How the Malheur Occupation Hamstrung Science

By April Reese | February 8, 2016 12:14 pm

In this January 2013 photo, piles of wood from a thinning project designed to reduce wildfire risk to an adjacent town burn on a hillside at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Similar projects are in limbo while armed militants continue to occupy the site. (Credit: USFWS – Pacific Region/Flickr)

Last month, a flock of trumpeter swans alighted on the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, repeating an annual ritual that dates back centuries. But for the first time in 80 years, biologists were not there to count them. 

The annual winter bird count, which dates back to 1935, provides key data on multiple species for a national migratory bird monitoring program. Biologists and volunteers count ibis, sandhill cranes, horned larks and other birds that stop at the refuge – an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin.

But this year, the only people inside the refuge at the start of bird-counting season were a small group of armed militants. Instead of counting birds, refuge scientists are counting days. Monday marks the 38th day of the occupation, orchestrated by ranchers and others angered by a five-year prison sentence handed to local cattlemen Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson – and, more broadly, federal oversight of cattle grazing on public lands. Last week, 11 of the occupiers were arrested while traveling to a meeting, including the movement’s ringleader, Ammon Bundy. Another man, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by local law enforcement. But four holdouts remain at the refuge, and the site remains closed.

The takeover has quashed or delayed several important research and ecological restoration projects. In addition to the bird count, refuge staff say they’ve also had to scrap a 4,000-acre controlled burn planned for January and February to help maintain marsh habitat and a multi-year project to control non-native carp that have decimated the refuge’s ponds and lakes. A grazing monitoring program, designed to figure out the best way to balance grazing with resource protection, is also on hold.

Every day that passes pushes these and other projects farther behind, refuge scientists say. And in some cases, years of progress may be undone.

Science, Interrupted

Like most national wildlife refuges, Malheur was established to protect key habitat and wildlife populations. Brought under the wing of federal protection by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, the refuge today supports 320 species of birds, along with mule deer, pronghorn and other wildlife. Carla Burnside, an archaeologist with the refuge, notes that Malheur Lake and the refuge’s ponds are remnants of a large pluvial lake system that formed when rainwater filled the Harney Basin during wetter times thousands of years ago. Much of the archeological research at the refuge explores how ancient cultures used those lakes. The oldest known cultural site on the refuge is 9,800 years old, but archaeologists are digging even further into the past, Burnside says, piecing together the site’s history during the transition into the Holocene about 11,000 years ago.


Mule deer bucks move through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr)

Oregon public radio journalists who visited the refuge reported that occupiers used government equipment to clear a segment of road across a site that may contain cultural resources, but refuge officials said they couldn’t confirm those reports.

“We do anticipate that there are effects to the area, but because we haven’t been able to get boots on the ground, we don’t know where damage has occurred and what’s been impacted,” says Miel Corbett, a spokeswoman for the refuge. “All the information we have received has been from third-party accounts.”

One of the buildings occupied by the militants holds thousands of tribal artifacts culled from refuge lands, relics of ancestors of the Burns Paiute tribe. A week before he died during an altercation with local law enforcement officials, Finicum said in a video that the artifacts were not adequately stored, but tribal members questioned that claim and criticized the group’s takeover the refuge, according to Indian Country Today and other media outlets. 

The Clock is Ticking

As refuge scientists wait out the occupation, the window of opportunity continues to narrow for many key habitat projects, refuge staffers say. Jess Wenick, an ecologist with the refuge, says the prescribed burn in the marsh needs to be done before the ibis arrive and begin colonizing the site next month.  “We certainly don’t want to carry a fire across an ibis colony,” he says.


Ibis comb the marsh for food during their spring migration to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. (Credit: Dan Dzurisin/Flickr)

The occupation also disrupted maintenance of a complex dike system that’s crucial for directing water to ponds and wetlands. “The beavers will actually dig holes in the dike, and if that activity goes on long enough then those holes will be weak points where the water can punch through,” Wenick explains. Ponds and marshes will be deprived of the water they need, and the water could flood roads edging the refuge, potentially hemming in area residents, he adds.

The carp control project is also hamstrung by the lack of access. The invasive fish stir up sediment on the bottom of the lake, muddying the water, which in turn chokes aquatic vegetation that ducks, geese and shorebirds feed upon. Bird populations have dropped about 90 percent, and carp are largely to blame, refuge scientists say. Conservationists, refuge biologists and Pacific Foods, a local business, came up with an ambitious plan to remove the carp, truck them to nearby Burns, and process them into fertilizer. Now, that enterprise is on the shelf. 

