By Jonathan Allen and Jim Urquhart
MALHEUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Ore. (Reuters) - The leader of a group of armed protesters occupying the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon met briefly with a local sheriff on Thursday but rejected the lawman's offer of safe passage out of the state to end the standoff.
Ammon Bundy and other occupiers left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in two vehicles and traveled to a neutral location along a remote Oregon roadside to meet for about five minutes with Harney County Sheriff David Ward.
During that meeting, which was attended by two Reuters reporters, Ward told Bundy that he was seeking a peaceful resolution to the nearly week-long standoff and offered to escort the occupiers out of Oregon.
But Bundy, saying that the sheriff had not addressed the occupiers' grievances, declined.
"We plan on staying," Bundy told reporters following a meeting. "I'm not afraid to go out of state. I don't need an escort."
The sheriff's office later said in a tweet that Ward had plans to meet with Bundy again on Friday.
The takeover that began on Saturday at the headquarters of the refuge, about 30 miles (48 km) south of the small town of Burns, is the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.
The move followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison earlier this week for setting fires that spread to federal land.
A lawyer for Hammond family has said that the occupiers do not speak for the family.
Local residents have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government's motives and frustration with the occupation.
The leaders of the armed occupation are Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy. Their father, Cliven Bundy, along with a band of armed men, stared down federal agents trying to seize his livestock in Nevada in 2014. Many of the other occupiers also are from outside Oregon.
At least a dozen other armed men have been visible at the park headquarters, offices, a museum and outbuildings. They have come and gone freely from the park without interference from authorities, at times making trips into town.
The Bundys' group said that on Wednesday night three men entered the refuge unexpectedly and engaged in a brief confrontation with the occupiers. Reuters journalists present at the time saw men running with firearms and heard angry shouting, but no shots were fired.
The situation was more calm on Thursday when area ranchers visited for chats with the Bundys, who discussed their beliefs that the federal government had overreached its authority, often pausing to read from the U.S. Constitution.
"Hopefully some of the ranching families and the community will come and support you guys," rancher Royce Wilber told them. "That's what I wanted to post on Facebook, 'Quit bitching on your electronic devices and come down here and see these people because they are not how they are portrayed in the media.'"
FEDERAL LAND HOLDINGS SOUGHT
The Bundys say they want the federal government to turn over its land holdings in the area to local authorities and that they will leave after they have accomplished their goal.
Federal law enforcement agents and local police have so far kept away from the occupied site, maintaining little visible presence outside the park in a bid to avoid the deadly violence that erupted during conflicts with militants in Idaho and Texas in the 1990s.
But local officials have repeatedly asked the occupiers to go home, saying that even residents who support their views object to the illegal seizure of federal property.
"In reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States," Ward said in a statement earlier this week.
(Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)