Armed group occupying wildlife refuge in Oregon destroys federal park fences

Cattle feed in a pasture near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, Jan 10, 2016.
Cattle feed in a pasture near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, Jan 10, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - A small group of armed activists who have occupied a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon ratcheted things up a notch on Monday (Jan 11) by destroying fencing surrounding the federal property.

The group, which took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ten days ago, used pliers and an excavator found on site to tear down barbed-wire fencing that marks the edge of the park.

Mr Ammon Bundy, who has led the revolt, said that the protesters acted at the request of a rancher who wanted to graze his 600 cattle on the federal property, but was prevented from doing so when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) installed the fence last year.

"This will help them out, being able to run their ranch like they have in the past," he told a press conference covered by local media.

But USFWS spokesman Jason Holm said that "removing fences, damaging any refuge property or unauthorized use of equipment would be additional unlawful actions by the illegal occupiers".

"Any movement of cattle onto the refuge or other activities that are not specifically authorized by USFWS constitutes trespassing," he said in a statement.

A dozen occupants remained in the park on Monday, among them Mr Bundy, his brother Ryan and LaVoy Finicum who traveled from the southwest state of Arizona.

The group is occupying the refuge to protest the jailing of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson, and to call for the government to turn over federal land in the area to the people.

Both ranchers have clearly distanced themselves from the movement and voluntarily began their scheduled prison sentences after the occupation began.

Some neighbours and members of the local community, notably the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, have rejected the takeover, even if they support the Hammonds' plight.

"If they take down the fences, it hurts the refuge, but it also destroys the positive conservation impacts reaped from decades of direct collaboration" by the community, including ranchers, Mr Holm said.

According to television network ABC, the protesters have also accessed documents left behind by federal employees.

Police have so far refused to respond to provocations, counting on the movement to eventually peter out.

Last week, Harney County Sheriff David Ward went to the park in vain to once again ask the protesters to leave.

Meanwhile, county schools, which remained closed last week, have reopened.