Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward warned Monday evening that federal employees in the Eastern Oregon town of Burns have faced intimidation and confrontations from militants who have occupied a nearby wildlife refuge since Jan. 2.
Wards warning came after law enforcement officials said the militants holed up in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge apparently had accessed private employee information on federal computers at the refuge headquarters.
In a statement released Monday evening, Jan. 11, Ward said employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their families reported incidents of intimidation and confrontations. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages the wildlife refuge.
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As this issue has developed over the past week, employees and their loved ones have reported a number of uncomfortable incidences in which unknown individuals from outside our community have driven past slowly or idled in front of their homes, observing the residents and their activities, Ward said. In addition, self-identified militia members have attempted to engage employees and family members in debates about their status as federal employees. Many of these confrontations are taking place as their employees are grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to day lives.
Ward said the confrontations were making it difficult for the 10-day standoff to be resolved peacefully. Everyone on the law enforcement side is working together to bring a peaceful resolution to this situation, and the behavior of these folks from outside of our community only serves to escalate the situation unnecessarily, Ward said.
About two dozen people calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the complex of buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, saying they planned to stay until the land was returned to local control.
The group is led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in an armed standoff with federal agents in April 2014 because of disputed $2 million in federal grazing fees.
On Saturday, more armed militiamen from Idaho arrived in Burns to help, but were asked by Bundy and his group to leave.
Wards warning came the same day as militants occupying the wildlife refuge complex about 30 miles south of Burns used federally owned heavy equipment to take down about 80 yards of fence between grazing land and the wildlife refuge. Bundy said in a video posted online that the group planned to take down more fencing to help another county ranching family.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement saying that removing fences and damaging property on the refuge would fall in the category of additional unlawful actions by those whove occupied the refuge since Jan. 2.
Any movement of cattle onto the refuge or other activities that are not specifically authorized by USFWS constitutes trespassing, said Jason Holm, assistant regional director for external affairs at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Law enforcement officials have keep mum about plans to end the wildlife refuge occupation. The FBI is the lead agency, with help from the Oregon State Police and deputies from sheriffs offices across the state.
Officials said Monday theyre monitoring the situation at the refuge but wont provide details about law enforcement activity. Militants at the refuge and their supporters have freely been bringing in supplies and using the federally owned vehicles and equipment at the complex.
Authorities have established a law enforcement command post in the center of Burns at county and school district buildings. The buildings are fenced off and secured by deputies around the clock.
The FBI has also stationed at the small Burns airport, which is blocked by armed agents.
Officials say they cant answer questions about why the militants are able to come and go, or why electricity and Internet connectivity remains intact. Officials say they couldnt comment because the situation is a part of active investigation.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Amanda Peacher contributed to this story.
Here is Sheriff David Wards Jan. 11 statement:
When those who are now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge first came to town several months ago, we started to see an up-tick in the number of vandalism, harassment and intimidation reports. In recent days, they issued a call to action, which resulted in the arrival of numerous outside militia members. They claim to be here in peace, but we continue to see behavior by some that is concerning. There are continual reports of law enforcement officers and community members being followed home; of people sitting in cars outside their homes, observing their movements and those of their families; and of people following them and their families as they move around the community. While not direct physical threats, these activities are clearly designed to try to intimidate.
Specifically, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which manages the refuge, has told me that while their employees are physically safe, this is clearly a distressful situation for all involved. As this issue has developed over the past week, employees and their loved ones have reported a number of uncomfortable incidences in which unknown individuals from outside our community have driven past slowly or idled in front of their homes, observing the residents and their activities. In addition, self-identified militia members have attempted to engage employees and family members in debates about their status as Federal employees. Many of these confrontations are taking place as their employees are grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to day lives.
Let me be clear: the law enforcement agencies – those that are local as well as the sheriffs deputies from around the state, the Oregon State Police troopers and the FBI Agents – will not be intimidated from doing their jobs. Everyone on the law enforcement side is working together to bring a peaceful resolution to this situation, and the behavior of these folks from outside of our community only serves to escalate the situation unnecessarily.
The people on the refuge – and those who they have called to our community – obviously have no consideration for the wishes or needs of the people of Harney County. If they did, they, too, would work to bring this situation to a peaceful close.