PRINCETON, Ore. The leaders of a group of self-styled militiamen who took over a U.S. wildlife refuge headquarters over the weekend said on Monday they had acted to protest the federal government's role in governing wild lands.
The anti-government occupation, which began on Saturday, was the latest skirmish over federal land management in the American West.
Ammon Bundy, a leader of the group, told reporters outside the occupied facility on Monday that his group had named itself "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom" and was trying to restore individual rights. Bundy and law enforcement officials declined to say how many people were occupying the refuge headquarters.
About half a dozen occupiers could be seen outside the facility on Monday, with some manning a watchtower and others standing around a vehicle they had used to block the road leading to the building. They chatted quietly among themselves. None was visibly armed.
The FBI said it was seeking a "peaceful resolution to the situation." It declined to give details on how the U.S. government would deal with the occupiers. No significant law enforcement presence could be seen at the site.
The three-day-old occupation is the latest wrinkle in decades of conflict between ranchers and the federal government over Washington's management of hundreds of thousands of acres of range land. Critics accuse the government of frequently overstepping its authority and exercising arbitrary power over land use without sufficient accountability.
Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose family staged a 2014 armed protest against federal land management officials that ended with authorities backing down, citing safety concerns.
The Bundy ranch standoff in 2014 drew hundreds of armed protesters after the Bureau of Land Management sought to seize Bundy's cattle because he refused to pay grazing fees. Federal agents backed down in the face of large numbers of armed protesters and returned hundreds of cattle.
Jon Ritzheimer, a Marine Corps veteran who travelled from his home in Phoenix to take part in the occupation, said he and his companions were "trying to restore this land to the people." He said the U.S. Constitution was under attack from the government.
The group's action drew criticism on social media, with some users asking if the occupiers would have been treated differently if they had been black or Muslim. Hashtags for tweets on the occupation included "#YeeHawdists" and "#YallQaeda."
SERIES OF FIRES
The occupation followed a protest march in Burns, a small city about 32 miles (50 km) north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, over the imminent imprisonment of ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond. The Hammonds through an attorney dissociated themselves from the occupiers.
The Hammonds were found guilty in 2012 of setting a series of fires including a 2001 blaze intended to cover up evidence of deer poaching that went on to burn 139 acres (56 hectares) of public lands, according to federal prosecutors.
They were initially sentenced to 12 months in prison, below the federal minimum for arson, but a U.S. district judge in October raised the sentences to five years. They were due to report to prison on Monday.
The Hammond ranch borders on the southern edge of the Oregon refuge, a bird sanctuary in the arid high desert in the eastern part of the state, about 305 miles (490 km) from Portland.
"Obviously we're aware of the situation and concerned about it," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation, adding: "This ultimately is a ... local law enforcement matter."
Republican White House candidates Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida expressed sympathy for the protesters' concerns but urged the group to remain peaceful and follow the law, according to media reports.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing 292 square miles (75,630 hectares), was established in 1908 by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as a breeding ground for greater sandhill cranes and other native birds.
(Reporting by Jim Urquhart; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Daniel Wallis in Denver and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)
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