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Know the West

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

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


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 Steven 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, Steven, 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.