PORTLAND, Ore. – The occupiers who took over a national wildlife refuge warned an Oregon sheriff that his county would be "invaded" by armed citizens if he didn't protect his constituents from the federal government, the law officer testified Wednesday.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said that before the 41-day standoff, group leader Ammon Bundy and another man urged him to protect two local ranchers who faced additional prison time for setting fires on federal lands. That protest grew into demands for the U.S. government to turn public range over to local control.
Bundy and six others charged with threatening and intimidating federal employees are on trial in the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Five also are charged with possession of a firearm in a federal facility.
Ward said he got an email in the weeks before the occupation from defendant Neil Wampler, saying the sheriff needed to protect residents from an abusive government or "see your county invaded by the most determined and organized — and armed — citizens alive in this country."
The leaders of the occupation said they came to Oregon's high desert to help locals deal with an overreaching federal government that has abused people's land rights for decades.
"I felt we were not there to break the law but to enforce the law," said Ryan Bundy, Ammon's brother, referring to the U.S. Constitution. Ryan Bundy, who acted as his own attorney, told the court during opening statements Tuesday that he wasn't anti-government, "as long as it's done correctly."
But prosecutors said he and the others broke the law.
"Everyone in this great nation has a right to his or her beliefs. We are not prosecuting the defendants because we don't like what they think or said," prosecutor Geoffrey Barrow told jurors. "We are prosecuting them because of what they did."
Barrow dismissed claims that the takeover was a legitimate protest of federal land management. The Bundy brothers are part of a Nevada ranching family embroiled in a long-running dispute over land use.
The issue traces back to the 1970s and the Sagebrush Rebellion, a move by Western states to win more control of vast federal land holdings.
Marcus Mumford, attorney for Ammon Bundy, said in his opening statement that the occupation had nothing to do with impeding federal employees.
Bundy "did what he did to demand accountability from the federal government," Mumford said.
Mumford repeatedly said Bundy was trying to take the refuge legally by a practice known as adverse possession, which is a way to gain title to land by occupying it for a period of time.
Mumford noted that the occupiers never aimed a gun at anyone.
The Bundys were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop that included the fatal shooting of Robert "Lavoy" Finicum, an occupation spokesman. Four holdouts stayed at the refuge for another 16 days.