BURNS, Ore. (AP) — A rancher from New Mexico renounced his U.S. Forest Service grazing contract at an event held by an armed group occupying a national wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest federal land use policies.
Adrian Sewell of Grant County, New Mexico, took the action at the event attended by about 120 people at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A group led by Ammon Bundy began occupying the area in eastern Oregon’s high desert on Jan. 2.
Bundy has said the federal government has no authority to enforce federal grazing contracts with ranchers.
Sewell said he didn’t mind being the only rancher to renounce his federal contract at Saturday’s gathering.
“I don’t mind standing out and standing alone,” he said.
Bundy, who had previously met with local ranchers urging them to tear up their federal contracts, also said he wasn’t disappointed that Sewell was the only one to take him up on his idea.
“I’m very happy he came all the way from New Mexico,” Bundy said.
Critics of Bundy’s group also attended Saturday’s event, which was held a few hours after a small counter-protest nearby.
Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity said the leaders of the armed group want to “stage another occupancy like this and to terrorize those towns the same way they have terrorized Burns. There’s no town in the west that wants to be the next Burns.”
Katie Fite from Boise, Idaho, called the occupiers bullies and said their action could give rise to other hate-filled efforts to take over public lands.
Federal authorities are trying to resolve the three-week old standoff, but have so far made no moves against Bundy’s group. On Friday Bundy met briefly with a federal agent at the airport in Burns, but Bundy left because the agent wouldn’t talk with him in front of the media.
The short meeting occurred as Oregon officials are putting increased pressure on federal authorities to take action. The FBI has said it’s seeking a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said she’s angry because federal authorities have not dealt with Bundy’s group.
Bundy, speaking to The Associated Press late Friday while sitting at a desk inside one of the refuge buildings, dismissed the governor’s request.
“It just again shows the ignorance of some of our elected officials,” he said. “It’s just amazing that she would just disregard the Constitution to the point where she would think it would be OK to give the federal government that authority to come in and take some dynamic action or something like that.”
The group has recently bolstered a front entrance blockade with timbers and set up another checkpoint at a back entrance. The AP was not allowed to enter the area Friday without an escort from an armed militant.
At community meetings, local residents have asked Bundy and his group to leave.
Bundy has said he believes his group’s work is appreciated by locals. He told AP the federal government had turned grazing from a “right” to a “privilege.”
“What we’re doing is making sure it’s secured as a right. And (ranchers) will make the decision on how to maintain it, how to care for it, and how to manage,” he said.
Sewell, the New Mexico rancher, said he had a 34,000-acre allotment and was restricted to having 85 cattle graze there. He said historically 600 cattle have grazed on the property.
For the BLM and Forest Service, grazing fees are based on something called an animal unit month, or AUM. That’s defined as the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.
That’s set through a Congressionally mandated formula. Currently, the cost is $1.69 per AUM. Grazing contracts typically run 10 years. The BLM said that in fiscal year 2014, it spent $34.3 million on livestock grazing administration and collected $12.1 million in grazing fees.
Environmental groups say federal grazing fees are kept artificially low, resulting in a subsidy for ranchers.
Bundy’s group plans to open the 300-square-mile Oregon refuge for cattle this spring.