Fisheries biologist Linda Beck was unavailable for comment, but Burnside summed up the consequences to Beck’s project this way: “She’s spent a lot of time getting the carp population down, and if we cannot get in to manipulate the dam, when the snowmelt comes down from Steens Mountain [in the spring], it could set us back at least three years.”

Stretching Thin

The occupation is affecting conservation on the refuge in less obvious ways as well. The refuge is managed under a collaborative plan that conservation groups, refuge scientists, ranchers, academics and others spent years building, and tensions sparked by the occupation could put that goodwill — and the management projects it enables — in jeopardy.

“I think that everyone understands that this is a very collaborative model, where we do true collaborative science, which is kind of rare,” says Wenick. “These efforts could be compromised if we’re not able to gain access to the refuge soon.”

One at-risk collaborative project involves collecting data on grazed and ungrazed areas. Comparing those data will help managers figure out the best way to balance grazing with resource protection. “This is important to everyone from the conservation community to local ranchers,” says Wenick. “If we miss a year, we miss a critical piece of the puzzle to understand the impact our management is having. Conservation groups and ranchers have called wondering if this is going forward and wanting to know what they can do.”

The data is collected over the summer, but the preparation, including hiring contract botanists, happens at this time of year, he adds. As long as the occupation continues, the project remains in limbo.

What’s Next? 

Even after the standoff ends, refuge scientists may have to wait a while longer to get back to work. A spokesman from the Harney County Joint Information Center, which is fielding inquiries from the media and the public about the standoff, says the investigation of the site could go on for some time, and it’s unclear when the refuge could reopen to staff and the public.

“Depending on what we find there and how much evidence, it could take a few days or a few weeks,” says the spokesman, who did not give his name. Right now, he adds, “our main concern is getting the negotiations going forward and resolving this issue peacefully.”

When the occupation is over, both the land and local residents will face a long process of recovery, says Tim Greseth of the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which partnered with the refuge on the carp control project.

“There’s going to be a lot of fracturing of the community now,” he says. “It will take some time to heal the community’s suspicions and frustrations and get back to a place where there’s a level of trust for everyone to be able to work together.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
  • Dee Bean

    It’s so sad to see good people and projects hurt by bad people and their ’causes’.

    I hope the feds throw the book at these extremists. Maybe that will teach them that nobody is above the law.

    • Kathleen Crouse-Bradley

      You mean nobody is above the law except the federal government.

      • Katherine

        Sorry Kathleen, armed militias
        don’t get to take over public property and terrorize local
        communities with stalking and
        intimidation. We Oregonians have borne the brunt of the
        idiot Bundys and their delusional
        agenda of overthrow of the federal government. Perhaps they could come to your town
        and you could see the disruption this divisive form of ‘protest’ by
        these domestic terrorists causes?
        No Militias! Not in Harney County
        Oregon, Not in Any Town!!!

        • Nova A. Lockhart

          You said it! I have only ever been a visitor to Harney County but my heart bleeds for all the people who have been set into turmoil over this type of terrorism.

          • John C

            Did you feel the same venom about the death and destruction caused by Occupy?

          • Nova A. Lockhart

            Can’t say I feel or felt venom, just disgust!

          • newshound34

            Who died? What was destroyed?

          • Shalryn

            What death was caused by Occupy? What destruction came of the Occupy movement? Oh, dear, they littered and cluttered up some paved streets and sidewalks where nothing could live anyway. Granted I’m in Canada, so I don’t know what really went on in the US cities affected by Occupy, but I never heard a thing about Occupy occupying anything but city locations.

      • John C

        Who at the EPA went to jail after poisoning a river? Oh yeah, nobody. Meanwhile, if a private company did the same by accident…you get the picture.

        • outpost

          It was a Private Company hired by the EPA,dolt!

          • OWilson

            Campaign donor, then :)

        • Mary Jane DelMastro

          Michigan governor Snyder took over management of the Flint government. He is responsible for poisoning the people. He should be prosecuted. I’m not sure what made the river water corrosive, and I don’t recall hearing that the river water was poisonous.
          Obviously John is a right wing troll who just wants to bitch!

    • John C

      I felt the same way about the Occupy goons trashing public parks and private property a few years back

  • michael scott

    so who is stopping the scientists from going in there and do the research and experiments. Is it the protesters or the government? all the stories I have read on this is so one sided and half truths.

