The armed occupiers who took over a federal wildlife refuge aren’t just wreaking havoc on this Oregon community, the local sheriff said — they’re also altering the refuge to their liking.
Since the armed protesters took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 11 days ago, Harney County has seen an increase in “vandalism, harassment and intimidation reports,” Sheriff Dave Ward said.
Some of the occupiers have been able to leave and return to the refuge center. And protest leaders have also called on supporters near and far to come join their cause.
The result, according to Ward: the harassment and intimidation of police and civilians, including workers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency that runs the refuge.
“There are continual reports of law enforcement officers and community members being followed home; of people sitting in cars outside their homes, observing their movements and those of their families; and of people following them and their families as they move around the community,” Ward said Monday.
“Self-identified militia members” approach them in public, Ward said, trying to start a debate about the federal government.
“The people on the refuge — and those who they have called to our community — obviously have no consideration for the wishes or needs of the people of Harney County,” the sheriff said. “If they did, they, too, would work to bring this situation to a peaceful close.”
Ammon Bundy, son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and others have been hunkered down in the wildlife refuge since early January.
The protest started out as a call against the sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven — two ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon.
But the protest supporting the Hammonds led to the armed occupation of the refuge, with occupiers decrying what they call government overreach when it comes to federal lands.
Occupiers taking down fence
The armed protesters haven’t just claimed the refuge — they’re altering it to their liking.
Over the weekend, the federal refuge’s sign was painted over. And the group is planning to take down a fence to help local ranchers, occupier LaVoy Finicum said.
“We are going out and open(ing) up that fence that was put in by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) this very last year and (was) fenced off,” Finicum said.
He said the fence was hindering rancher’s profits.
“So we are going to go down, open that up, take down a section of fence and put in a gate,” he said.
Protesters arriving on both sides
Ward said after a recently issued “call to action,” more armed protesters and “outside militia members” have begun to show up.
But some people are coming from afar to protest the protesters, according to CNN affiliate KTVZ.
They’re livid, befuddled and want the armed protesters to end their siege.
“These are my public lands, these are your public lands, and what I see is a lunatic fringe of radical extremists who have taken my land over,” Garrett VeneKlasen, a protester with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said.
After Bundy and his group finished a news conference, VeneKlasen took to the same stage to protest the occupation.
“I came here from New Mexico to speak on behalf of sportsmen, to speak on behalf of people that love land and wildlife, to come to tell these people to get the hell off of our land,” he said. “Let’s not candy coat this thing — they are terrorists. They are domestic terrorists.”
Another protester, who was holding a sign that said “Get the flock outta my wildlife refuge,” told KTVZ that “I never thought I’d have to say this, but I’m here to oppose the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge.”
At a community meeting of a couple hundred people in Burns, Franki Gould told CNN that she wants the protesters gone.
“We were a really close town and now we’re very divided,” she said.
Ward also spoke at that meeting, stressing unity among those from the community
“We can’t get things to normal until we unite as a community and ask these folks to go home so we can start working together,” he said to raucous applause at a community meeting of a couple hundred people.
“The fact is there is there is an hourglass, and it’s running. And time is going to run out.”