BURNS, Ore. (AP) — The leader of an armed group occupying a national wildlife refuge to protest federal land management policies said Friday he and his followers are not ready to leave even though the sheriff and many locals say the group has overstayed their welcome.
"How long will this go on?" said Ammon Bundy, leader of the group that seized the headquarters of the refuge in southeastern Oregon last Saturday. "We say to you, 'not a minute too early."
Bundy met a day earlier with Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who asked Bundy to heed the will of locals and leave the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ward also offered to escort Bundy and his group out of the refuge to ensure safe passage.
"We will take that offer," Bundy said on Friday. "But not yet."
Bundy's group — calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom — comes from as far away as Arizona and Michigan.
Bundy's protest at the refuge is a continuation of long-running arguments that federal policies for management of public lands in the West are harming ranchers and other locals. Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who in 2014 was at the center of a tense standoff with federal officials over grazing rights.
Ammon Bundy has been demanding that federal land in Oregon's Harney County be turned over to local residents to be managed.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday called the occupation of the wildlife refuge "unlawful" and said it had to end.
"It was instigated by outsiders whose tactics we Oregonians don't agree with. Those individuals illegally occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge need to decamp immediately and be held accountable," she said.
Federal, state and local law authorities have been closely monitoring the situation at the refuge but have so far taken no action against Bundy and his followers, apparently to avoid a confrontation. Ward has been the most visible law enforcement authority during the occupation, and his strategy so far has been to try to show Bundy that locals oppose the occupation and want them to leave.
Ward got a lot of support during a packed community meeting Wednesday night.
At that meeting, local residents said they sympathized with the armed group's complaints about federal land management but disagreed with their tactics and called Bundy and his followers to leave.
Bundy initially came to Burns to rally support for two local ranchers who were sentenced to prison on arson charges. The ranchers — Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond — distanced themselves from Bundy's group and reported to prison Monday.
The Hammonds were convicted of arson three years ago and served no more than a year. A judge later ruled that the terms fell short of minimum sentences requiring them to serve about four more years.