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Sheriff Advises Locals To Keep A Distance From Occupied Wildlife Refuge


In Oregon, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward's patience is beginning to wear thin. This rural county was thrust into the national spotlight when a protest in support of two local ranchers convicted of federal arson charges splintered, and a group of armed militants took over a federal wildlife refuge. Last night, Sheriff Ward urged locals to distance themselves from the militants. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the latest from Burns, Ore.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Several hundred folks crowded into a barn at the Harney County Fairgrounds, and before Sheriff Dave Ward could even take the microphone, this emotional crowd erupted into a standing ovation.


SIEGLER: There were chants in support of Ward and his calls for the occupiers to go home, and plenty of fired-up people - like 64-year-old rancher Georgia Marshall, who has grazing leases out on the refuge.


GEORGIA MARSHALL: And my boots are shaken, but I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud to be a rancher. And I'm not going to let some other people be my face.

SIEGLER: Now, make no mistake - Sheriff Ward is also tired and frustrated as the armed occupation now enters its sixth day.


DAVE WARD: I, too, have a lot of concerns about the direction our country is going. But I intend to handle those by going to the ballot box.

SIEGLER: The sheriff, who has received death threats and whose family has been harassed, says the armed occupiers are creating anxiety in this rural county of about 7,000 people.


WARD: You don't come here and intimidate people. You're not invited to come here and bother with our citizens.

SIEGLER: Now, some here even volunteered to form an improvised brigade and drive out to the refuge to plead with the occupiers personally. The question no one has an answer to is how much longer this drama is going to last. The sheriff has said he expects federal charges will be filed against several of the armed militants. But the FBI so far isn't commenting.

Out at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the fog cleared to reveal a stunning view of the snowy Oregon high desert, and Ammon Bundy, the leader here, suggested the occupation will go on as long as the two local ranchers now serving federal time for arson are in prison.


AMMON BUNDY: There is a time to go home. We recognize that. We don't feel it's quite time yet.

SIEGLER: If nothing else, Bundy and his group have re-opened a fierce debate over how massive amounts of public lands in the American West are managed. Now, the tensions between the federal government and ranchers in Harney County, which is roughly three-quarters federally-owned, go way back.

JAKE DAVIS: Well, the more and more I watch these guys, the more and more I'm supporting them.

SIEGLER: Jake Davis and his wife, Ellie, stop by to have a look at the occupation. They raise cattle a few miles from the refuge, which is critical habitat for migrating birds on the West Coast. But Jake Davis says as the refuge expanded over the years, ranchers were forced out, and there's less and less land for grazing.

J. DAVIS: This refuge right here, the employees here are good employees. And the BLM employees, they're good employees too. But they're just getting dictated from a higher-up. Those people calling the shots on the refuge ain't even been here to see what's going on.

SIEGLER: Like a lot of the rural West, remote Harney County, Ore. has struggled as the economy has shifted away from natural resources, and folks like Ellie Davis can't help but have mixed feelings about the occupation.

ELLIE DAVIS: I think they're out here for a good cause. I'm not sure that this is going to go anywhere beneficial for any of us.

SIEGLER: For now, Davis is just hoping it doesn't end in violence. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Burns, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.