MALHEUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Ore. — The leader of a group of armed protesters occupying the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon met briefly with a local sheriff Thursday but rejected the lawman’s offer of safe passage out of the state to end the standoff.
Ammon Bundy, son of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, and other occupiers left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in two vehicles and traveled to a neutral location along a remote Oregon roadside to meet for about five minutes with Harney County Sheriff David Ward.
During that meeting, Ward told Bundy that he was seeking a peaceful resolution to the nearly weeklong standoff and offered to escort the occupiers out of Oregon.
But Bundy, saying that the sheriff hadn’t addressed the occupiers’ grievances, declined.
“We always consider what people say,” Bundy told reporters after the meeting, but “I’m not afraid to go out of state. I don’t need an escort.”
The Sheriff’s Office later tweeted that Ward plans to meet with Bundy again Friday. Ward gave no other statement after the meeting. Bundy didn’t confirm that there is a meeting on Friday.
The takeover that began Saturday at the headquarters of the refuge, about 30 miles south of the small town of Burns, is the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the West.
The move followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison earlier this week for setting fires that spread to federal land.
A lawyer for the Hammond family has said that the occupiers do not speak for the family.
Reporters crowded around Bundy as he paused to visit with supporters around a campfire at the standoff site.
“It was good,” Bundy said of his meeting with Ward. “We shook hands and had a good conversation and talked a little bit, talked about the community.”
Bundy said there’s no timeline that resulted from his discussion with the sheriff.
“He says right now it’s just an issue over a few buildings that are 30 miles out of town,” Bundy said.
Local residents have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government’s motives and frustration with the occupation.
Bundy doesn’t appear swayed into leaving simply because residents agree that change to land policies is needed, but it’s for the locals to pursue. Even so, he believes his presence is needed.
“I believe them,” he said. “But it’s going to take a little time and there needs to be a little directive and I believe that is certainly going to happen.”
Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy are leading the Oregon occupation. Their father, Cliven Bundy, along with a band of supporters, had an armed standoff in April 2014 near Bunkerville with federal agents. The agents were trying to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle because he hadn’t paid grazing fees for the use of the federal public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The agents released the cattle to avoid bloodshed. Since then, Cliven Bundy hasn’t faced any repercussions from the standoff. But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said the wheels of justice move at their own pace.
“Cliven Bundy has had multiple court orders to remove his cattle from federal public lands and he has not paid his grazing fees and he has not abided by the law,” Jewell told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in June. “We will continue to pursue that.”
Many of the other occupiers also are from outside Oregon and some of them were at the Bunkerville standoff.
At least a dozen other armed men have been visible at the park headquarters, offices, a museum and outbuildings. They have come and gone freely from the park without interference from authorities, at times venturing into town.
The Bundys’ group said that on Wednesday night a group of three men entered the refuge unexpectedly and engaged in a brief confrontation with the occupiers. Reuters journalists said they saw men running with firearms and heard angry shouting, but no shots were fired.
The situation was calmer Thursday when a series of area ranchers visited for chats with the Bundys, who discussed their beliefs that the federal government had overreached its authority, often pausing to read from the U.S. Constitution.
“Hopefully some of the ranching families and the community will come and support you guys,” rancher Royce Wilber told them. “That’s what I wanted to post on Facebook, ‘Quit bitching on your electronic devices and come down here and see these people because they are not how they are portrayed in the media.'”
The Bundys say they want the federal government to turn over its land holdings in the area to local counties and states and that they will leave after they have accomplished their goal. Though the spotlight is on Harney County, they have said they want what began here to spread throughout the West.
Federal law enforcement agents and local police have kept their distance from the site, keeping a minimal visible presence outside the refuge in a bid to avoid the deadly violence that erupted during the Ruby Ridge and Waco conflicts with militants in Idaho and Texas in the 1990s. Ward has requested and received outside help from the Oregon State Police and other sheriff offices, who also assist in patrols.
Local officials have repeatedly asked the occupiers to go home, saying that even residents who support their views object to the illegal seizure of federal property.
“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,” Ward said earlier this week.
Bundy isn’t ready to pack up yet.
“I think that there’s something much bigger here that needs to be resolved and until we know and understand that the people are going to end up on top here, we plan on staying,” he said.
Contact Ben Botkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1