Malheur Then and Now: A Refuge Under Siege

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, founded in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds, is again under siege, just as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century, when plume hunters in southeastern Oregon illegally shot birds for their feathers, which they sold to the millinery trade; in turn, milliners used the feathers to craft women’s hats. Plume hunters most coveted the aigrettes, or long trailing feathers, of the great egret, which grew on the backs of the birds during breeding season.

By the time Roosevelt founded the refuge — in part to protect these birds from slaughter — great egrets were rarely seen at Malheur. But with the passage of the Migratory Bird Act, the rise of the Audubon Society, and a change in fashion trends, egrets eventually made a comeback. Part of that success was due to the vigilant work of Malheur’s managers and wildlife biologists.

It is ironic, then, that the refuge again finds itself a victim at the hands of armed individuals who hold themselves above the law. Self-proclaimed “lands-rights protestors,” led by Ammon Bundy, broke into the national wildlife refuge on Saturday, Jan. 2, following a rally in Burns — twenty-seven miles north of Malheur — to denounce the five-year sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers and convicted arsonists who are expected to turn themselves in on Jan. 4. Bundy says the government is punishing the Hammonds for refusing to sell their land, and claims in a report issued by CNN that the refuge had been “destructive to the people of the county,” and that it was continuing to “expand at the expense of ranchers and miners in the area.”

The residents of Burns are people I know well. Hardworking and honest, many of them make their livings as ranchers. They love their country, community, and families, and they want their children to be able to attend school (which, because of Bundy’s occupation of Malheur, is currently unsafe for them to do). The majority of Burns’ citizens are law-abiding, and wholly intolerant of tyranny and terrorists; if it happens that they’re unhappy with the federal government, as they sometimes are, they don’t hold the public hostage to their particular points of view.

Malheur is a sanctuary, a place for birds to rest and nest during seasonal migrations, and a place of solace for people. Its dedicated staff and its volunteers are the people deserving of our time and attention — as are the good people of Burns. So go the way of the plume hunters, Bundy, and take your militia with you.

Renee Thompson writes about the American West. She is the author of The Plume Hunter (Torrey House Press, 2011), set in part in southeastern Oregon, on what is today Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Renee’s husband Steve worked as a wildlife biologist at Malheur from 1977–1983, while Renee worked part time at Burns Clinic. Their daughters were born in Burns.

This post originally appeared at reneethompson.com. Learn more.

Photo credit: Barbara Wheeler Photography

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