At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, water from snowmelt off the Steens feeds the internally-drained Malheur basin, and the desert comes alive.

Refuge: 41 photos for 41 days of the Malheur Occupation

In mid-March, I returned to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — where I have spent much time in the past and which I have written about more extensively here — to photograph the goose and crane migrations at the refuge, following the 41 day occupation of the refuge by militant extremists that pushed an agenda to privatize public lands with the collusion and support of politicians.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge sign on Oregon 205, Steens Mountain in the background.
Here are 41 photographs I took of the refuge and environs made over a period of 4 days.
An Abert Rim rainbow, in Lake County, Oregon, en route to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
In the high desert of eastern Oregon, big sagebrush (Artemisia tridendata) is the dominant plant of most vegetation communities.
Some parts of the high desert are truly that: a greasewood plain near Harney Lake, Harney County, Oregon.
Migrating and breeding birds use the Malheur basin extensively, and in large numbers. Sandhill Cranes and Snow Goose. Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Burns, Oregon.
The numbers of birds can sometimes be daunting, hard to photograph or count. This abundance of life — and the threats that faced it in the early 1900s — directly led to the establishment of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. Near Burns, Oregon.
The Paiute flourished on Malheur’s natural resources before European colonization, before the Bannock War. Near Krumbo Resevoir, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Today, these same resources allow grazing and hay-based animal agriculture around the Malheur basin, on private and public lands. Highway 205, Harney County, Oregon.
Margins are thin: long winters, scarce water, fuel costs, consolidation and globalization’s impacts on beef prices. Sodhouse Lane, west of the Malheur NWR headquarters.
Speaking of long winters: this can happen at any time. I’ve seen it in July, even, but this is mid-March. Green House Lane, south of Burns, Oregon.
Migrating Lesser Sandhill Cranes seem to take spring snowstorms in stride, foraging in the fields around Burns, north of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Photographing Snow Goose in snow is harder than it sounds like it should be — mainly because of light and autofocus. Near Wright’s Point, Harney County, Oregon.
The abundance of birds in the Malheur basin brings into focus diverse relationships between people and wildlife. Ross’s Goose and Snow Goose, near Wright’s Point, Harney County, Oregon.
Ultimately, it’s human-human conflict over how to manage natural resources that precipitated the Oregon standoff. The National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wildly popular with the American public at large, has often been a focus of conservation conflicts in the rural west, as have the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service, since their inception.
In the stark landscapes of the American west, water and arable land are finite resources, leading to conflicts over their allocation and use. Most agriculture in the region benefits from various forms of subsidy in order to survive, a fact that challenges the iconic and hardscrabble image of the independent Westerner. Yet, people in Harney County work hard and are often frustrated by the lack of available work in a cash and resource-poor region.
Reminders of the unforgiving nature of this stark landscape are everywhere in Harney County, even in its most remote corners, accessible only by unmaintained two-track roads.
A truly striking feature of this landscape is how full of wildlife it is, despite how hard it can be on humans. It helps if one can eat sagebrush, as these pronghorn do.
Thanks to the Oregon standoff at Malheur, symbols once known only to Harney County locals are now widely recognizable, perhaps to the chagrin of locals.
However, the Hammonds, the unwitting nucleus of the early Oregon standoff, have never been shy about displaying their own symbols — these cutouts are on the Hammond Ranch and were placed years ago so they would be visible to visitors from Malheur’s Center Patrol Road.
One symbol that is conspicuously missing from Malheur: the main headquarters sign, which was replaced by the occupiers with a sign reading “Harney County Resource Center” during the armed takeover. The roads at the refuge are open, but the headquarters is likely to remain closed until at least mid-June for repairs and re-organization.
Without access, there will be some bummed birders on Memorial Day at Malheur — these trees are well known as a “trap” for migrating birds, which often stopover in large numbers at the headquarters in late May. I’ve been visiting headquarters since 1999, and frankly, I’m just glad to see the buildings and trees still standing after the standoff.
