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Residents Ask Oregon Officials To Help End Occupation Of Wildlife Refuge

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to the escalating tensions in Harney County, Ore. That is where Ayman Bundy and a group of armed men are occupying the headquarters of a federally-owned wildlife refuge. There are reports of new talks between those men and the FBI. But as the occupation drags on, nearby residents are growing increasingly anxious and exhausted. Those sentiments were on full display at a recent community meeting. Les Zaitz is an investigative reporter with The Oregonian newspaper, and he attended that meeting.

LES ZAITZ: Ayman Bundy and some of the other occupiers on the ranch came in after the meeting had started. And when the crowd realized who was there, the comments became very pointed, directed at Ayman and the others, including the local county judge who walked up to where Ayman was sitting and very dramatically said, it's time for you to go home. And the crowd began chanting, go, go, go. It was a remarkable scene.

MONTAGNE: I think that would surprise some people who are listening simply because, you know, when you're not there, the feeling is somehow that there's a lot of local support.

ZAITZ: Well, there is local support for the idea that the federal government is just overreaching and hard to deal with and cumbersome. What is really clear in recent days is that the community is very anxious to get back to normal life, you know. Federal offices have been closed for over two weeks now. That's disrupting the hiring for the summer fire season. And people are just very frustrated and angry that the government is not acting and that Bundy and his friends will not abide by what they've said, that if we tell you to go, you will go.

MONTAGNE: Where does this seem like it's headed?

ZAITZ: Well, this - it's interesting that the change in the climate added the refuge for the Bundy and his group are - and they've entered their daily news conferences, which struck all of us, has given them daily oxygen to get out their message. But the other notable thing about what's happened is that Ayman Bundy has stepped up the rhetoric. And the most dramatic example of that is he issued a warning to federal employees not to interfere with what they're going to do for ranchers and miners and loggers in this county to restore what they believe are their rights.

MONTAGNE: Is there any question of this turning violent?

ZAITZ: Well, you have a lot of people with a lot of guns at the refuge. They're proud of bearing their arms. They contend they are there for defensive purposes. But it will take just one person making one mistake with one gun to trigger what could be not a very pleasant scene. But, you know, that's all speculation. There's no direct threats on either side that, you know, we're coming for you with guns blazing. But there's a significant concern that this could turn bad very quickly.

MONTAGNE: Les Zaitz is an investigative reporter for The Oregonian newspaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.