If there ever was a strategic location for a citizens militia to take a stand against the supposed tyranny of the US government, seizing one of its remote outposts in anticipation of a standoff that could last months, this would be it.
The sprawling Malheur national wildlife refuge comprises 190,000 isolated acres of wildlife habitat, anchored by a clutch of stone cabins and support buildings.
The base comes with its own observation tower that allows a commanding view of the windswept, high-desert plateau. It is also 30 miles from the nearest town, providing easy access to grocery shopping.
This is where a cadre of heavily armed, rightwing militia has dug in for its declared war against Washington. It is Oregon’s largest county, one of the most remote in America, a largely blank slate where a mere 7,000 residents cluster in two adjoining sister communities, Burns and Hines.
Led by three sons of recalcitrant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who for years has battled the federal Bureau of Land Management over land-use rights, they assembled here last weekend for a rally to support two local ranchers they contend were wrongfully imprisoned by the federal government.
Then, when no one was looking in a community where few people lock their front doors, the militia members staged their coup – taking over the US Fish and Wildlife Service facility while employees were away for the holidays.
The militia members, who call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, have threatened to stay for weeks, even months, until their unspecified demands are met.
Yet as the militia prepared for their fourth night on Tuesday, a tense energy infused the surrounding community, where federal agents set up office in the local school district headquarters and held courthouse meetings with US prosecutors and others on how to solve the lingering occupation.
Harney County sheriff David M Ward told reporters the FBI was pursuing trespassing charges against the protesters and implored residents not to offer militia members as much as “a Snickers bar”.
Despite that request, and after seemingly arriving with fewer supplies than might have been expected, it appears the militia are well-stocked and preparing for a long, cold winter.
Earlier on Tuesday, the sun still rising over the refuge with the thermometer still frozen in the high teens, it was toasty warm inside the large bunkhouse kitchen, where a small crew was serving a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, bacon, coffee and orange juice.
Six lumbering men sat around a TV in an adjacent lounge room, jeering at a Fox News TV report on their standoff. They insisted that a federal government plan to cut power only steeled their resolve. They have enough propane and generators, they said, to last the winter.
Neil Wampler, a 68-year-old retired woodworker from central California, had been awake since 4am to help cook breakfast. After answering an internet call for support by the Bundy family, he said, he planned to stay here to the end.
“These are excellent conditions compared to other standoffs I’ve taken part in,” said Wampler, whose wool cap bore the slogan “State of Jefferson”, signifying a move for northern California and southern Oregon to secede and create a new state.
Wampler, who joined Bundy’s 2014 armed standoff with BLM officials at the ranch outside Las Vegas, said the wildlife refuge offers hot showers, comfortable beds and, on Monday night, a spaghetti and sausage dinner with a vegetable salad and homemade biscuits.
“Man, that dinner was good,” he said. “When I was at the Bundy ranch, we lit a fire on a propane stove in an outdoor shed and washed our dishes in a ditch. But I could get used to this.”
Late Monday, Wampler said, ranchers arrived with enough meat to fill four industrial refrigerators, replenishing the group’s diminishing supplies. The next morning, Wampler walked the compound, past heavy machinery and US Fish and Wildlife signs reading “Carp Haven” and “Coyote Hollow” and wondered why more militia members hadn’t flocked to southern Oregon as they did to the Bundy ranch in 2014.
Maybe it was the cold weather, he surmised, watching smoke from lit hearth fires rise above the buildings.
Moments later, a militia member drove past in a federal government truck with a US Fish and Wildlife Service insignia on the side.
Wampler smiled: “We found some keys lying around.”
Their standoff at the wildlife refuge is getting a very different response 30 miles away, in Burns, where townsfolk feel under siege.
Half of the 5,000 residents in the rural town work jobs with the local, state or federal government. Ammon Bundy and his associates spent weeks in the lead-up to the occupation wandering around the town, attempting to rally support for their hardline cause.
“Listen, the potential of violence is on everyone’s mind here,” said Burns’s mayor, Craig LaFollette. “We want this to end peacefully. But even without violence, these outsiders have disrupted our lives here, closed our schools. It’s time for these people to leave.”
Amid growing concern about the fallout from the armed occupation, various town leaders held a crisis meeting with federal authorities on Tuesday.
“An ongoing siege could break a county like this one,” said Randy Fulton, one of the attendees of the closed-door gathering. “Nobody wants this to continue.”
Fulton, 60, a lifelong Burns resident and a leading businessman who owns the town’s weekly newspaper, the Burns Times-Herald, said the standoff is hurting his town.
As legions of federal law enforcement officials arrive here – one hotel manager said 40 of 114 rooms are rented by federal officials – local businessmen worry the emerging battle lines will discourage visitors and keep workers at home.
Locals at the meeting demanded to know why federal officials are allowing the militia to come into town to restock supplies. Officials assured them they were handling the standoff and that law enforcement personnel from 35 other Oregon counties had offered backup. Yet it remains unclear what the army of federal and local officials will do.
Fulton also said a plan to turn off power at the site, first reported by the Guardian, had run into snags. Local power officials at the meeting said the move would also cut power to several surrounding ranches and that the only way to isolate the wildlife refuge would be to send men to the site to cut the local lines.
“Nobody wants to take the first shot on this Bundy bunch,” he said. “The federal guys say these characters include some pretty bad people, along with the usual sheep-like followers and media magnets.” He added that the local sheriff has received numerous threats of violence.
The motley crew of constitutionalists, ranchers and rightwing zealots who have descended on the refuge include, for example, a notorious anti-Islam activist who is on the radar of the FBI.
“Still,” Fulton said, “I don’t know if this is the time to go in there with guns blazing.”
Already, undercover agents are almost certainly prowling the streets of Burns. In a barely concealed hint, federal officials warned those at Tuesday’s meeting they might see outsiders who look “a little odd” but that it didn’t mean they were “a bad guy”.
“The commander said some of his guys don’t look like government agents,” Fulton added.
Yet it is hard to tell who any of the so-called protesters are.
The Bundy brothers arrived weeks ago to organize a movement in support of father-and-son ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were set to return to prison on federal arson charges.
It culminated in Saturday’s rally – the prelude to their occupation, which has quickly spiraled into a set of political grievances much wider than the plight of two local ranchers.
The protest on Saturday attracted 325 participants, but only two dozen were local residents, Fulton said.
“We counted them,” he said. “Most of the people held up signs supporting the Hammonds. Nobody expressed anything about dismantling the federal government.”
But a lack of local support does not appear to be discouraging the militia members at the refuge, who insist they’re feeling a renewed sense of camaraderie.
After sitting alone at a computer screen, reading the screeds of others in their cause, these men who refer to themselves as “patriots” relish this gathering of like minds.
On Tuesday, the bunkhouse breakfast room felt like a hunting lodge, with wives and girlfriends serving meals while working-class men with beards, flannel shirts and dour expressions milled about.
Some, like a man who gave his name as Jason Patrick, were wild-eyed about their military-style occupation. “There’s a rifle pointing from every blade of grass,” he said.
Others were more practical. Michael Stettler, a 49-year-old electrician who arrived on Monday from a nearby county, said he wasn’t “ready to take a bullet”. “If the federals move in and offer a chance to leave, I’m leaving,” he said.
However the occupation ends, protesters will be respectful, Stettler said, and plan to leave the refuge like they found it. His bunk room held personal items of the government worker who lived there. “I opened a closet and saw medical stuff and clothes and I said ‘Whoa!’ and closed the door. I’m not opening it again. My stuff is stashed in a corner.”