Oregon siege: Vandalism, intimidation of civilians on the rise, sheriff says

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BURNS, Oregon (CNN) — The armed occupiers who took over a federal wildlife refuge aren’t just wreaking havoc on this Oregon community, the local sheriff said — they’re also altering the refuge to their liking.

Since the armed protesters took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 10 days ago, Harney County has seen an increase in “vandalism, harassment and intimidation reports,” Sheriff Dave Ward said.

Some of the occupiers have been able to leave and return to the refuge center. And protest leaders have also called on supporters near and far to come join their cause.

The result, according to Ward: the harassment and intimidation of police and civilians, including workers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that runs the refuge.

“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,” Ward said Monday.

“Self-identified militia members” approach them in public, Ward said, trying to start a debate about the federal government.

“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,” the sheriff said. “If they did, they, too, would work to bring this situation to a peaceful close.”

Ammon Bundy, son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and others have been hunkered down in the wildlife refuge since early January.

It started out as a protest against the sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, two ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon.

But the march supporting the Hammonds led to the armed occupation of the refuge, with occupiers decrying what they call government overreach when it comes to federal lands.

Occupiers tear down fence

The armed protesters haven’t just claimed the refuge — they’re changing it.

Over the weekend, the federal refuge’s sign was covered with a new sign that reads “Harney County Resource Center.”

And the occupiers used government equipment to uproot and tear down a fence Monday at the request of a local rancher, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported. They said it was part of the group’s bigger plan to return federal land to residents of Harney County.

Protester LaVoy Finicum told reporters the fence was making a local ranch “not profitable” and “hard to operate.”

He said that before the Bureau of Land Management installed the fence last year, local ranchers had enjoyed access to the range “for many years.”

Ammon Bundy told reporters that occupiers were going through refuge files “to expose many of the things that they’ve done here,” KTVZ reported.

Protesters arriving on both sides

Ward, the sheriff, said after a recently issued “call to action,” more armed protesters and “outside militia members” have begun to show up.

But other people are coming from afar to protest the protesters, according to KTVZ.

They’re angry and they want the armed protesters to get out.

“These are my public lands, these are your public lands, and what I see is a lunatic fringe of radical extremists who have taken my land over,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, a protester with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

After Bundy and his group finished a news conference, VeneKlasen took to the same stage to protest the occupation.

“I came here from New Mexico to speak on behalf of sportsmen, to speak on behalf of people that love land and wildlife, to come to tell these people to get the hell off of our land,” he said. “Let’s not candy-coat this thing — they are terrorists. They are domestic terrorists.”

Another protester, who was holding a sign that said “Get the flock outta my wildlife refuge,” told KTVZ, “I never thought I’d have to say this, but I’m here to oppose the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge.”

At a community meeting of a few hundred people in Burns, Franki Gould told CNN that she wants the protesters gone.

“We were a really close town and now we’re very divided,” she said.

Ward also spoke at that meeting, stressing unity among those from the community

“We can’t get things to normal until we unite as a community and ask these folks to go home so we can start working together,” he said to raucous applause.

“The fact is there is there is an hourglass, and it’s running. And time is going to run out.”