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Know the West

The new Malheur occupants: Grazing cattle

The Bundy clan may be in jail, but ranchers continue to take advantage of the refuge.


Now that the focus has shifted to the upcoming trials of the outlaws who took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge offices last January, we might recall that the actual, physical occupation lasted for a total of 41 days. In many ways, however, it never ended, and there is every reason to conclude that the occupiers won.

The refuge’s headquarters are still closed, federal cops guard the area, and no one answers the phone. At least six staff members have left, including the fisheries expert and the ecologist. They have not been replaced.

The refuge is drier now than I have ever seen it; the usually flooded ditches along Center Patrol Road are without waterfowl.  Only two ponds hold water and the birds that depend on it.

The Malheur Refuge website cautions prospective visitors: “Buildings and grounds are active work sites and are closed for safety reasons.”  When I found a refuge employee in a pickup on the side of the road, I asked him what “active work site” meant.  He smiled wryly and answered, “That answer would have to come from a higher pay grade.” 

Cattle graze in Southeastern Oregon.
Angela Sitz/USFWS

I first visited the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 1966, and I started teaching in the vicinity in 1973.  Virtually every Memorial Day weekend since then, I have gone birding on the headquarters grounds, along with other bird watchers from the Northwest birding community and beyond.  I teach a summer ornithology class now on nearby Steens Mountain, and every August I tour the refuge with my students.

But this year, we were not allowed in; in fact, a federal truck stood by the blockaded entrance to keep us out. Yet nearly a hundred days had gone by since the last occupier left, and the site had been safely visited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel M. Ashe and even Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.  Both hosted the press on the “active work sites,” and no problems were reported. Ashe said that the occupiers had done damage estimated at $6 million, and now the rumor is that this venerable and beautiful oasis — once a showplace visited regularly by Supreme Justice William O. Douglas — will undergo a fancy facelift.

That makes me fear that the old buildings, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps out of pink Dufurrena sandstone in the 1930s, might be sacrificed to some Washington, D.C. architect’s vision of modernity. I doubt that the occupiers, slovenly though they reportedly were, could have done that much damage.

Meanwhile, all is not quiet on this Western front. Some or all of the 13 ranchers with grazing privileges on the refuge were going full-bore when my students and I drove north along the refuge on Aug. 12. 

Thousands of acres of the Blitzen Valley part of the refuge had been mowed. Three huge double-flatbed trailered semis passed us going south, ready to welcome on board the valuable hay bales. Ranchers apparently pay with “in kind services,” which in this case means that the hay is paid for by mowing, baling and hauling it off. Because the mowing is considered beneficial to wildlife, it is considered a “service’ to the refuge and to wildlife, so little or no cash changes hands.

So ubiquitous was the haying activity I saw that it is hard to believe that it had only been going on for two days. Aug. 10 is the first day any haying efforts are allowed, in part because that is the date that most, but not all, young sandhill cranes are believed to be out of danger of being baled, along with the hay.  A young crane, faced with an advancing piece of machinery, will crouch down instead of fleeing, and thus get macerated by a combine.

The first of the thousands of cattle that will graze there for the better part of nine months were visible, but I was concerned with some trespass livestock I had seen on Aug. 5, about a mile south of headquarters.  I find trespassing cattle almost every year — there were cowpies last year right in front of refuge headquarters — but this year I was unable to report them, because nobody seems to be at work.

And so the occupation continues, even though most of the occupiers are safely tucked away in jail cells.  The headquarters compound may be off-limits to human visitors, but the refuge is wide open for the grazing “treatments” that are allowed in order to “meet management objectives.” Sadly, the wildlife meant to find refuge in this place no longer seem to count for much.

Steve Herman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an emeritus member of the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.