    • halflybaked86

      yea I am pretty sure it is which one came first? the threats of violence from the occupiers? I am pretty sure that came first. What sane people would want to put themselves in danger by going to the very heart of the beast where all the “protesters” that have already intimated and threatened you and your friends and family are located? They threatened to burn down a woman who works for the BLM’s house at the grocery store and followed her to her house and drove by at odd hours. But yea you want these ecologists that they probably hate to go do their research while there could be a gun battle at any moment. your a real bright crayon

    • Immir

      You don’t see much with blinders on.

    • denydaho

      Sounds like you should volunteer to help out.

    • JustWondering

      The BLM & F/W are very cautious about putting staff and the public at risk. Staff were sent home as soon as the occupiers took over 40 days ago and have since been riposted to other sites I believe..They are not law enforcement agents & are not paid enough to walk through the current occupants self-booby trapped ‘camp’ to their offices. The current occupiers are paranoid and emotionally unstable – who know what they might do. Also the entire refuge, apart from the buildings being trashed and adjacent properties (Malheur Field Station) used for target practice, is a crime scene that will need to be left ‘undisturbed’ until evidence against those indicted is obtained.The FBI is allowing ranchers to work on and around the refuge. My information comes from YouTube videos posted by the occupiers, interviews posted on both mainstream and extreme right blogs & FB pages – including the Bundy’s.

  • Nova A. Lockhart

    Those who said that they wanted to help the people of this beautiful county did nothing but destroy, cause unhappiness, cause people to be fearful, maybe even destroy precious Paiute history. Taking over the Refuge and terrorizing local people was not and is not the way to voice one’s disenchantment with the government.

    • John C

      Except if you’re Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street. Then incitement to riot, destruction of property and terrorizing local citizens are all rationalized by the Left.

      • Jason Marrow

        If the occupiers had been Black, they would have been shot at and arrested a long time ago. The “Right” romanticize these White thugs and Bundy.

      • Jim

        I’ve condemned BLM, Occupy and now these thugs for the damage they’ve caused, when they cause it. Damage is damage, and is always costly for our taxpayers, nature and communities.

  • hikertom

    The armed militants are only occupying a small cluster of buildings. Why can’t the refuge staff and volunteers work in the rest of the refuge?

    • Leora Richards

      These militants are not rational law abiding people and bullets travel a hell of a lot farther than rocks do. No one wants to get shot while armed with snowshoes and a clipboard.

    • Katherine

      Hikertom: Because these ‘protesters’ are heavily armed and
      have repeatedly stated their willingness to kill anyone who attempts to remove them from the
      refuge or even visit the refuge:
      Refuge employees and their families
      were threatened both at home and at work starting last October and so were advised to stay away, the volatile situation has resulted in members of the public and law
      enforcement staying off the refuge to avoid bloodshed. These domestic
      terrorists have quantities of guns and explosives. Though many of them were arrested in late January,
      four still remain; they are currently
      surrounded by the FBI at the Refuge perimeter but continue to say they
      will kill or be killed before they leave.
      The FBI recently escorted some ranchers on to Refuge lands to do
      delayed irrigation work that impacts
      surrounding communities but the FBI is waiting out these increasingly
      mentally unstable and aggressive
      ‘militia’ members to avoid loss of life. We Oregonians are weary of these fools and the damage they have caused the Refuge, Paiute
      archeological sites and Harney
      County Oregon citizens and cannot
      wait to see the final members of this delusional armed ‘militia’ incarcerated and prosecuted.

      • Happy Ford

        Then kill them. It’s ridiculous that four people can hold off the Public from their Refuge. Where is all the swat teams you see on TV. Go in with a battering ram, and run over those no account low life unemployed hoodlums.

        • Immir

          I agree, its way past time for deadly force against these terrorists.

          • OWilson

            Looters too, I hope.

            At least terrorists have a political agenda they are fighting for.

            Looters (Democrat voters) who vandalize their own neighborhoods and steal TVs and liquor, excused, and left to devastate and burn down their city by the Left, while law enforcement stand down, are bad enough, but their enablers and excusers are the real criminals against orderly and free civilized society.

          • Mike Richardson

            Nice straw man argument you got there, Wilson. Nobody’s excusing looting. Understanding that there might be underlying societal problems that lead to the anger and rioting is not the same as excusing it. And it’s a lot more constructive than the nonsensical politicizing that you’re doing here. Besides, the ones doing the looting probably aren’t terribly involved in the political process anyway, and in all likelihood have been disenfranchised already (and not by the political party you’ve singled out). But you aren’t interested in constructive analysis, just scoring political points, as usual.

          • OWilson

            I’m just interested in shooting looters on sight, to set an example :)

            They are societal parasites, and so are their enablers :)

            It’s sad, but I can only hope that you and your family get caught in a neighborhood Mom and Pop store in the next inevitable riot.

