Inside the Oregon Militant Standoff

The Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, central to the ongoing Oregon standoff, was also behind an armed clash with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. Mike Blake/Reuters

In what they called a move against federal "tyranny," an estimated 100 armed American militants—the majority of them white—have seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge deep in the Pacific Northwest.

The group took the refuge, nestled inside a marshy region near the remote town of Burns, Oregon, on Saturday night following a decision that a rancher and his son must serve prison time for "maliciously" damaging or destroying property owned by the U.S.

Rolling Stone reports that Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steve were convicted of lighting fires on federal lands neighboring their ranch in 2001 and 2006. Investigators believe the pair sparked the first fire—which burned 139 acres of land—to cover up an illegal poaching scheme, while the second fire was set as a pre-emptive measure against wildfire encroaching on the region.

The militants are up in arms because the Hammonds—who have built a booming operation in an isolated corner of the U.S., The Oregonian notes—were sentenced two times for their arson crimes. Initially, in 2012, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the five-year mandatory sentence under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 "would shock the conscience." He instead sentenced Dwight to three months in prison and Steve to one year. The men served their time and returned to ranching.

After the U.S. attorney serving in the case called foul play, the federal government appealed the sentence (a rarity in such cases) and it was decided in October that, given the "seriousness" of their crimes, the Hammonds should be locked up again for the five-year minimum, starting Monday. Federal agents also are seeking $1 million in damages from the two fires, which they say risked the lives of dozens of volunteer firefighters who were stationed near the farmlands.

The decision sparked ire among anti-government militia groups in nearby ranching communities, which believed the ranchers were being treated like terrorists. Back in October, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni, the federal prosecutor in the case, said that he "never" called the two terrorists. "They committed arson," he added.

The disgruntled rancher at the core of the conflict is one Cliven Bundy, whom the government says owes more than $1 million in fines and grazing fees. In 2014, the Nevada-based rancher mounted an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over "grazing rights."

Bundy's sons Ammon and Randy, who are also focal points in the militant standoff they call "the point of the spear," said in a video posted to Facebook: "We have basically taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And this will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here and to live here. And we're planning on staying here for several years." They are imploring others to join them.

The militants are demanding that the Hammonds be relieved of their sentences, and that the neighboring federal lands be released to the ranchers residing in the area. "What we're doing is not rebellious," Ryan Bundy told The Oregonian. "What we're doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."

According to the Portland Tribune, the Hammonds released a statement via their attorney stating that they would report to prison on Monday and would serve out their respective sentences. They added that they are not involved in the ongoing militia standoff.