Following a peaceful rally and march on Saturday, Jan. 2, a splinter group of militia members, including Ammon Bundy from Nevada, occupied the Malheur National Refuge Headquarters south of Burns.
The occupation is part of a protest by Bundy and others regarding a re-sentencing in October 2015 for Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Bundy has said the occupation of the federal building may go on “indefinitely.”
In response, the Harney County Court held an emergency meeting on Monday, Jan. 4, to talk about the Bundy situation and the occupation at the refuge.
The county court released the following statement: “The Harney County Court is very concerned with the ongoing situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is under federal jurisdiction. The county court will stay engaged within the limits of our legal authority. Our main concern is for the safety and well-being of the citizens of this county. No one knows what the next actions will be of the outside groups who have seized control at the refuge.
“In our nation, we have three branches of government so that each serves as a check and balance to the others. If these militia groups believe the administrative branch is overreaching, they have every right to utilize the judicial branch or legislative branch to address these concerns. We encourage them to take this route.
“The Hammond family is well-respected in Harney County, motivation of the militia groups that have descended on Harney County goes far beyond the troubles of the Hammond family, as demonstrated by their actions at the refuge.
“The county will be releasing regular updates making them available to media and the general public through the Harney County website: www.co.harney.or.us”
Harney County District Attorney Tim Colahan said he had attended a law enforcement meeting on Monday morning, and the FBI is the lead investigative agency for the situation at the refuge.
Colahan said the Hammonds did report to federal prison on Jan. 4 as sentenced, and that may have an effect on the people at the refuge. He added that there will be no armed entry into the facility by law enforcement, and it may take time to reach a peaceful resolution.
On Monday, Jan. 4, the Hammond’s legal counsel released the following statement: “Dwight and Steven Hammond respect the rule of law. They have litigated this matter within the federal courts for over five years and, in every instance, have followed the order of the court without incident or violation. That includes serving the entire sentences imposed in this case by the judge who heard the evidence at trial and who concluded that imposition of a five-year sentence under these circumstances would ‘shock the conscience.’
“As the Hammonds have previously stated, they will be reporting to the United States Bureau of Prisons today to serve their sentences.
“The Hammonds will continue their legal efforts to renew their grazing permits. They will also pursue Executive Clemency. We hope that President Obama will agree with us and with the veteran judge who presided over the trial that the mandatory five-year minimum sentence is far too long for these ranchers.”
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward made a brief statement at a press conference on Monday afternoon. Ward reported the Hammonds had turned themselves in at a federal prison in California earlier in the afternoon. He said the incident originally started out when people from outside the state arrived to prevent the Hammonds from turning themselves in.
“It began with a peaceful protest, and then took an unfortunate turn when some of those folks broke off, and began an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Ward said.
He said he and the county court asked for assistance from the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association and Oregon State Police, and that they asked for the additional support to ensure the safety of Harney County residents.
Ward then spoke directly to the people who are occupying the refuge:
“You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation. The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community. Go home to your families, and end this peacefully.”
Monday evening, Sheriff Ward stated there are two separate issues in the county: One is the occupation of the refuge headquarters; the other, the safety of the communities in the county.
Federal law enforcement is now handling the investigation of the occupation at the refuge.
Local law enforcement, with support from other agencies around the state, are focusing on community safety. Ward said residents will notice out-of-town law enforcement vehicles in the area, providing increased security for residents.
“I’m asking the community for a unified and peaceful front,” Ward said. “The people who have taken over the refuge exploited the Hammonds, in their time of need. They exploited the residents of this community, making them believe the rally and march were to show support for the Hammonds, when it was really a distraction so they could occupy the refuge.
“The other (law enforcement) agencies are willing to help throughout this. The people at the refuge are not going to wait us out. They’re going to leave, and some are going to leave in handcuffs,” Ward said.
Ward stated law enforcement and residents in the community have shown great restraint in dealing with harassment and intimidation tactics for about two months time.
“I’m proud of this community. They have, and will be, there for each other, regardless of which side of the fence they were on. They’ll mend broken fences, because that’s the type of people we are,” Ward said.
There will be a public meeting on Jan. 6 at 4 p.m. in the Memorial Building located at the Harney County Fairgrounds.