BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) – State and federal authorities urged a group of armed men occupying a U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon to abandon the protest over land rights on Wednesday, a day after their leader and seven other people were arrested and one man killed.
Law enforcement tightened security around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge after occupation leader Ammon Bundy and his group were taken into custody at a traffic stop on Highway 395 in northeast Oregon.
Authorities declined to give details of what led to the fatal shooting of one member of Bundy’s group, identified by activists as Robert LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who acted as a spokesman for the occupiers. Bundy’s brother, Ryan, was wounded in the incident.
At a news conference in Burns, Oregon, on Wednesday morning Greg Bretzing, FBI special agent in charge of the agency’s Portland office, said that the remaining occupiers were “free to leave” the refuge and would be identified at checkpoints manned by law enforcement.
“Let me be clear: It is the actions and choices of the armed occupiers of the refuge that have lead us to where we are today,” Bretzing said.
Bretzing said he could not give details of the traffic stop and shooting incident because they are under investigation.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward also did not give details but, with his voice breaking, said: “I’m disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly. Multiple law enforcement agencies put a lot of work into putting together the best tactical plan they could, to take these guys down peacefully …
“If it was as simple as just waiting out some folks down there to get out of some buildings, we could have waited a lot longer,” Ward said. “But this has been tearing our community apart. It’s time for everybody in this illegal occupation to move on. There doesn’t have to be bloodshed in our community.”
Ward said if the occupiers had legitimate grievances with the government, they should use the “appropriate manner” to address them.
“This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America and it can’t happen in Harney County,” he said.
Amid concerns that Finicum’s killing could escalate violence, the Pacific Patriots Network, Oath Keepers and the Idaho III% – all self-styled militia groups sympathetic to the occupiers – said in a joint statement they were issuing an immediate “stand by” order to followers.
‘COOLER HEADS MUST PREVAIL’
“During this time, cooler heads must prevail,” the statement said. “We do not wish to inflame the current situation and will engage in open dialogue until all of the facts have been gathered.”
One of the remaining occupiers at the reserve, Jason Patrick, told Reuters by phone they would stay until the “redress of grievances.”
“I’ve heard ‘peaceful resolution’ for weeks now and now there’s a cowboy who is my friend who is dead – so prepare for the peaceful resolution,” Patrick said.
On Wednesday morning an occupier posted what appeared to be a live feed from the refuge on a YouTube page called “DefendYourBase.” In it, a few occupiers, some dressed in camouflage, were seen in front of what appeared to be a heavy-duty 320D excavator, at least two of them carrying firearms.
At one point, a man spoke on a phone with a person he identified as his mother and offered her reassurance.
“If I die, I died for my country, I died a free man,” he said. “That’s how I want to die.”
The man added that his group had “food and everything for the long haul.”
The Malheur takeover, which started Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West. Protesters say they are defending the Constitution.
Bundy’s father, Cliven, was a key figure in a 2014 armed standoff with federal officials over unpaid grazing fees in Nevada.
The arrests have angered anti-government protesters across the country, said Mike Vanderboegh, a gun-rights activist active in self-proclaimed militia circles. “It’s all I can do to keep people from going and shooting feds right now,” he told Reuters.
Vanderboegh said he believed the FBI had acted too quickly to end a situation that was already headed toward peaceful resolution.
Federal officials said Tuesday they had probable cause to arrest Finicum, who told NBC News earlier this month that he would rather die than be detained.
Those arrested face federal charges of conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to impede federal officers from discharging their duties, the FBI said. Local KATU-TV reported that they were expected to make an initial court appearance on Wednesday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Jonathan Allen, Melissa Fares, Amy Tennery and Ed Tobin in New York and Andy Sullivan and Julia Edwards in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Trott)