Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Oregon occupation planned for months by Ammon Bundy and Montana militia leader
It may have looked spontaneous, but the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a week ago was part of a plan Ammon Bundy and a trusted associate developed largely in secret over the past two months.
Bundy, the son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and Ryan Payne, a militia leader from Montana, came to believe that an armed occupation was the only way to bring enough attention to a pair of local ranchers heading to prison and change the underlying problem: federal land ownership.
Even as a wider network of anti-government groups and community members rejected taking action stronger than holding a public rally, Bundy and Payne privately strategized an occupation they felt was necessary to spread their message.
The Oregonian/OregonLive conducted dozens of interviews with Bundy, Payne, their supporters and federal officials that show how the leaders worked parallel tracks. They encouraged local organizers to plan a peaceful rally to back the ranchers -- Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond -- while they scoped out potential sites for a takeover.
Bundy and Payne were calculating and charismatic. The Hammonds' plight hit at the heart of their belief system. As Payne cased several federal offices in Burns and visited the refuge on multiple occasions, Bundy spent his time interviewing the Hammonds and pulling court files associated with their case.
Their presence in Burns, and the growing support for the Hammonds online, rattled the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enough that it began making safety arrangements for its 17 employees at the refuge -- a horseshoe-shaped bird sanctuary that surrounds the Hammonds' ranch. A photo of Payne was posted in a refuge building for workers to be on the lookout.
But still no one appeared to know specifically about a planned occupation -- not the FBI, not Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, not the Hammond rally organizers.