Armed group occupying wildlife refuge in Oregon hints at possible end to stand-off

 A skull of a deer is seen in front of the residential building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.
A skull of a deer is seen in front of the residential building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.PHOTO: REUTERS

BURNS, OREGON (AFP) - The leader of a small group of armed activists who have occupied a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon hinted on Wednesday (Jan 6) that the stand-off may be nearing its end.

Speaking to reporters outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Mr Ammon Bundy said he was aware the occupation that was in its fifth day must end, but he added it was too soon to call it quits, Fox news reported.

"There is a time to go home and we recognize that," Mr Bundy was quoted as saying. "We don't feel like it's that time yet."

The group occupied the refuge on Saturday in protest at the jailing of two local ranchers convicted of arson, and is calling for the government to turn over federal land in the area to the people.

Mr Bundy said on Tuesday that once the group's mission was accomplished, they would leave.

However it was unclear how he planned to go about stripping the federal government of ownership and much of the local population - including the two ranchers whose case prompted the takeover - has distanced itself from the group.

"It is frustrating when I hear the demand that we return the land to the people, because it is in the people's hand - the people own it," Mr Randy Eardley, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, told CBS.

"Everybody in the United States owns that land," he added. "We manage it the best we can for its owners, the people, and whether it's for recreating, for grazing, for energy and mineral development."

The Audubon Society of Portland, a wildlife conservation group, has also denounced the occupation saying it puts one of the country's "most important wildlife refuges at risk".

"The occupiers have used the flimsiest of pretexts to justify their actions," said Audubon's conservation director Bob Sallinger in a statement.

On Wednesday, members of an Oregon Indian tribe also took issue with Mr Bundy and his group saying they were occupying ancestral property and "desecrating one of our sacred sites".

"The protesters have no right to this land," said Ms Charlotte Rodrique, a leader for the Burns Paiute tribe.

Meanwhile, the local sheriff has organised a town meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the stand-off with the local community.

Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who has urged Mr Bundy and his followers to pack up and leave, said the stand-off was having an economic impact on the region, where schools have been shut for safety concerns.

"If this goes any longer it will have an even greater impact to our tourism and economy," he said in a statement.

"They have promised to leave if our community wants them to," he added. "We want to see them go home to their families and consider how their actions affect this community."