Members of an anti-government militia have now occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon for a week. Saturday marked the seventh day since a handful of armed men showed up at the deserted refuge, closed down for the winter, to make a stand against what they see as an encroaching federal government.
Led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, the occupiers started what the media has taken to calling "the Oregon standoff." But in this cold and desolate landscape of sagebrush and wide-open spaces, the militiamen aren't really standing off with anybody. There is, quite simply, nobody there but them.
The federal government, which owns this land and protects it as a haven for migratory birds, is keeping its distance. Local law enforcement, led by Harney County Sheriff David Ward, is treading lightly as well.
The town of Burns, the county seat, is almost an hour's drive away over an icy road that is often completely empty. The law hasn't really shown up at Malheur. When the sheriff met with Ammon Bundy on Thursday to try and negotiate an end to the occupation, he did so on neutral ground, on a deserted stretch away from both the refuge and Burns. Finding an empty stretch of road in Harney County is easy: It's the tenth-largest county in the United states, but only 7,700 people live there. Humans are outnumbered by cattle 14 to one.
The only people at Malheur besides the militia are from the media. The occupiers hold occasional press conferences, attended by journalists from local, national, and even international news organizations, including VICE News. Reporters drive down for the occasion and then leave for their hotels. The Bundys won't say how many of their people are holed up in the dozen or so buildings at the entrance of the 300-square mile refuge, and because only a few of them appear outside at any given time, it's hard to guess at their number.
Local supporters come sometimes to deliver food. A man stands watch, with a sidearm, in front of the administrative building where the brothers have set up their command center. But in a week of occupation, no one has seen federal agents — or anybody else the militia would need to guard against. Apart from the occupiers, some supporters, and the birds, the wildlife refuge is empty.
A view of the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from a watchtower. (Photo by Ryan Nethery/VICE News)
Darryl Thorn on lookout in the watchtower. He said he drove overnight from Bremerton, Washington, to show his support. "Our job is to look out, you know, keep an eye on everybody and make sure everybody's not wandering around and being in places they shouldn't be." His jacket identifies him as a member of the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia that owes its name to the belief that only three percent of American colonists fought and won the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Ryan Nethery/VICE News)
Ammon Bundy, in the black cowboy hat, holds a press conference. (Photo by Ryan Nethery/VICE News)
Duane Ehmer, from a nearby county, said he put his horse in a trailer and drove to Malheur to support the occupiers. "These people are just like us," he said. "They're not all crazies running around with guns." (Photo by Andrew Glazer/VICE News)
Landscape on the way to Malheur Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Andrew Glazer/VICE News)
A kid from a local school newspaper interviews Ryan Bundy. (Photo by Andrew Glazer/VICE News)
Sheriff David Ward speaks at a Harney County town hall meeting on Wednesday. "I'm here today to ask those folks to go home and let us get back to our lives in Harney County," he said. "Nobody's been hurt yet, some buildings have been seized. Are buildings worth killing someone over? I say, no!" (Photo by Ryan Nethery/VICE News)
Harney County residents at the town hall meeting. (Photo by Lewis Rapkin/VICE News)
Lewis Arthur (right), is the founder of Veterans on Patrol, a militia from Arizona. Arthur and his fellow veterans disagree with the tactics used by the Bundys and they confronted the militia at the refuge Wednesday night. Arthur said he asked to be let into the refuge to remove a friend, an Arizona woman who he said "has been radicalized" by the occupiers, be let out. According to him, the militia at the refuge refused to let them enter. When Arthur and his friends circumvented a checkpoint and walked towards an occupied building, they were assaulted by a militiaman. Arthur's friend, Jeff "J-Dog" Kagan (left), said he needed medical care after the altercation. (Photo by Andrew Glazer/VICE News)
Occupiers keep warm by a fire. (Photo by Lewis Rapkin/VICE News)