Leaders of the armed militia occupying federal lands in eastern Oregon could face hefty fines and more than 10 years behind bars if government officials decide to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law, legal experts say.

Ammon Bundy and his crew of rightwing anti-government followers – who have refused to leave the Malheur national wildlife refuge since they took over its headquarters on 2 January – appear to have violated a number of laws that prohibit the unauthorized use and destruction of public property.

With the militiamen’s recent announcement that they plan to soon reveal how they intend to end the occupation in rural Harney County, many in the local town of Burns and across the country are wondering whether the militia will ultimately face consequences for the armed siege of a federal wildlife sanctuary.

“There are a panoply of federal statutes that focus on trespassing on federal lands and misuse of federal property,” said David Hayes, a visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School and former deputy secretary of the US Department of the Interior. “I’m confident that they will be prosecuted.”

The militia argues that they are reclaiming public land to protest government regulations and that the occupation is defending the constitutional rights of local ranchers to use federally controlled lands in their back yard. But experts say the occupiers lack any legal arguments that would shield them in court and that if charges were brought, the Bundy bunch could face substantial punishments.

Because the militia are armed and occupying a number of government buildings in a protected wildlife sanctuary, federal prosecutors would have jurisdiction to bring charges under multiple laws.

For starters, one federal statute regarding public property holds that if a person “knowingly converts to his use” property of the federal government, that person could face a fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years if the value of the property is greater than $1,000.

Another federal law specifically governing wildlife refuges says that willful property destruction at protected sanctuaries could yield a six-month prison sentence. A separate statute says that if someone “willfully and maliciously” destroys property on certain federal lands, then he or she could face a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in prison.

Ammon Bundy stands in an office at the Malheur national wildlife refuge near Burns, Oregon. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

On Monday, Bundy and a group of prominent members of the militia removed part of a government fence dividing private and public lands – in front of news cameras – using a US Fish and Wildlife Service excavator.

Over the past two weeks, the militia have made themselves at home in a number of federal buildings, using the site’s kitchens, beds, offices, museum and other buildings. The Guardian has repeatedly witnessed occupiers driving federal vehicles around the compound. Other reporters have also observed members of the militia accessing government computers and possibly using employee ID badges left on site.

What’s more, another federal statute prohibits the possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in federal facilities, with only limited exceptions for law enforcement. Violation of that statute could lead to a fine and a one-year prison sentence. If someone intended to use the weapon in the commission of a crime, then the sentence could be five years.

The occupiers, and the numerous outside “patriot” militia groups , have walked around the compound openly carrying a range of firearms.

Debra Donahue, law professor at the University of Wyoming, said that there are also Oregon anti-trespassing laws that local prosecutors could review when considering charges.

Whether prosecutors ultimately decide to charge the occupiers with the most serious offenses remains to be seen. “There’s always prosecutorial discretion,” said Donahue. “It strikes me as more likely that some sort of compromise agreement will be reached.”

Tim Colahan, Harney County district attorney, said in an email that he is working with county, state and federal law enforcement agencies and is discussing the possibility of criminal prosecution.

Harney County judge Steve Grasty, one of the most vocal local opponents of the militia, said the occupiers should be held accountable, but that his biggest priority was finding a way to get them to leave as soon as possible. “They’ve destroyed public property, federal property,” said Grasty, whose local judicial position is an administrative one. “Surely there are crimes there and I think for anyone committing crimes, there ought to be punishment.”

Hayes said it was likely that prosecutors would go after the high-profile leaders of the militia, as opposed to charging all participants who have trespassed and camped out in the federal buildings.

Hayes argued that there have to be serious charges in this case otherwise anti-government activists will continue to form militia and launch these kinds of aggressive protests. The Oregon militia was emboldened to take over federal lands, in part because Cliven Bundy, Ammon’s father, has evaded consequences for a similar standoff with the government in 2014, he said.

“If you let again and again activities go forward that are clearly against the law with no legal consequences, you lose all respect for the law,” Hayes said. “That would be a huge problem for the foundation of our democracy.”

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