One of the few remaining visible impacts of the occupation was the ridiculous trench dug into the end of the parking lot at refuge headquarters. While one might think of this as just a parking lot, it is a site of Paiute cultural significance, and this kind of action perpetuates the violence against First Peoples that set the stage for the region’s recent history.
The Oregon standoff didn’t seem to have interfered with the refuge’s winter grazing program, as seen from Center Patrol Road near the Buena Vista ponds.
A pronghorn contemplates me on an open, grazed plain (a dry lake bed, really) at Malheur, near the Narrows. Don’t worry, you can outrun me.
Other animals seek refuge at Malheur in cover, rather than space. This doe, bedded down in a snow squall near the refuge headquarters, probably heard David Fry’s “hallelujah”.
Canada Goose are an abundant early-season bird at Malheur, and a common nesting species. Already paired in March.
It’s easy to forget when among the wild things of Malheur that conservation of this landscape was an intentional act. William Finley and Herman Bohlman photographed birds here in the early 1900s and advocated for their conservation in the face of the millinery trade. Teddy Roosevelt listened.
William Hanley, who was an early rancher in Harney County, and a Bull Moose progressive, conservationist, and friend of Teddy Roosevelt, owned the OO Ranch which was sold to the refuge in 1941. The iconic brand remains.
The Blitzen Valley, part of Malheur, was once owned by Peter French-who bought the ranch and then kept it from the Paiute and Bannock by force. French died in a violent confrontation with another rancher, who was acquitted on self-defense. Protection of Malheur’s resources during the era of over-exploitation was a conscious act…
…but also requires continued investment from the public and congress. While the public overwhelmingly supports wildlife conservation and refuges, congress regularly underfunds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forcing the agency to fail to meet many of its legislated mandates. Vintage USFWS signage and the Blitzen Valley.
Peter French’s historic P-Ranch, now part of the refuge, from the toe of Steens Mountain. More vintage signage.
Malheur has two of these classic guard towers: one at the headquarters that was famously appropriated by militants with rifles during the Oregon standoff, and this one, at P-Ranch on the south end of the refuge, adorned with the USFWS “blue goose”.
Center Patrol Road connects the two guard towers to one another, and passes through the Blitzen Valley from south to north. There is scenery galore, of all kinds, along the route.
Along the Center Patrol Road are countless wetland birds— including the ubiquitous, but handsome, Red-winged Blackbird. Malheur is the largest freshwater marsh in the Lower 48, and has significant regional or range-wide populations of several waterbird species.
A harrier hunts by last light at Benson Pond on Center Patrol Road. Scenes like this are not rare at Malheur, and they find their way into your heart and mind.
Burns, Oregon is the seat of Harney County and along with its sister city Hines is the “population center” of the region — about 3,000 people. [Obscure fun fact — Kellen Clemens, NFL quarterback, was a standout Burns Hilander in the late 1990s.] Even within Harney County, there is a microcosm of the larger urban-rural divide, as there are major cultural differences between town residents and ranchers.
However, the Oregon standoff was — in my limited informal discussions with people in Harney County and consistent with press coverage— almost unsupported locally, despite pressure and threats from militia groups. This symbolic billboard, adorned with a Green-tailed Towhee (one of my favorite bird species), displays that attitude. Yet the area continues to face serious external and internal economic and political pressures.
The past of those economic pressures is plainly visible in the number of empty storefronts and businesses in the Burns area. It remains to be seen how the Oregon standoff will affect Harney County in the future. When you visit, make sure to shop local, and don’t forget that people here have been through a lot and deserve respect and support.
Pure whimsy: the hazards of formation flying. Ross’s Goose and Snow Goose.
More whimsy: self-portrait with photographer’s assistant at an insecure and undisclosed location in Harney County. Also known as the Malheur Field Station.

Daniel Barton is an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California. He is grateful to have been able to visit Malheur and Harney County again, and hopes to again, soon. He wrote more extensively about the occupation here.

Twitter: @oreothlypis

Everyone needs a favorite in a batch of 1000+ photos: this one, perhaps oddly, is mine.

All photos © Daniel Barton 2016.

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