Armed militiamen have taken over a national wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, vowing to fight the "tyranny" of the US federal government. The standoff started after a protest against the prosecution of local ranchers.
Anti-government militia members claiming to have as many as 100 supporters took over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near the isolated eastern Oregon town of Burns on Saturday, "The Oregonian" newspaper reported.
Led by members of the Bundy family of Nevada, who had also entered a standoff with federal authorities in 2014, the militiamen vowed to hold their ground and called on militia from across the country to join their cause in defending rancher rights and the US constitution.
"We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely," Ammon Bundy (pictured), the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, told "The Oregonian."
"We will do whatever it takes to maintain our freedom," he said.
He is joined by two of his brothers, who have vowed to fight to the death if necessary.
Ammon Bundy said the militia wanted to hand over federal land to ranchers, loggers and miners.
Among their demands is that the wildlife refuge managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service be closed down and the land handed over to ranchers. They demand local governance over the land in accordance with their understanding of the constitution.
"The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control," Ammon said. "What we're doing is not rebellious. What we're doing is in accordance with the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."
The brewing standoff in the small rural town of Burns came after an estimated 300 people, including militia and local citizens, protested the prosecution of two local ranchers.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, were to report to prison on Monday to face an additional four years after a judge ruled they had served too little time for setting fires that spread to government lands they leased to graze cattle.
The father and son argued they lit the fires to tackle invasive plants and prevent wildfires on their lands. The Hammonds have said the government has gradually tried to take away federal grazing rights, and through red tape and price hikes has made it difficult raise cattle.
After the arson conviction, the federal government denied renewal of their grazing permit.
The sentencing has stirred controversy in a tight-knit rural community and reignited a long-running dispute between ranchers and the federal government over grazing land.
The Hammonds' case has drawn the attention of far-right, anti-government groups, including the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
Backed by right-wing militia, the Bundy family challenged the federal government in a 2014 standoff after the federal Bureau of Land Management tried to remove cattle from public grazing land.
Bundy owed more than $1 million in arrears to the government after not paying leasing fees for some 20 years. The Bureau ultimately handed back the cattle and federal agents withdrew.
Taking up the Hammonds' cause, Ammon Bundy and other militiamen arrived in Burns in December. Ammon told "The Oregonian" the militiamen demanded the Hammonds be released from prison.
But the Hammonds have said the Bundy family has hijacked the controversy for its own agenda and that they plan to report to jail.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward called the group "outside militants," adding that multiple federal agencies were working to resolve the standoff.