Birds — and staff — return to Malheur wildlife refuge

By Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times

MALHEUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — Linda Beck is a fish biologist in charge of a struggle against millions of invasive carp that have uprooted aquatic plants, severely diminishing the food supply here for waterfowl.

During the winter occupation of the Malheur refuge, as threats to federal employees escalated, Beck left for Vancouver, Washington, leaving behind her rancher husband to take care of their cattle.

Meanwhile, the extremists who sought to transfer the refuge to local control claimed Beck’s desk, rifling through her files and mocking her work. Someone also removed personal items that included a pelican’s beak, a carp’s skeleton and a stuffed crow that had been passed on to Beck from her grandmother.

Today, Beck is back on the job, working out of a temporary trailer office where she prepares to resume catching carp in fish traps and planning a commercial net harvest in May. The refuge occupation appears to have reinforced her sense of mission.

“It pretty much cemented in me that I was going to come back and conquer the carp,” Beck said. “It was a 41-day occupation, but it was a real small part of Malheur’s history.”

The occupation ended Feb. 11, and the return of 16 full-time refuge staff has enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reopen the 187,757-acre refuge’s road system just as bird populations increase with the onset of spring.

The long-legged sandhill cranes are easy to spot as they strut about in fields looking for insects to eat. Snow geese by the thousands have arrived, bunching together in and around the refuge, and many more are on their way in the run-up to the three-day Harney County Migratory Bird Festival that begins April 8.

The occupation spurred renewed interest in the 108-year-old refuge, a major stopover on the Pacific flyway that is frequented by more than 320 bird species. There will be tours, an art show and other events to showcase the migration that unfolds both on the refuge and surrounding private lands.

The refuge headquarters complex, which includes a visitor’s center and museum, remain off-limits to the public and is expected to stay closed until later in the year as it is repaired.

The damage resulted from the series of events touched off by the decision by extremist leader Ammon Bundy and a core group of supporters to take over the refuge on Jan. 2.

Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who led an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 over his refusal to pay grazing fees to use federal lands.

The occupation was spurred by the fate of two Harney County ranchers — Dwight and Steve Hammond — who were sent back to prison in January after a federal court ruling that they should serve more time on arson charges. It became a broader rebellion against federal management of public lands in the West.

Dozens of sympathizers cycled through the headquarters area. Some just visited during the day, while others stayed for weeks, spending nights in a bunkhouse or sleeping on cots set up inside a firehouse and other buildings.

Most left hurriedly after the Jan. 21 arrests of Bundy and four others, and the shooting death of Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum. Four people chose to remain at the headquarters, and stayed there for 16 more days before surrendering.

Refuge officials said that during the occupation, some buildings were damaged, carpets were soiled and a septic system plugged up from overuse that was further damaged as contractors tried to make repairs.

Occupiers dug trenches for garbage and sewage, but the headquarters area also was littered with trash and piles of human waste.

All of that unfolded in an archaeological zone that contains Paiute tribal artifacts.

Dan Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said during a visit to the refuge that repairs so far have cost $1.7 million.

He said the agency incurred $2 million in additional costs during the occupation as refuge employees were moved to other places, and $2.5 million has been spent increasing security at other refuges.

The continued concern about extremists is part of an uneasy return for refuge employees to a county still roiled by the emotions generated by the occupation.

During the takeover, militias converged on Harney County, creating an environment deemed so threatening to federal employees that they all either left the area or stayed away from their offices.

Some businesses also have had problems after the occupation.

The Narrows RV Park and cafe delivered food to the occupiers at the refuge. The cafe employees said the food was paid for in full, and that they also served plenty of other people, including law enforcement officials.

“We even had a Super Bowl party for the FBI in here, and we stayed open late for them,” said Anna Surber, an employee at The Narrows.

Still, the feeding of the occupiers spurred angry emails from people who accused the business of supporting the takeover. Surber said spring bookings are down, and that refuge staff members who once frequented the cafe no longer stop for meals in what she perceives as a boycott.

For years, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have been working with local ranchers, tribes and environmentalists to agree on how to manage the Malheur refuge. That helped set the stage for other Harney County partnerships such as the protection of sage grouse habitat on private lands.

Some say these collaborative efforts helped blunt the extremists’ recruitment of Harney County ranchers, which include 13 that hold leases to graze on refuge lands. In January, occupation leaders organized an event at refuge headquarters to showcase ranchers rejecting federal leases. But only one cattleman stepped onto the stage — and he was from Arizona.

“That’s the reason they didn’t gain traction,” said Chad Karges, the refuge manager. “Everyone was already working together.”

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