BUTTE — A Montana Army veteran who lives in Anaconda is one of the leaders of the anti-federal-government militia group that has seized and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural southeastern Oregon.
Several media outlets, including the New York Times, report that Ryan Payne, 30, is one of an undetermined number of armed men who commandeered the refuge, vowing to occupy the remote federal outpost 30 miles southeast of Burns, Ore., indefinitely as part of an overall protest against government-owned lands and federal land-management “overreach.”
The latest armed protest is part of a long struggle between federal officials and local landowners and ranchers over property rights.
In addition to Payne, leaders of the occupation are three sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who engaged in a tense conflict with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights.
In 2014, Payne joined an armed anti-government group in Nevada that successfully kept the federal government from rounding up cattle Bundy had been grazing on federal land without a permit for some 20 years.
Bundy was later roundly criticized for making remarks that African Americans — whom he termed "the Negro" — were "better off as slaves" than as free citizens.
According to a June 2014 Missoula Independent story, Payne lives in a cabin south of Anaconda with his wife, two children and grandparents, although according to public records he also has a residence in downtown Anaconda.
He told The Independent that he founded Operation Mutual Aid, “a loose coalition of militias and sympathetic individuals from across the United States,” in 2013 with Pennsylvania resident Jerry Bruckhart, “as a mechanism for using the power of the nation’s hundreds of disparate militias to defend all oppressed Americans."
Bundy accepted OMA’s offer of support.
Payne told the Independent he served five years in the military, including time in the 18th Airborne Corps’ Long Range Surveillance Company. When a 2005 mission pursuing an unspecified intelligence target reportedly backfired, leaving his team unexpectedly in the line of fire and without planned backup, Payne said he soured on the military.
His suspicions eventually led him to anti-government actions, like the Bundy standoff against federal officials that drew many armed supporters and media attention.
"I discovered that I was working for the wrong team if I were in the pursuit of liberty and freedom," he told the Independent in 2014, "because we're the great oppressors of the world right now, unfortunately. We're the ones who are pushing oppression upon a lot of the world. And I have found that out, especially once I got out and I can look in and I can see what we're doing. It just isn't right."
Over the weekend at the Oregon refuge, Payne told The New York Times, “We will be here for as long as it takes ... People have talked about returning land to the people for a long time. Finally, someone is making an effort in that direction.”
Oregonlive.com reported Payne “claimed to have helped organize militia snipers to target federal agents" in the Bundy standoff. "He told one news organization the federal agents would have been killed had they made the wrong move.”
A protest on Saturday in the town of Burns preceded the occupation of the refuge. Oregonlive reported that an estimated 300 marchers — militia and local citizens — paraded to protest the prosecution of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight Hammond, Jr., and Steven Hammond.
The Hammonds were ordered to return to prison by Monday after being convicted of arson on federal land adjacent to theirs in 2001 and 2006, reportedly to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species, according to The New York Times. The ranchers initially served prison terms, but a federal court recently ordered them back to prison, saying the sentences were too short.
On social media, the protesters have been labeled everything from patriots to armed militia to terrorists.
Payne changed his Facebook profile over the weekend to indicate he is "Response Coordinator at Operation Mutual Defense" and that he now lives in "Burns, Oregon." An effort to reach him through Facebook Monday was unsuccessful.
While he characterized the group as “not violent,” Payne told The New York Times that the militia members had discussed the possibility of the standoff turning violent.
Referring to the federal government, Payne told the Times:
“If they think that’s worth bringing their armies in here and harming or fouling that endeavor, we’ll just have to read the Constitution and look at our Bibles and see who’s on the right side.”