The leader of the anti-government militia that has occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and the local sheriff met on Thursday in an effort to resolve the situation peacefully. The meeting ended without an agreement, but the two will talk again Friday in another attempt to find a solution.
"I am here to escort you safely out of town," Harney County Sheriff David Ward told militia leader Ammon Bundy at a rendezvous on a desolate road 20 minutes away from the refuge. A group of militia members led by Bundy arrived in a convoy at the rendezvous, witnessed by VICE News, while the sheriff came accompanied by a small tactical team.
The two met by the side of the road for about five minutes, then shook hands, and agreed to talk again on Friday.
"At some point this all has to be resolved," said the sheriff. "Let's get the community back to normal before everything gets out of hand."
Bundy replied by asking the sheriff to address the land-use issue at the heart of the controversy with the federal government that led to the occupation — to which Ward replied that it was not his jurisdiction. Bundy said then that he would stand his ground, after which the men shook hands and parted ways, agreeing to speak again by telephone the next day.
Bundy and his brother Ryan are leading a band of heavily armed men from various militia groups, who have been holed up since Saturday in a number of buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They say they are protesting the imprisonment of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who have been sentenced to prison for arson on federally owned land. More broadly, the Bundys and their backers — Ammon Bundy won't say how many are present at the refuge — say they are defending the rights of Western ranchers against an encroaching federal government.
At a town hall meeting on Wednesday afternoon, residents of the closest town, Burns, appeared divided on whether the militia should leave the refuge, a 45-minute drive away.
In a packed hall where about 300 people had gathered and only county residents were allowed to speak, Ward opened the meeting by saying that it was "time for these guys to go home, they've made their point." The room exploded in applause.
Later, as others spoke calling attention to the land-use issue the Bundys were focusing on, people said they had become sympathetic to their cause — which touches on a long-standing controversy between the government, which owns vast amounts of protected land in the West, and locals who want to use it for grazing, mining and economic exploitation.
Meanwhile, at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, armed occupiers remained camped out in several government buildings, undisturbed by local or federal law enforcement. The occupiers have posted lookouts and keep armed watch outside the office building where the Bundys have set up their headquarters, but there is no one for tens of miles around, except for members of the media who appear for press conferences called by the Bundys.
Earlier in the day, before meeting the sheriff, the Bundys had made it known that they would present a set of demands on Friday.