The activists occupying a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon remain in good spirits despite the frigid weather, according to a Washington state woman who said she has been communicating with them.
“Their morale has been up for most of the day, but it’s getting dark and it is freezing,” Maureen Peltier, who described herself as a friend of the occupiers, said in a telephone interview. “But they have layers on; they seem very able-bodied men and women.”
“And there are women there,” she added. Public officials have generally described the occupiers as men.
Ammon Bundy, who has been described as the leader of the protest group, said they have had no contact thus far with federal law enforcement authorities. "Nor is there any police presence here," he said in a Twitter message to the Los Angeles Times.
"We plan on staying as long as we have to," he said. "It's a very peaceful protest."
He said the occupying group has made "no direct demands," but the participants have stated that they will leave if the federal government gives up control of the nearby Malheur National Forest.
They are also demanding freedom or a reduced sentence for two Oregon ranchers whose imprisonment sparked the current standoff, Bundy said.
Peltier said the organizers of the takeover were not saying how many people were inside the buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Local ranchers were dropping off homemade meals, while other supporters were donating to the activists on a new website, she said.
Peltier, who lives in Bonney Lake, Wash., and served in Iraq with the National Guard, said she visited the gates of the refuge Saturday shortly after the occupiers took over.
“I got warm hugs and well wishes and they thanked me for coming to see them,” she said. “Some people are saying it’s so relaxed there, we come and go with or without children.”
The occupation began as a demonstration in support of two local ranchers — Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven — who were sentenced to more prison time last year for setting fires in 2001 and 2006 that spread to federal land. They returned to prison Monday to complete five-year sentences for arson.
Peltier said the activists told her they had no intention of leaving after they received word that the Hammonds were back in federal custody.
Peltier said she’s not a member of any militia or patriot group but frequently posts on the Facebook page of the Washington chapter of the Three Percenters Club, a national group that supports militias.
The activists occupying the refuge seemed to dial back their rhetoric Monday, saying they hoped that their takeover would remain peaceful.
“We don't want it to end with violence,” said Ryan Bundy, who with his brother Ammon has spoken for the occupiers. “We're not looking for bloodshed.”
State and federal authorities were preparing to establish a law enforcement command post to coordinate a response. So far the occupation had gone unchallenged.
Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward pleaded with the activists to leave the area. “It’s time to go home, return to your families,” he said at a news conference Monday.
A day earlier, he told reporters that the men intended to overthrow of the government.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when 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,” the sheriff said in a statement.
The activists were far vaguer about their goals.
Ammon Bundy said his group was seeking to “unwind” federal ownership of lands in Harney County. He mentioned “teams” of activists “working the land,” but did not clarify what he meant, or whether there would be occupations.
On Monday morning, the entrance to the refuge was blocked by a turquoise SUV.
“There's 17 buildings and all of them full of people,” said one of the activists, who declined to give his name as he spread gravel over tire tracks in the snow.
In past land occupations, activists aligned with the Bundys have claimed that snipers were hidden nearby. With temperatures dipping below 15 degrees, it seemed too cold for that.
The activists said they believe their presence is one of the final barriers to total government control of the West. “We're trying to accomplish the task of restoring rights to the people who have lost them or surrendered them,” Ryan Bundy said.
Members of his group began trickling into the area in December, brandishing rifles and handguns and proselytizing from the beds of pickups against federal land ownership. After a peaceful protest of more than 100 people Saturday night, a group of at least 15 men blocked the entry to the refuge and declared themselves its rightful owners.
“We can enforce the Constitution in Harney County and that’s what we intend to do,” Ammon Bundy told reporters. “We have a lot of plans.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was briefed Sunday morning by the FBI, said the occupation was being monitored closely by state, federal and local authorities.
“The FBI is on this every minute,” Wyden said in an interview. “But based on comments from what we’ve heard in the community and what’s been reported, we may be in just the early stages of this.”
Wyden compared the frustrations of the activists to those of all rural Oregonians, who face a troubled economy yet to fully recover from the decline of the timber industry and dwindling federal dollars to replace lost timber income.
“There’s enormous frustration about the economy and a very powerful sense in rural communities that nobody listens to them, that they don’t have any power, that their voices don’t matter,” Wyden said. “But the next step isn’t to be led by some outsiders into doing something that doesn’t help anybody.”
The refuge, incorporated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, has grown since its inception and presents challenges to ranchers in the area, who say they are increasingly hemmed in by the federal preserve.
Numerous Western conservatives have called for the return of federal lands to state and local government. The movement has waxed and waned since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s, which centered on ranchers’ rights and the money that could be made from timber harvesting, mining and ranching if only the federal government didn’t forbid such profitable endeavors.
The movement has picked up steam in recent years, led by Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who heads a national organization called the American Lands Council, which tries to persuade county and state governments to pursue the ownership of federal land.
The Bundy brothers are the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who made national headlines in a 2014 by leading a weeks-long standoff with federal agents over his failure to pay $1 million in grazing fees.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said in a report on that standoff that the militiamen and the federal land-return movement are part of the same spectrum.
“Anti-government extremists have long pushed, most fiercely during Democratic administrations, rabid conspiracy theories about a nefarious New World Order, a socialist, gun-grabbing federal government and the evils of federal law enforcement,” the center said.
Duara reported from Burns and Hennessy-Fiske from Houston.