The same day four final holdouts ended the armed occupation of a remote wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, a new occupation was just getting underway.
According to two decades' worth of federal data, Feb. 11 is, on average, the earliest date migrating tundra swans begin appearing at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, exiting the Pacific Flyway to rest in the vast wetlands of the high desert oasis.
Northern pintails have probably already arrived. Red-winged blackbirds, too. This weekend, expect snow geese, then killdeer and sandhill cranes. They will keep coming deep into May – fresh wing beats descending unarmed and unintimidated.
“The animals don’t care who claims to have occupied this refuge,” said Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They’re coming and they need it as their home.”
The refuge has been closed for weeks and the FBI says it could be closed for many more as investigators check for explosives, collect evidence and assess potential damage to Native American artifacts and sacred areas. Federal refuge workers are not sure when they will be allowed to return to monitor and manage the complicated irrigation system and keep invasive species in check.
If there is a possible upside to having it closed for so long, it may be that the Malheur has become perhaps the best-known wildlife refuge in the nation.
Those who cared about it before it was at the center of national news – birders, ranchers, refuge managers, the tribe and other local residents – say that the occupation created a wide range of problems but that the attention has created new enthusiasm and more help to solve them.
“We do have the migratory bird festival in April, and my hunch is that festival is going to be bigger than ever because Malheur being in the news has increased the awareness of an awful lot of people,” said Harv Schubothe, the president of the Oregon Birding Assn.
Membership in the Friends of Malheur has soared in recent weeks, as has the number of people offering to volunteer with the Oregon Natural Desert Assn. As Jason Holm, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon, which operates the refuge, put it: “Make lemonade out of lemons, I guess.”
While the refuge is a natural place, the government operates an elaborate water distribution system that has prevented flooding and ensures robust populations of birds and other wildlife.
Holm said the refuge’s 16 full-time employees – who were urged to leave Harney County during the armed occupation – are concerned about water levels in the refuge this year because of the heavy snowpack on Steens Mountain, whose snowmelt supplies the refuge. He also said the invasive carp that had been a problem in Malheur for years could increase if they are not addressed soon. The carp can create water-quality problems that affect birds as well as ranchers who graze cattle on refuge land.
He pointed out, too, that a planned 4,000-acre prescribed burn to remove invasive plants and brush that fuels wildfires had to be postponed this winter because of the occupation.
“By missing that, we’re going to be a year behind,” Holm said.
Suckling said he knew of refuge biologists who had met with FBI agents to tell them about areas they were most concerned about if the occupation dragged on much longer.
“They were giving PowerPoints to FBI on where they needed to turn the pumps on,” Suckling said.
Holm said that because of the ongoing investigation, he could not confirm conservation steps like that had taken place.
The FBI said Thursday it was bringing in an expert from its Art Crime Team to work with the service and the Burns Paiute Tribe “to identify and document damage to the tribe's artifacts and sacred burial grounds.” Greg Bretzing, the head of the FBI in Oregon, said the investigators would determine whether there had been violations of federal laws protecting tribal and archaeological sites.
Charlotte Rodrique, tribal council chairwoman for the Burns Paiute Tribe, said in an interview on Friday that she was concerned after seeing videos of armed occupiers rifling through tribal artifacts stored at the refuge and that they had apparently used heavy equipment to carve out a roadway near an area where tribal members who died in the 19th century were reburied.
She said that in the long memories of wildlife and of the tribe, the refuge is essential and sacred. It is never truly off limits and it has no firm borders.
“There was no Oregon at that time,” she said, recalling how the small tribe used to winter on the refuge before being forced onto a tiny reservation nearby in the 19th century. “There were no state lines. There were no boundaries. Tribal people didn’t claim anything and put a fence around it and say you can’t come in here.”