By Jonathan Allen and Jim Urquhart
BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - The anti-government occupiers of a U.S. wildlife refuge in rural southeastern Oregon met with several local ranchers on Thursday and said they intended to remain peaceful the morning after a loud confrontation on the remote property.
The takeover that began on Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles (48 km) south of the small town of Burns, is the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.
The occupation followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison earlier this week for setting fires that spread to federal land. The Hammonds have disavowed support for the occupiers.
Residents of the area in a series of public meetings over the past few days have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government's motives and frustration with the occupation. The leaders of the occupiers are Ammon and Ryan Bundy, whose father, Cliven, along with a band of armed men, stared down federal agents trying to seize his livestock in Nevada in 2014. Many of the other occupiers also are from outside Oregon.
Overnight, the Bundys' group said, a group of three men entered the refuge unexpectedly and engaged in a brief confrontation with the occupiers. Reuters journalists present at the time saw men running with firearms and heard angry shouting but no shots were fired.
The situation was more calm on Thursday when a series of area ranchers visited for chats with the Bundys, who discussed their beliefs that the federal government had overreached its authority, often pausing to read from a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution.
The Bundys say they want the federal government to turn over its land holdings in the area to local authorities and that they will leave after they have accomplished their goal.
"GOOD THINGS HAPPENING"
The occupiers said they have been trying to take good care of the facility and arrived with a large bag of bird seed for the abundant quail that surround the roughly dozen buildings of the refuge's headquarters.
"There are many good things happening. The citizens of this state are starting to show up," LaVoy Finicum, another leader of the occupation, told reporters on Thursday.
Royce Wilber, 33, whose family owns a nearby ranch, met with the Bundys late Wednesday.
"Hopefully some of the ranching families and the community will come and support you guys," Wilber told them. "That's what I wanted to post on Facebook, 'Quit bitching on your electronic devices and come down here and see these people because they are not how they are portrayed in the media.'"
The Bundys and their supporters are generally a talkative lot, holding forth freely with visitors on what they describe as the U.S. government's overreach in the American West, where it owns millions of acres of land.
Federal law enforcement agents have thus far kept away from the occupied site, aiming to avoid the deadly violence that erupted during conflicts with militants in Idaho and Texas in the 1990s.
But local officials have repeatedly asked the occupiers to go home, saying that even residents who support their views object to the illegal seizure of federal property.
"In spite of grave injustices levied against the Hammond ranching family, the potentially dangerous standoff that is shaping up in Oregon is not likely to resolve conflicts caused by the federal government's mismanagement of public lands," said the American Lands Council, a nonprofit group whose goal is to transfer publicly owned lands from the federal government to the states.
Finicum told reporters that he had not seen his 8-year-old daughters since the occupation began and that he hoped they would visit soon.
"All I am asking is that federal agents allow safe passing for my daughters to come and see me," he said.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)