PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - The trial of seven anti-government activists, including ranchers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, for leading an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon was set to begin on Wednesday with jury selection, court documents show.
The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which started on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was the latest flare-up in a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres of public land in the West.
The protest was sparked in part by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.
Jury selection was set to begin on Wednesday in a federal courthouse in Portland, with opening arguments likely to begin next week, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
The seven defendants are charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers and possession of firearms in a federal facility in connection with the 41-day occupation of Malheur.
Federal prosecutors dropped charges against one of the Bundy's co-defendants, Peter Santilli, a journalist who livestreamed events at the refuge, writing in a motion filed on Tuesday that "the interests of justice do not support further pursuit of these charges."
More than two dozen people have been charged in connection with the Malheur takeover. One of the occupiers, Corey Lequieu, the first of the 26 people on trial, was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in federal prison earlier this month, local media reported.
A second group of defendants are scheduled to go on trial separately next February.
The Bundys and other protesters were arrested in January on a snow-covered roadside where a spokesman for the group, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, was shot and killed by Oregon State Police.
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland, Oregon; Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)