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TRIBUNE PHOTO: ROB KERR - Armed militants calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Jan. 2. Harney County Sheriff David Ward says his offer for them to leave peacefully could expire as law enforcement patience runs out.Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said Saturday that he was still working toward a peaceful resolution of the two-week standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but he worries the community’s patience was running out.

Ward said his offer of safe passage out of the county was still valid if about two dozen armed militants holed up at the refuge complex 30 miles southeast of Burns decided to leave.

Ward made the offer during a Jan. 7 face-to-face meeting with the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy of Arizona, on a cold, snowy intersection near the refuge. Bundy and his group, known as Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, declined the sheriff’s invitation to leave.

That offer, however, has a limited shelf life, Ward said, partly because law enforcement patience could also wear thin.

“At this point, if those folks walked out the back door and left, I doubt anybody would stop them,” he said. “I think there could come a point when I could be shouldered out of the process. I’m not going to be able to leave that offer out there forever.”

COURTESY OF DAVID WARD - Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward says his community feels like it is being held hostage by militants who have occupied the nearby wildlife refuge for two weeks.

First arrest

The group of armed militants took control of the refuge complex Jan. 2, demanding that refuge land, and other federally owned property in the county, be turned over to local ranchers. They also demand the release of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, Harney County ranchers who reported to a federal prison Jan. 4 to serve five-year sentences for illegally burning federal grazing land.

Law enforcement agencies dealing with the standoff have kept a low profile and have not moved against the armed group. The first arrest in the standoff was made Friday afternoon, Jan. 15, when 62-year-old Kenneth W. Medenbach of Crescent, Ore., was taken into custody and charged with driving a van stolen from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which operates the refuge. Medenbach was a member of the group holed up at the refuge.

Ward said the FBI was responsible for law enforcement action at the refuge, which is federally owned, and he was responsible for maintaining peace in the rest of the county, and the towns of Burns and Hines.

He has been helped in that effort by several deputies and officers from sheriff’s offices and police departments around the state who have come to Harney County at Ward’s request.

Lost innocence

Ward told the Portland Tribune in one of his first media interviews since the standoff began Jan. 2, that Harney County residents were being “held hostage” by armed militants at the refuge complex and their “national agenda.” Dozens of Harney County residents have said during community meetings that they want the militants to leave. The issue has divided the small towns of Burns and Hines, Ward said, and it could take a long time for the communities to heal.

“What’s going on here is unfair to our community,” Ward said. “It’s damaging our way of life. Our community is being held hostage for a list of demands that is really about nationwide issues.

“I fear that we may never be able to get our community back to the place it was just six weeks ago. That innocence is lost. We may never look at a strange face in town again without being suspicious.”

Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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