By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Jan. 8, 2016
The armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon has interrupted important habitat restoration work that must be completed before spring migration — when hundreds of thousands of birds descend on the area’s vast wetlands, conservationists and bird-watchers say.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, hopes the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a militia group concludes before the explosion of life in April, when some three hundred bird species arrive to nest and forage.
“This refuge is one of the most important in the United States — it’s one of the crown jewels,” Sallinger said. “It needs to get back to the business of managing birds and restoring habitat.”
Ammon Bundy, son of the controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and an unknown number of armed men occupied the headquarters of the refuge on Jan. 3. They say they have no intention of leaving until the federal government relinquishes control of the refuge. They have also called for lighter sentences for Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, ranchers who were convicted of committing arson on federal land in Oregon in 2012 and are serving five-year sentences. However, the Hammonds have told reporters that the Bundys do not speak for them.
Sallinger says local stakeholders including ranchers and bird-watching enthusiasts, or “birders,” have worked together in recent years to bring the refuge back from the brink of destruction. For decades, Malheur, located on the Pacific Flyway — a major North American corridor for migrating birds — attracted hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds every year because of its vast wetlands. But beginning in the 1960s, an invasive species of carp that ate most of the vegetation used by birds for nesting and foraging caused a dramatic decline — turning the clear sea of wetland grasses into dark and murky open water.
Local tribes, conservationists, county officials and ranchers have collaborated to restore the habitat at Malheur as part of a 2010 effort led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a 10-year management plan. Ranchers, Sallinger says, worked for years with conservationists and others to protect the refuge by providing some habitat for migrating birds on ranchers’ land near the refuge. And for the local Burns Paiute tribe, it was important to protect important archaeological sites on the refuge as habitat was being restored.
Now the Bundys’ militia threatens to spoil that partnership, conservationists say.
“One of the exciting things is that the refuge brought the local community together … they all came together and agreed to restore Malheur,” Sallinger said. “The occupiers are trying to sow complete discord.”
In addition to delaying vital habitat restoration in time for spring migration, Bundy’s occupation has cut off birders from one of the best places in the U.S. to sight new species.
“Malheur has indeed been a mecca for birders as long as I’ve been involved,” said Harvey Schubothe, president of the Oregon Birding Association. “I think you can probably assume that we’re obviously not happy with the situation there.”
While Schubothe said he supports the Bundys’ right to protest, he and Sallinger worry about the occupation’s effect on the wildlife and the blocking of birders like himself from accessing Malheur.
“It’s certainly a good time of year to be over there,” Schubothe said. “We’re always looking for that next bird that we haven’t seen before.”
Schubothe said he got into birding after an excursion to Africa during his college days decades ago. After his return, he started noticing the local birds he had previously taken for granted, including the bald eagle.
“I grew up in a period of time when, because of chemicals like DDT, there was a point in time when the bald eagle was an endangered species,” Schubothe said.
Schubothe and Sallinger agree that federal and local efforts to restore habitat for birds, especially at important sites like Malheur, must be allowed to continue.
Malheur was made into a refuge only after being nearly destroyed in the early 20th century, according to Sallinger. At that time, the hat trade led to carnage in the area as plume hunters wantonly killed the birds to get decorative feathers.
It was only after Portland Audubon founder William Finley published powerful photographs of the destruction that President Teddy Roosevelt made Malheur a national wildlife refuge in 1908. The aim was two-fold: to protect an important bird habitat and to allow future generations of people to enjoy viewing nature.
While Malheur’s occupiers say they want the federal government to hand over the land to locals, Sallinger says they are doing the opposite by deterring conservationists, birders and local tribes from accessing the refuge. “We look forward to seeing the refuge restored to the people,” Sallinger said.
With wire services