I Stand with Linda Sue Beck: The Attack on Science at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Linda Sue Beck. It is at her desk that Ammon Bundy, leader of the group of armed anti-government religious fanatics occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has set up shop. As a federal biologist, like my father was for decades, she works to steward the resources that are held in common trust for all Americans. My stomach turned as the report came through the radio today — approaching a week into the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — and I heard the descriptions of the Bundys picking through her belongings and ridiculing her work.

“She’s not here working for the people,” Ammon’s brother Ryan is quoted as saying. “She’s not benefiting America. She’s part of what’s destroying America.”

The occupiers of the refuge poke fun at Beck, her research on fish, and the normal trappings of a research station, including a dried bird in a storage area. They incredulously claim that the bird is “what they’re going to kill people over.” Presumably “they” is the federal government, and they mean to convey that Nature — the birds, the fish, the land — has no use or value.

These sentiments run counter to American history of conservation and scientific land management. The wildlife refuge system was started because the visionary Teddy Roosevelt could see that the continent risked losing its iconic wildlife if every species and every place was fair game to be hunted. Malheur was one of the first wildlife refuges, established in 1908, and became part of the growing field of scientific wildlife management that came to fruition in the United States.

Cartoonist Ding Darling illustrated the need for scientific game management in the early decades of the 1900s. (c) Ding Darling Foundation.

Science and the National Wildlife Refuges are intertwined, with an entire model of species conservation and management emerging from regulated hunting and fishing with wildlife refuges at its core. National Wildlife Refuges are places where pathbreaking scientific research has taken place that has led to the great breakthroughs of wildlife management: research on the impacts of lead shot and its replacement by steel shot, the effects of DDT and its subsequent ban, and of course the impacts of harvest on fish and game populations. I know; refuge names were etched into my adolescent vocabulary as my father’s research sites. Patuxent. Missisquoi. Moosehorn. National Wildlife Refuges are secular shrines to wildlife science and scientific management. Do politics and consensus play a role in their management? Certainly, but the National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are built on the bulwark of the science of wildlife and fisheries sciences.

The armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is, therefore, not just an attack on a federal property. It cuts deeper than that. It is an attack on the modern science-based approach to land management and it is an attack on the value and worth of science and scientists in the United States. This should not come as a surprise. The armed occupiers are extremist Mormons — one of them identified himself as “Captain Moroni” (a figure from the Book of Mormon) and Ammon Bundy describes his actions as the result of consultation with “the Lord.” The occupiers are photographed kneeling in prayer at the refuge. In Linda Sue Beck’s office. Attacks on science from those with extremist religious views are now an unfortunate part of the American political landscape.

Swirling around the Bundys is a maelstrom of conservative malcontents that trace their roots back to the “wise use” movement of the 1980s with its decidedly anti-intellectual and anti-scientific take on the management of public lands. Set aside the ownership of the land — Bundy and the self-styled “patriot” militias of the West fundamentally question the scientific basis for land management.

Unfortunately, the ill-informed reporters sent to cover the slow-motion catastrophe in Oregon fall into the rhetorical trap of the Bundys and their anti-scientific talk-radio enablers. When the occupiers blithely talk of putting the land “to use” again (as if scientific research, recreation, hunting, fishing, education, and all manner of public access were not “use”), the CNN reporter mindlessly repeats the trope, implying that the occupiers have a legitimate demand in wanting to work the land, as if it were some sort of de Tocquevillian tragedy that one of the most productive migratory bird stopover sites on the Pacific flyway was not being overrun with cattle by the ranchers from Utah. No, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not need to be worked, and CNN should have reporters that know better than to take the claim at face value.

So I stand with Linda Sue Beck and all of the federal scientists who serve to research, protect, and manage our federal lands. I stand with the scientists, who are under siege, by anti-intellectual know-nothings in the halls of Congress, by vapid inciters on talk radio, and now by armed religious extremists in their very offices. It is time for America to stand up as well.

Travis Longcore, Ph.D.
January 9, 2016