An afternoon of peaceful protest in Harney County, Oregon took a turn Saturday, when a small group of men armed with pistols and long rifles occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“The main reason we're here is because we need a place to stand,” said Ammon Bundy, the apparent leader of the group.
“We stand in defense,” he said. “And when the time is right we will begin to defend the people of Harney County in using the land and the resources.”
Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, was a key player in a months-long 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.
He and two of his brothers were among hundreds of conservative protesters who traveled to Burns, Oregon this week to demonstrate in support of two ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, who in 2012 were convicted of arson for starting fires on rangeland.
The men are due to report to a federal prison in San Pedro, California on Monday.
Most of the protesters who came to Burns did not participate in the armed occupation, and many expressed concern that it would undercut their movement's credibility.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, occupied by the Bundys and their supporters, lies roughly a half-hour south of Burns. It was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and is a popular place for birdwatching in the spring.
The occupiers draped an American flag over the welcome sign outside the refuge headquarters, and a pick-up blocked the road.
As the sun set Saturday, the temperature fell to 10 degrees. A group of five men bundled in coats and scarves fed sagebrush branches into a campfire. Only Ammon spoke to the media, but a few of the men quietly identified themselves as longtime residents of the Burns area and supporters of the Hammonds.
Asked how many militia members were at the headquarters, Bundy demurred. “I will not disclose,” he said. “Operational security.”
He also did not confirm a report that militia members have occupied a BLM fire station near Frenchglen, Oregon.
The wildlife refuge is “closed until further notice,” according to its website, and the occupation of the federal building has also prompted the Harney County School District to cancel all classes until Jan. 11.
Earlier in the day, more than 300 people gathered in Burns to march through town, across the packed snow, in protest of the Hammond’s five-year sentence.
Some had traveled 1,000 miles or more. The protesters included a rancher from Moses Lake, Washington, a retired Air Force master sergeant from South Dakota, and a real estate agent from Casper, Wyoming.
They carried upside-down American flags, and described what they saw as the federal government’s many violations of limits established in the Constitution. Many identified as part of the “III Percent” movement — a group that identifies with militias of the American Revolution, and believes around 3 percent of American colonists took up arms against the British.
The marchers came to a stop outside Dwight Hammond's house. Christmas greens hung on the door. Hammond emerged, wearing a baseball cap, and greeted the protesters. He said he felt humbled by the show of support.
"This gathering isn't about me. It isn't about my family. It's about how America has to get its feet back under it and go forward," he said.
Many of the protesters outside Hammond's home said they hoped to avoid any confrontation, out of respect for what they had heard were the wishes of the Hammond family.
“My personal goal was to make a public statement,” said Jim Gillmore, a rancher from Washington. “The Hammonds have expressed a desire to go ahead and be incarcerated. Had they expressed otherwise, this might be a different kind of a meeting today.”
Dave Duquette, an Oregonian with the group Protect the Harvest, said he was frustrated by the militia's decision to occupy the wildlife refuge.
"There's a radical fringe, that, although I do understand where they're at, they've taken it a little to far," he said. "I feel that the protest went really well.
"What they're doing right now out there at the refuge is going to overshadow the good," he said.