At the start of the new year, a group of armed protesters stormed the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and claimed it as their base of operations for a standoff against the federal government.
Three weeks later, they’re still out there, and their laundry list of demands hasn’t changed.
The group, led by Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher known for his own fight against the feds, is staked out at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in defense of two ranchers whom the protesters say were unfairly treated by the government.
The standoff began in early January in support of two Oregon ranchers convicted three years ago of arson on public lands. Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 43, say they set fire to the land they leased from the government for grazing as a way to get rid of invasive species. The men were sentenced to five years in prison—the mandatory minimum for arson on federal land—but argued that the sentence was unconstitutional. The father served three months and the son one year before being released, but a federal judge ordered them back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences. The Hammonds turned themselves in to a California prison January 4.
Law-enforcement authorities are still trying to talk Bundy down. Bundy has said he’s going to stay at the refuge until the group’s demands are met—“several months at the shortest.” Bundy’s brother Ryan has reportedly said the protesters are willing to “kill and be killed if necessary.”
The Oregonian reports that the protesters have four demands from the federal government: Release the local ranchers, turn federal lands over to private ownership, void federal grazing permits, and allow Harney County to manage the wildlife refuge, rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bundy met briefly with an FBI official on Friday, but left abruptly after some disagreement over the nature of the meeting, according to the Associated Press. The FBI wanted to speak in private, while Bundy wanted the press to be able to look on. A community meeting about the standoff scheduled for Monday was canceled for safety concerns, but it’s unclear exactly what those concerns were.
One rancher in New Mexico and another eight in Utah have pledged to ignore their grazing contracts with the federal government in support of the group’s mission. The lawyer representing the eight ranchers from Utah confirmed their participation in what he called “an act of civil disobedience,” but did not identify them, according to The Oregonian.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the standoff since its beginning. A lawyer for the family wrote early on that "neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family.”
So has Cliven Bundy, the father of Ammon, who held his own standoff against the federal government nearly two years ago. The elder Bundy does not recognize federal control over the land where his cattle graze, and refuses to pay his grazing fees. In 2014, when federal agents started seizing his cattle, Bundy owed $1.2 million to the Bureau of Land Management. According to the Los Angeles Times, he still does.
“I don’t quite understand how much they’re going to accomplish,” Cliven Bundy said about his sons at the beginning of this month. “I think of it this way: what business does the Bundy family have in Harney County, Oregon?”
The website for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge states the park is closed until further notice.