A group of armed protesters have occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, in support of two ranchers who are scheduled to begin serving prison sentences on Monday for arson charges.
Dwight Hammond, 73, served three months and his son Steven Hammond, 46, served one year in prison after the two were convicted of arson in 2012 for lighting fires on the refuge in 2001 and 2006. The Hammonds stated that they started the fires to “reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.”
While the Hammonds were able to argue in 2012 that the five-year mandatory minimum sentence that usually comes with charges of arson on federal land was “unconstitutional”, Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled in Oct. 2015 that the Hammonds must each serve the mandatory five years.
Ammon Bundy, the son of rancher Cliven Bundy of Nevada, took to the Bundy Ranch Facebook page on Thursday asking supporters to come out to the refuge and encouraged “patriots” to “stand up not stand down.”
“I am wanting to talk to the individual, to the patriot,” Bundy said. “This is not a time to stand down. It is a time to stand up and come to Harney county. We need your help, and we’re asking for it. No matter what your leader says, no matter what they’re saying, you need to draw your own conclusions. You need to get to Burns on the second or before.”
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward issued a statement Saturday night claiming that following a “peaceful rally” during the day, a group of “outside militants” seized the refuge headquarters, which is federal property managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters,” Ward said. “A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation.”
Also on Saturday night, during a telephone interview from inside the building, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy told the Oregonian that they had as many as 100 supporters with them, and they were not looking to hurt anyone. However, they said that they “would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them.”
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely. This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”