The action seemed to represent a new provocation in the conflict, which began Jan. 2 when opponents of the government’s land ownership took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, saying they wanted federal lands in the area given to the county for management.

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PRINCETON, Ore. — The armed men who have occupied a federal wildlife refuge here escalated their defiance of the federal government on Monday, using bare hands and a Wildcat excavator stolen from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rip apart a barbed-wire fence erected by the government at a far end of the vast refuge.

The fence, the protesters said, had kept a rancher from grazing cattle on publicly owned land.

“We’re like Boy Scouts,” said Ammon Bundy, the occupation’s leader, as he watched the wildlife agency’s Wildcat haul away a mountain of coiled wire and his supporters whooped in the background. “No trace left behind.”

The action seemed to represent a new provocation in the conflict, which began Jan. 2 when Bundy, his brother Ryan, and several other opponents of the government’s land ownership took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, saying they would not back down until federal lands in the area were given to the county for management. And while the group initially promised to leave federal property undisturbed, the giant hole cut into public property indicated a different path.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge for the federal government, responded by condemning the action.

“This refuge belongs to the American public,” said Jason Holm, an agency spokesman. “The steps they’re taking — the occupation they’re doing — actually robs the American public of experiencing one of the premier wildlife and birding refuges in the United States. It upsets us. But it should upset all Americans.”

A spokesman for Harney County, where the refuge is located, declined to comment on the action and declined to give his name, citing security concerns.

The FBI, which is handling the criminal case against several of the occupiers, also declined to comment.

The occupiers, who called themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and are mainly from outside Oregon, have presented themselves as Robin Hood types, stepping forward to defend rural ranchers against the federal government. While the occupation has some supporters here, many people in Harney County have asked the group to leave, including the sheriff, David Ward.

On Monday, the group drove out to a snowy expanse miles from the refuge’s headquarters, bringing along the excavator. They approached a fence they said divided private and public land, and cut a space about 80 feet long, a move they said would allow the Puckett family to graze their cattle at the refuge.

“I feel like this is the first step of many in restoring ranchers’ rights,” Bundy said.

Holm warned that unmanaged grazing could “wreak environmental havoc on an ecosystem.”

Earlier, at a news conference at the refuge headquarters, Bundy said his group had begun going through federal files to learn more about property issues in the region. Their demands include the transfer of public lands and the release of two local ranchers who were imprisoned on arson charges. So far, the government has not publicly confronted the armed men, other than asking them to leave.

Members of the group have refused to say how many people are participating, but a reporter who spent the day inside the compound on Sunday spotted about 25 people, including some who identified themselves as visiting for the day.

At the news conference, after the occupiers had walked off, Garrett VeneKlasen stepped forward to protest their actions.

“I feel threatened, but I’m not going to let a bunch of bullies scare me off of this,” said VeneKlasen, who works for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and said he had come from New Mexico to register his complaint.

“Regular people like me need to step up, and get in these people’s faces and tell them to cut it out and get the hell out of here.”