Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed group occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge, said Monday that he and his fellow occupiers are searching through government documents stored in the facility.
Mr. Bundy’s party took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters earlier this year after local ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond, who were convicted of arson in 2012, were returned to prison after prosecutors argued that the Hammonds’ original sentences did not meet federal minimums. Bundy says the Malheur occupation will not end until the Hammonds are freed and government prejudice against ranchers is exposed.
The Hammonds’ lawyer said Bundy and his “militia” do not represent the views of the family.
While Bundy says his group is not accessing government computers or personnel records at the site, he claimed documents found in storage could demonstrate discrimination against local ranchers as well as provide information that could free the Hammonds.
This new strategy by the occupiers comes after several other militia groups gathered near the refuge last week to meet with Bundy. While they agreed with Bundy’s points, they did not support his occupation but remained nearby, in hotels or in their vehicles, according to Reuters.
After Bundy spoke Monday, members of his group drove through the refuge to the border of a nearby ranch and tore down a fence set up by the government. The group acted to allow a rancher access to what they said was public land, in a move condemned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge.
"Removing fences, damaging any Refuge property, or unauthorized use of equipment would be additional unlawful actions by the illegal occupiers," the service said in a statement, according to The Associated Press. "Any movement of cattle onto the Refuge or other activities that are not specifically authorized by USFWS constitutes trespassing."
A crew used a Fish and Wildlife excavator to destroy the fence, and Bundy said the removal is “The first step of many in restoring ranchers’ rights.”
The occupation has caused the closure of nearby schools and government offices, and regular employees of the refuge are either working from outside locations or remain on leave. Schools in Burns, Ore., reopened after one week, while government offices including those of the Bureau of Land Management remain closed.
The removal of the fence, along with the retrieval of federal documents, are the first major moves made by Bundy’s group since the initial takeover of the property on January 2. Despite Bundy’s claims of a “peaceful” protest, his team is armed and have been labelled by some as domestic terrorists and condemned by the community, law enforcement, and the federal service.
“This refuge belongs to the American public,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jason Holm to The New York Times. “The steps they’re taking – the occupation they’re doing – actually robs the American public of experiencing one of the premier wildlife and birding refuges in the United States. It upsets us. But it should upset all Americans.”