Burns, Oregon—Stretching across 188,000 acres of low-slung scrubland in southeastern Oregon, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 320 species of birds and, as of this writing, an armed group of self-styled militiamen. The men took over the refuge’s headquarters on Saturday evening to protest the arrest of two local ranchers and the tyranny of the federal government. An Arizona cattleman named LaVoy Finicum told me that he and his fellow militants were greeted on arrival by a bald eagle, which spread its wings and took off from a fence post in an indubitable symbol of American freedom.
There were few birds, certainly no eagles, soaring above the compound on Sunday afternoon—just a flock of journalists hanging around the entrance of the occupied area, stamping their feet in the snow. “We hear there’s tyranny going on in Hawaii,” joked a “patriot” in camo gear who was guarding the road down to the government buildings. A few other men sat in pickups or stood around a fire that gave off more smoke than heat. Now and then a figure could be seen up in a watchtower overlooking the compound.
Many of the men are veterans of the 2014 clash between federal agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose son Ammon is running the show at Malheur. Ammon Bundy initially claimed to have as many as 100 supporters at the bird sanctuary. His brother, Ryan Bundy, said they were “willing to kill and be killed if necessary.” A former Marine named Jon Ritzheimer recorded something of a martyrdom video in his truck, in which he tearfully addressed his family and announced that he “want[s] to die a free man.”
A tour of the compound on Sunday afternoon suggested a much smaller force than Ammon Bundy boasted of, made up of gruff militiamen and amiable ranchers from out of town with pocket Constitutions and “the God thread running hard through them,” as one put it. Though the media reported a “standoff,” there was nobody there for the militants to stand off against—no police, no federal agents apparent anywhere on the stretch between the refuge and the town of Burns, population 2,800.
Nobody is totally sure what they’re doing out there, not the journalists or the locals or even some of the militants, who came ostensibly to defend Dwight and Steve Hammond, a father and son who turned themselves in to a California prison on Monday to serve five-year sentences for setting fire to federally managed land near their cattle ranch. But the Hammonds didn’t ask for an occupation in their name. According to the local sheriff, Bundy and company are not there to help the ranchers but instead “to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.” The “movement” isn’t new: Bundy is escalating a decades-long conflict over public lands in the West—a conflict that spans the Sagebrush Rebellion in the late 1970s and recent standoffs at mines in Oregon and Montana.