Photos: A protest over imprisoned ranchers becomes an occupation of a wildlife refuge

In eastern Oregon, the latest iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion.

  • The organizers of the protest for the Hammonds ask them to keep the protest peaceful. Among the organizers on a truck bed that served as a makeshift stage were Brandon Curtiss, president of the Idaho Three Percent, Brooke Agresta, a zone leader for the Idaho Three Percent, and Jeff Roberts, with the Oregon Three Percent.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Bobbe Helmerick, a retired air force veteran, was among protesters in Burns, Oregon, on Saturday, Jan. 2.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • As part of the protest for the Hammonds, people threw coins onto the walkways in front of the Harney County sheriff’s office to say authorities have failed to protect the people and have “sold the people out.”

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • KP Presta, 15, left, and Samantha Young, 24, pick up change in front of the Harney County sheriff’s office that was thrown by protesters earlier in the day. “They said this was going to be a peaceful protest,” Young said. “Throwing pennies at the sheriff’s office is not peaceful.”

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Brandon Curtiss, of the Idaho Three Percent, hugs Dwight Hammond while Brooke Agresta of the Three Percent hugs Hammond’s wife, Susie. Dwight was supposed to report to Terminal Island, a low-security prison in California, on Jan. 4.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • BJ Soper, with the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, stands with other protestors outside the Hammond home protesting Dwight’s upcoming imprisonment for burning hundreds of acres of public land.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Militia and constitutional group leaders explain the plan to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon. Many in the crowd at the town hall meeting at the Burns fairgrounds said they worried the occupation group would make a bad name for the rest of the protesters.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Rosella Talbot drapes an American flag over the sign for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. She brought supplies to the refuge headquarters, where militia had occupied U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service buildings.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Two men standing guard at the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, while lookouts occupy a nearby fire tower. At least some men standing guard were visibly armed.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • “Patriots” gathered around a fire to keep warm the night of Jan. 2, as they occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • A man carries signs disparaging the Bureau of Land Management as a “tyrannical government entity,” on Sunday, Jan. 3. The occupiers say they are taking a stand against government “tyranny.”

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • From left, Mel Bundy, Ryan Bundy and LaVoy Finicum stand amid of buildings that make up the headquarters and visitor center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Jason Patrick and Ryan Bundy walk up the road away from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge buildings, while two people climb the ladders in the fire tower where they will keep watch.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Ken Medenbach, of Oregon, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • “Gladiator,” who would not disclose his full name because he says he is “terrified” of the federal government, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Corey “Infidel 74,” of Nevada, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Ryan Bundy, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News

 

Before Malheur National Wildlife Refuge became a media madhouse, it was occupied by a small group of men determined to make a point about public land. They had left a larger protest in nearby Burns, Oregon, in support of local ranchers Dwight and Stephen Hammond. It was nerve-racking, following heavily armed men into the middle of nowhere, to a 187,757-acre wildlife refuge 30 miles from the nearest town.

I arrived at dusk on Jan. 2, the only reporter present. Four armed men stood around a sagebrush fire they’d built behind a white truck, which blocked the road to the occupied buildings. They were “not at liberty to talk to the media,” one said, and they initially refused to be photographed. But when I reminded them that I had a constitutional right to take pictures on public land, they agreed.

About a hundred yards down the road, a woman draped an American flag over a visitor’s center sign. She was upset that the Hammonds were going to jail, echoing many people in Burns. “Everything they had has been taken from them,” she said. “If we don’t stand up for this one family, it’s going to happen to others. And it already has.”

“How come the mainstream media isn’t covering this?” a camera-shy man asked me. Neither of us knew how strange that question would soon come to seem.

As darkness fell, the men took a chainsaw to some refuge signs to feed the fire. Eventually, more occupiers drove up in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service truck, carrying a Dutch oven and some food: beef and rice and chili. “This is Bundy beef,” one of the men told me. The Bundy ranch was far away, in Nevada, but clearly still part of the story.

They were short on plastic utensils and paper plates; when Ammon Bundy threw his plate into the fire, others reminded him they had to reuse the limited supplies. They were armed but didn’t seem dangerous. Some laughed and joked, and others reminisced about the wives and children they’d left at home. A few kept quiet, peering out sharply from under their balaclavas. Sentries watched from a fire tower. In the morning, the group prepared to meet the press. By then, they had put away their guns, at least for the moment. 

Read more than 20 years of coverage on the movement that sparked the Oregon occupation.

The original text that appeared with this gallery on Jan. 4:

On Saturday, Jan. 2, hundreds of protesters gathered in Burns, Oregon, angered by the renewed prison sentences for local ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Stephen, who had been found guilty for intentionally burning hundreds of acres of public lands.

As the protest continued, a smaller group of around 20 people, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of scofflaw Nevada rancher Clive Bundy, announced they would be riding to occupy the area's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 30 miles to the south. Many at the original protest said they did not agree with the occupation and refused to join it. At the refuge, the small group of armed militiamen lighted a fire and settled in for the night.

By Sunday morning, when more media arrived, the firearms were stowed away. The occupiers said they are prepared to use force and that they want the federal government to turn the Malheur refuge and nearby national forest over to local and state entities.