          • Mike Richardson

            It is sad that you would hope something like that, and rather telling about your character. Much like your statement basically placing human life below the value of replaceable property. So does that make you an enabler of those who would love to justify murder as “standing their ground” when someone is running off with a TV? We do have laws and police officers (most of whom do an admirable job of enforcing said laws and protecting the public) to deal with those who steal and destroy property. Wishing to be judge, jury, and executioner displays an amazing disregard for that concept of law and order.

          • OWilson

            ! said it was sad, but only with a dose of reality will you, or more likely, your children, come to realize that freedom to walk in your “no go neighborhoods”, is what separates you from animals, and must never be compromised in a free society.

            We would gladly sacrifice a few of you enablers and excusers if it meant saving worthwhile lives down the road, including your descendents :)

            My “disregard” for your left wing version of “law and order” came honestly after they twice elected a known sexual molester and his “congenital liar” so called “wife”, to power and are about to do it again.

            That and the industrial scale “lost emails” l and the routine server wipings at IRS, State, and the V.A. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Yeah, cause I said looting’s alright. Man, you’ve really gone off your rocker of late. Just double down on the vitriol and politically-inspired rants. Nobody, not me, nor anyone else, has said that looters are justified. That’s your own delusional read of the situation. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t sacrifice you, or anyone else, regardless of how disagreeable, just to prove a point (your original, pre-edited response was noted). I suppose we just view the value of human life differently.

          • OWilson

            We both apparently dislike looters.

            I would like them to be shot on sight.

            I don’t like the idea of excusing them “as just blowing off steam”, and the political decisions made in Washington D.C. to “stand down” law enforcement and encourage the crazy and now widespread notion in your ghettos, that law enforcement are to blame.

        • John C

          That’s kind of how I felt about the Occupy terrorists and Baltimore looters.

          • Mike Richardson

            I don’t recall the Occupy folks threatening to kill federal agents or anyone working with them, or walking around armed to teeth to prove their willingness to do it. Just sayin’.

          • Nova A. Lockhart

            Mike, I think you had better watch all the Youtube videos that the people made. Also read the articles that have been printed in reputable publications and look at the photos accompanying the articles. You will learn what these wrong headed people have been doing and saying.

          • Mike Richardson

            By “wrong-headed” are you referring to the ones toting guns and threatening to use them? Or people with political views you don’t like, who’ve sometimes damaged property and made a nuisance of themselves, but generally avoided violence? I’m not arguing that either approach is right, but one is clearly a much greater threat to human life. Apples and oranges.

          • John C

            I’d say the race rioters in Baltimore and St. Louis caused more destruction than a few nuts out west.

          • Mike Richardson

            Oh, it’s more than just a few nuts. They’ve got plenty of supporters. And they seem to be happy with the idea of killing folks with whom they disagree, and not just destroying property. Both are bad, but since I’m a living being, and not a piece of property, one concerns me a little bit more.

          • Nova A. Lockhart

            I am referring to those toting guns and threatening to use them.

          • Mike Richardson

            Sorry if I didn’t catch your meaning, Nova, but I got a little better context from your other posts. I was just a little surprised that I was having to respond to other posts apparently sympathetic to those goons from other folks. Glad to see some more common sense responses to the situation here. :)

          • Nova A. Lockhart

            It is ok, Mike. No worries. Thank goodness the last of the occupiers of the refuge are out of there!

          • John C

            Black Lives Matter:

            Google “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”

            And these terrorists are welcome at the White House and by Sanders and Clinton.

            That’s the difference. Right wing terrorists are reviled. Left wing terrorists are celebrated.

          • Mike Richardson

            And you think one needs to balance out the other? Btw, the actual rioters have been condemned on the left as well as the right, and aren’t the same as those voicing legitimate grievances at problems with our criminal justice system. But, feel free to join a militia if you like. It seems to have worked out so well in this instance.

          • Dan Tucker

            Criminal actions from the right, left or middle are to be decried. And illegal actions by government agencies are to be protested and corrected. But dismantling the government is not a solution. Into that vacuum comes anarchy and dissolution of society.

          • Mike Richardson

            Exactly. It seems like this concept would be evident to most, but so many protest movements often seem to let passion override reason. Unfortunately, this is self-defeating behavior, as unreasonable actions can easily overcome any reasonable points the protesters may have had to make in the beginning. And yes, we are all in this together, with a social contract that accepts that at least some level of government is necessary to provide for common defense and basic security. We might disagree about the level of services government should provide, or the extent to which it should be involved in our daily lives, but most of us would not like living in complete anarchy.

