Armed right-wing militiamen have taken over a federal wildlife refuge headquarters in rural Oregon and vowed to remain in place. The occupation began on January 2nd, after a protest in support of two ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fires that burned federal land.  After the protest, armed antigovernment militia members took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was vacant because of the holidays.

The apparent leader is Ammon Bundy, the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.  Cliven Bundy refused to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees, prompting a standoff with federal rangers last year in Nevada, during which an armed militia rallied to his support.  Cliven Bundy declared victory last April after the federal government backed down and released cattle they had seized from him. Speaking over the weekend, Ammon Bundy said he wants federal land turned over to ranchers in Harney County, Oregon.

In phone interviews with The Oregonian newspaper, Ammon Bundy’s brother, Ryan Bundy, said the militants are not seeking to hurt anyone, but would not rule out violence if authorities move in. Law enforcement have so far not approached the occupied building. Meanwhile, the Oregon ranchers at the center of the dispute have distanced themselves from the Bundys; an attorney for Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven said “neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speaks for the Hammond family.”

Bundy has repeatedly rejected calls to leave buildings at the refuge despite pleas from the county sheriff, from many local residents and from Oregon’s governor, among others.  In his statement, Sheriff Ward said he was working with local and federal authorities to keep citizens safe and to quickly and peacefully resolve the situation. He asked people to stay away from the refuge, but did not think any other parts of the county were in immediate danger.

Militants drove government-owned vehicles and heavy equipment around the compound, saying the trucks and backhoes now belong to the local community. They also covered the national refuge sign with a new sign saying: “Harney County Resource Center”.

Some of the men told journalists they were there to help with security for the group.  Bundy admitted that only “a small percentage” of the still unknown number of militia members on site were from Harney County, but said locals were offering support and supplies.  To many in Harney County, a place with an ambivalent relationship with government, the image of the Hammonds as persecuted victims of authority is persuasive.