Ever since Ammon Bundy and his group of antigovernment protesters first arrived in Harney County, Ore., several months ago, Sheriff David Ward says reports of vandalism, harassment, and intimidation against local law enforcement and other members of the community have been on the rise. And now, as their armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge enters its second week, reports of such behavior are continuing to flow in.
“While not direct physical threats, these activities are clearly designed to try to intimidate,” Ward said, in a statement released Monday.
In addition to seeing strangers drive slowly or idle outside their homes, Ward said U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees and their families in particular have reportedly been approached by “self-identified militia members” attempting to engage them “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.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Megan Nagel confirmed in an email to Yahoo News that “as folks from out of town arrived over the past few weeks, harassment of our employees has increased.” Nagel said that while staff is continuing to work “on other duties from other locations, to the best of their abilities,” all conservation activities on the refuge have been suspended in light of the occupation.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been in close communication and planning with its employees to ensure that they and their families remain safe,” Nagel said.
Ward himself has also described being subjected to similar acts of intimidation. He said he received death threats via email and, at a community meeting last week, told Harney County residents that his parents had been followed in their car and that his wife left town after her tires were slashed.
In his Monday statement, Ward specifically noted the recent arrival over the weekend of out-of-state members of like-minded groups like the 3% of Idaho and the Oath Keepers of Oregon, who showed up in response to a “Call to Action” from an umbrella group called the Pacific Patriots Network.
“They claim to be here in peace, but we continue to see behavior by some that is concerning,” said Ward, who was unavailable for an interview or comment Tuesday. “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.”
Bundy reportedly asked the armed supporters to leave the refuge shortly after their arrival.
Yahoo News reached out to representatives from the Pacific Patriots Network, 3% of Idaho, and the Oath Keepers of Oregon for comment on the sheriff’s statement, as well as clarification on whether any of their members have remained in town despite being asked to leave the refuge. They could not be reached.
Sheriff Ward met with Bundy on neutral ground last week, offering the group safe passage out of town if they would agree to leave. Bundy declined, later telling press that “we’ll take that offer,” but not yet. Since then, neither Bundy nor any of the other occupiers have given any indication of when they plan to leave, and authorities have made no effort to get them to do so — whether through negotiations or by force.
In the meantime, Bundy told reporters this week that the occupiers have been pouring through government records found inside the refuge buildings they’ve seized, searching for evidence of wrongdoing against local ranchers. Members of the group were also seen using a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backhoe to tear down part of a government fence in order to let one rancher’s cattle through to graze on the refuge.
“Removing fences, damaging any refuge property, or unauthorized use of equipment would be additional unlawful actions by the illegal occupiers,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement published by ABC News. “Any movement of cattle onto the refuge or other activities that are not specifically authorized by USFWS constitutes trespassing.”
Exactly what kinds of consequences might eventually face Bundy and his fellow occupiers is unclear. But at a community meeting Monday, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said he plans to make them pay for the estimated $60,000 to $70,000 a day it’s cost to bolster security in Harney County since the occupation began.
“We’re going to send Mr. Bundy the bill,” Grasty said.