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 are on trial in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. All are charged with conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the remote bird sanctuary. Five of them are also charged with possession of a firearm in a federal facility.

Ward said Bundy and defendant Ryan Payne, who pleaded guilty in July, visited him on Nov. 5, nearly two months before occupiers seized the refuge.

The sheriff testified that Bundy was polite and “an easy guy to have a conversation with,” but the pair warned of civil unrest unless he told the federal government that the ranchers would not go back to prison.

“I was told my responsibility was to prevent them from going to prison, and if I didn’t do those things, they would bring hundreds of people to town to do my job for me,” Ward said.

The father-and-son ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, distanced themselves from the occupiers and reported to prison two days after the standoff began Jan. 2.

Ward said the sheriff’s office soon was flooded with phone calls and emails from supporters.

An email from defendant Neil Wampler said 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.”

A second message from Wampler warned: “We ain’t playin!”

The sheriff said he’s no cheerleader for the federal government, but he examined the Hammond case and determined that he had no right to defy the U.S. court system.

The defendants say the takeover was a legitimate protest of federal land management. Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, noted that the occupiers never aimed a gun at anyone.

Ward said it was “absolutely not a peaceful occupation,” describing gunmen clearing rooms using military-style tactics.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys asked the sheriff about a cordial meeting he had with Bundy a few days into the occupation. In a clip of the meeting, Ward offered Bundy safe passage out of Oregon and praised him for getting out his message about government overreach.

“I didn’t go there to pick a fight,” Ward said. “I wanted them to go home.”

Ward said he arranged the visit after determining at a town hall meeting that most residents wanted the occupiers to leave.

Under cross examination from Ryan Bundy, Ammon’s brother and co-defendant who is acting as his own attorney, the sheriff acknowledged that the occupation received greater favorability as the weeks went on.

“To a degree, yes,” Ward said.

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.

The trial is expected to last until November.


Follow Steven DuBois at twitter.com/pdxdub.