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Armed Ranchers In Oregon Take Over Wildlife Refuge Building


And let's turn now to another developing story, this one in Oregon where armed protesters are occupying the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge. The self-described militia men accused the federal government of overreaching its authority and say they're planning to stay in the refuge for weeks, months, maybe years. As federal and local law enforcement plan their response, the protesters insist they are peaceful. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher has more.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Protesters emerged from brick buildings at the refuge headquarters for a Sunday press briefing. This self-styled militia man identified himself as Fluffy Unicorn.

FLUFFY UNICORN: Head count, anything of that nature - none of that will be addressed for operational security.

PEACHER: Although the protesters won't reveal their numbers, fewer than 20 militiamen were visible Sunday. The protesters originally arrived in Burns, Ore., to defend local rangers Dwight and Steven Hammond. Their prison sentences start today for arson on federal rangelands. But the Hammonds said they didn't want the militia's defense and intend to report as required. So the protesters turned their focus to this remote Malheur Wildlife Refuge 30 miles away.

AMMON BUNDY: This refuge, from its very inception, has been a tool of tyranny.

PEACHER: That's Ammon Bundy, the leader of this occupation. He believes the government violated the Constitution in its purchase of the refuge land back in 1908. Bundy says their mission is to put the federal lands under local control. But it's unclear by what means.

BUNDY: We do have a plan. That plan is going to take several months at the shortest to accomplish.

PEACHER: Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy. He made headlines in 2014 after he refused to pay the Bureau of Land Management cattle grazing fees. That resulted in a standoff with the agency. Armed, self-described patriots flocked to southern Nevada to defend Bundy.

BUNDY: Well, we are asking people to come.

PEACHER: Ammon Bundy is calling on protesters to gather again in Oregon.

BUNDY: We need to be united. And we need to have a strong defense. That's the way we can make sure that there is no lives that are lost here.

PEACHER: Bundy insists that the protesters are not looking for violence.

BUNDY: Let's actually walk this way.

PEACHER: To prove that, protester LaVoy Finicum shows reporters around the occupied complex. The Arizona rancher wears a wide cowboy hat.

LAVOY FINICUM: We're being respectful. We're not vandalizing. We're not tearing up.

PEACHER: The complex is nestled among sagebrush and blanketed by snow. It includes about 15 small buildings that look out over the 190,000 acre refuge in Oregon's high desert. It's unclear how many of the buildings protesters have broken into. Ammon Bundy says he hasn't heard from law enforcement since the occupation began. Harney County Sheriff David Ward says officers are monitoring the situation.

DAVID WARD: A few things have happened. But I don't think that we've gone so far that we can't work through this. I don't think it needs to come to any type of violent behavior from anyone.

PEACHER: But some of the militia did arrive expecting a showdown. A protester who gave the name Captain Moroni guards the road to the refuge on a windy hill.

CAPTAIN MORONI: Like, last night, we were all ready for a gun battle. They actually just decided to set down our guns.

PEACHER: The militiamen say they want to occupy the refuge for a long time - possibly years. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in Harney County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.