BURNS, Ore. — “He’s coming,” a man on horseback shouted, waving a large American flag against the glistening backdrop of the snow-covered Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“He” was Ammon Bundy, the leader of a group of armed protesters who have occupied this federal refuge in southeastern Oregon for a week. Flanked by supporters, including his brother Ryan and spokesman LaVoy Finicum, Bundy made his way up the hill Friday to tell a swarm of reporters that he and his fellow occupiers were not planning to heed the sheriff’s recent offer of safe retreat from the town, at least not yet.
“We plan on staying,” Bundy said. “I’m not afraid to go out of state. I don’t need an escort.”
The longer they stay — the occupation is in day eight — the more local people have gone to the refuge to try to understand the motivation of these men who traveled across three states to take over the nature reserve. And they seem to be leaving persuaded that the Bundy crusade is finally shining a light on an issue they’d like the nation to understand.
Yahoo News spent time with several locals visiting the refuge on Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday, Joe and Becky Kingen, ranchers from Fields, about 112 miles south of Burns, paid a visit with their kids, Monte, 11, and 7-year-old Riata. Monte, an enterprising sixth-grade journalist, was seeking an interview with the Bundys — and wound up getting more access than many of the national news outlets whose reporters have been staking out the refuge for days.
Interviewing Ryan Bundy, young Monte Kingen asked, “What do you hope to accomplish,” to which Bundy replied, “The best-case scenario, we hope to make it where you guys can ranch without the intrusion of the federal government. We want to be able to see you guys be free.”
His parents also came with a purpose.
“We’d like to thank them for what they’re doing here,” Becky Kingen told Yahoo News, as snow began to fall outside the occupied U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters. Kingen said she and her family appreciate the effort to raise awareness about what the Bundys and others argue is an overreach of federal control of public lands.
Kingen said she hopes the outcome of the occupation is that “the ranchers can take a hold of more of what happens with the land that’s used around here.”
Later that evening, when Ammon Bundy returned to the refuge following a brief meeting with Harney County Sheriff David Ward, he was greeted by several local ranchers eating pizza around a campfire. Among them was Rich Sampson, whose property is adjacent to the wildlife refuge.
Sampson said he and his neighbors were initially concerned about what was happening in their own backyard, but were put at ease once they saw the situation for themselves.
“We walked down that road, not knowing what we were walking into and spoke to these people,” said Sampson, sporting a shearling denim jacket and the kind of tan that comes from years of working outside. “We went home and told everybody in our community, ‘We’re not frightened. They’re cowboys. They’re one of us.’”
While Ammon Bundy has reportedly owned a variety of small businesses in Arizona, where he lives, he and brother Ryan are two of notorious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s 14 children. Bundy gained national headlines back in 2014 when he and a militia of his own held an armed standoff against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who’d been sent to round up Bundy’s cattle in exchange for the million dollars of debt he’d accumulated by failing to pay federal grazing fees for the past two decades.
Sampson said he didn’t understand why the schools in Burns, some 30 miles away from the refuge, were still closed when the nearby Crane schools had reopened on Tuesday.
“We’ve gone on with our lives as usual,” Sampson said, also noting that in the two times he’d been to the refuge since Bundy and his crew set up camp, he had not seen a single firearm.
“We were told you were a bunch of gun-totin’ crazies,” he said. “Where are the guns?”
While a number of the protesters were, in fact, seen walking around the refuge with handguns holstered to their belts, the group does seem to be toning down its rhetoric since LaVoy Finicum camped outside with his rifle on Tuesday night in anticipation of an FBI raid.
The Arizona rancher had been prepared for a shootout if FBI agents pointed guns at him, telling NBC News at the time, “There are more important things than your life.”
On Thursday, however, Finicum told reporters that “this is intended to be a peaceful occupation.”
“We want you to know the only reason that we have guns here is for our own personal protection and safety,” he said. “We should never ever point guns at each other.”
Finicum continued to present a softer image on Friday, proudly showing off his daughters and their young children at a press conference.
Bundy also appeared subdued on Friday, humbly thanking all the people from the local community who’ve shared support, as well as food and supplies. He even sounded a bit choked up when talking about his determination to follow through with his mission: to return the federal wildlife refuge to the people of Harney County and to get Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers who’d been convicted of arson for burning federal land, out of prison.
When one reporter asked Bundy what he would’ve done if Sheriff Ward had tried to handcuff him during their meeting Thursday, Finicum advised him not to answer the question and he complied.
Bundy said the occupiers would consider Ward’s offer for free passage out of town, but insisted that they had no plans to leave yet.
Ward’s office released a statement Friday saying that because “the people on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge made it clear that they have no intention of honoring the sheriff’s request to leave,” Ward had no plans for further calls or meetings with Bundy.
However, the statement said, “the sheriff is keeping all options open.”