of Land Management sought to seize Bundy's cattle because he refused to pay grazing fees. Federal agents backed down in the face of the large numbers of armed protesters and returned hundreds of cattle.

In the Oregon case, social media has been rife with accusations of gentle handling by authorities because the ranchers are white. There is also some confusion about what to call the ranchers that took over the wildlife refuge — occupiers, protesters, and terrorists, are all terms that have been used on social media.

The ranchers, seemingly aware of the national attention that their move has garnered, and Bundy have given two press conferences in two days.

Bundy also appeared on the news program CBS This Morning to discuss his actions. At one point, Charlie Rose, one of the show’s hosts, asked Bundy why he and his colleagues were armed.

“We are serious about being here. We’re serious about defending our fights, and we’re serious about getting some things straightened out,” said Bundy. He said that the situation would only lead to violence “only if the government wants to take it there.”

On his twitter account late Sunday night, however, Bundy seemed committed to the idea of a peaceful protest. He tweeted: “We have not destroyed any property, businesses, or harmed any citizens. #OregonUnderAttack This is truly a peaceful protest against the #BLM,” referring to the Bureau of Land Management.

On Monday, Ward, the sheriff, urged them to go home, saying, "You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed and unlawful protest.

"The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It is time for you to leave our community. Go home, be with your own families and end this peacefully."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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