  • Happy Ford

    It’s infuriating to watch the circus go on, even without the Ring Leader. I am so empathetic with the scientists and bird watchers, all the employees at the refuge, I feel down because four people are keeping them from their work. Why can’t the Refuge be taken back? Surely the employees outnumber the hoodlums. How can they continue to break the law and get off free? I don’t know what it is that the Bundy Gang has held over the refuge’s “head”, but it must be huge, for them to still be there.

    • jrstark

      The propane tanks alone could do a lot of damage if they blow, plus who knows what else might be rigged.

    • kajoo


  • Dylan

    Soo Pete Santilli on YT has a ton of up to date un biased info on current events you wont see on mainstream media

    • just_jim

      Or maybe more biased info that even the mainstream media isn’t corrupt enough to show.

      • LogicalPremise

        Most likely the latter. Even news execs can only go so far.

    • Marie

      Pete Santilli is the opposite of unbiased. He is an active part of the Bundy group, has acted as a spokesperson for them, and is now indicted with them, and under arrest.
      Sadly, too many people are getting all their information from radical right-wing anti-government groups, these days. Any source of information that doesn’t feed their paranoid fantasies is decried as lies, false flag operations, psyops, etc.

  • Chad Montreaux

    Sorry Burns folks that we exported our Nevada crazies to your beautiful part of the west. The agenda pushed forward by the Bundys is nothing more than a reincarnation of Manifest Destiny and a privatization of all American Lands. As a native westerner, I find the public ownership of lands America’s Greatest Idea. I also understand how difficult it can be working with bureaucracies and difficult managers. But it is pathway to get things done and take care of an environment we all care about. The Bundy alternative has no merit. They want to personally dictate every aspect of land use and enforce their rules at gun point. I hope your community will quickly heal and become even stronger.

  • Immir

    They also need to remove that eyesore on the highway, no one needs a monument to a terrorist. All the so called “patriots” need to go home and fondle their guns in private.

    • Nova A. Lockhart

      The person who the memorial is for kept saying he would rather be dead than in jail, was packing a gun most of the time when in the Refuge, ran from one road stop and then at the road block, jumped out of the vehicle like a crazed person and kept reaching for his gun. Why is there a monument?

  • kapnlogos

    The meme that the government is always right and is on the side of right and enlightenment is a political position, not a scientific one. What did the government do when the bones of the Kennewick Man were discovered? They destroyed the site of the discovery and seized the bones, only releasing them to investigators after lengthy court action. In another case the feds refused relatives’ requests to search for missing persons on Federal land near Lake Mead. Then there is the situation about Global Warming, where ‘science’ takes a back seat to political activism. Government is not always on the side of knowledge or right, it is on the side of government.

    • nicholasbarnett

      I am afraid that science does indeed take a back seat to political activism–on the right. The fact is that global warming is based upon very well-known and tested principles of conservation of energy, radiative heat transfer, and absorption spectroscopy. The results of global warming are observable in many ways virtually all over the earth. Furthermore, that global warming is related to human activity is similarly on firm scientific ground. The people who are pushing a political agenda on global warming are those who deny it.

      • OWilson

        Nobody “denies science”.

        If I pee in the sea, it is a scientific principle that I add to sea level.

        That’s science.

        I am therefore contributing to the inundating of Miami or New York in a couple of decades.

        That’s political hype!

        See how it works?

  • Uncle Al

    Count birds by military loiter drone, aerostat, satellite…. Unemploy hordes of Enviro-whiner laborers and their supervising hordes of high-pay political cumshow bureaucrats Invest $40K in student loans in a BS/ornithology bird counter? Train an Inner City high school graduate for a month, give it a stack of laminated photos; a tally sheet and a pencil; then air drop it into the wild.

    “Here’s the deal, Lucky: You gather data, we retrieve your sorry hindquarters and associated anatomy afterward.”

  • John C

    I felt the same way about the Occupy goons trashing public parks and private property a few years back.

  • OWilson

    Our local do gooders, with government help, used to feed the Canada Geese in winter as they paused on the flight south.

    Many geese stopped flying and just settled down to enjoy the bonanza.
    New and extensive wetlands were built on lake fill to attract more and more species.

    Then, the parks, walkways and beaches got fouled. They had to close the beaches in the summer.

    Now they have a killing program to get rid of them that includes poison, and dog harassment. The feed is now laced with chemicals that prevent egg shell development.

    That’s “government” in action.

    In principle, given enough power, they do that to people too!


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