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Conservation groups rally to end occupation of Oregon refuge

Armed militants are three weeks into their takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and conservation groups are now pushing back. 

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    Protesters hold signs during a rally against the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ammon Bundy and his armed followers, while at the Federal Building in Eugene, Ore., Tuesday. With the armed takeover of the national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon in its third week, Bundy and his armed group are still trying to muster up broad community support, so far without much luck.
    Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP
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With the armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon in its third week, Ammon Bundy and his group are still trying to muster up broad community support – so far without much luck.

Bundy has drawn a lot of attention to the dissatisfaction of ranchers and local townsfolk with federal land-use policies in the West. But the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has also begun to result in pushback from others who use public lands – birders, hunters and hikers, among others.

Here are some things to know about how conservation groups are trying to rally public pressure on Bundy to leave, and what Bundy is doing to try to win more sympathizers.

GROWING PUSHBACK AGAINST THE OCCUPATION

On Tuesday, several hundred people rallied in Portland – about 300 miles north of the remote refuge in southeastern Oregon – to demand Mr. Bundy end the occupation and to point out that federal management makes it possible for all kinds of people to enjoy public lands.

Protesters chanted "Birds, Not Bullies," a reference to the Malheur refuge's creation in 1908 as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. The rally was organized by Oregon Wild, Portland Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity.

"This occupation represents a threat to public lands," said Bob Sallinger with the Audubon Society. "These are not political statements. These are crimes."

In Boise, more than 100 people attended a similar protest Tuesday in front of the Idaho Capitol. Ann Finley, a member of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said that the refuge is a special place.

"I love our free lands, and we're out here today stepping out and saying those lands should remain public," Ms. Finley said.

Conservation groups have also shown up at the refuge itself to demand that Bundy and his followers leave, and last weekend got into a shouting match with Bundy's group.

BUNDY'S COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Bundy has had trouble winning many friends who aren't militants, or even finding a place where he could spell out his views to people living near the refuge. His plans to hold a community meeting at the local fairground tanked when Harney County said he couldn't hold it there.

Still, Bundy isn't giving up. On Monday night, Bundy held a meeting at a hot springs resort near Crane, Ore., where he tried to persuade 30 or so ranchers to stop paying the federal government to graze their cattle on public lands. It does not appear he persuaded many to follow his advice.

WILL PUSHBACK BY CONSERVATION GROUPS HAVE ANY IMPACT?

Bundy's most fervent supporters – those holed up inside headquarters of the wildlife refuge – continue to be militants from outside Oregon. Bundy has demanded federal lands in Harney County be handed over to locals. While many local residents want Bundy and his group to leave, they also back his views on federal land policies. Bundy's game plan may be to continue to try to win local support and to draw as much attention as possible to his complaints against the federal government.

The small, armed group Bundy leads has said repeatedly that local people should control federal lands. Bundy has repeatedly told reporters the group would leave when there was a plan in place to turn over federal lands to locals – a common refrain in a decades-long fight over public lands in the West. At a Tuesday news conference, Bundy said "we're not going anywhere" until his group gets its goals accomplished.

WHAT'S LAW ENFORCEMENT DOING ABOUT THIS?

The situation at the refuge is being carefully monitored by FBI agents sent to the area, by Oregon State Police and by the local sheriff. Last week, the first arrest related to the occupation came when a militant driving a vehicle belonging to the refuge drove 30 miles into Burns to buy groceries. He was arrested on probable cause for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Bundy's group has been using federal vehicles on the refuge. If they drive them off the refuge, they can probably count on being arrested.

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AP reporters Gosia Wozniacka in Portland and Kimberlee Kruesi in Boise contributed to this report.

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