The strange and tragic spectacle of the armed seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this January by Ammon Bundy and his ragtag band of miscreants began with hostilities between refuge officials and a local rancher, jailed for setting illegal fires on public land. But for the fence-cutting and livestock trespass by Dwight and Steve Hammond on National Wildlife Refuge lands, this ill-conceived standoff may never have gotten started, much less escalated to the level of armed conflict.
Livestock trespass at Malheur isn't limited to one arson-happy family of ranchers. "I find trespass cattle on the refuge every year," remarks Dr. Steve Herman, an ecologist on the faculty of Evergreen College. "Once I found cowflop on the headquarters lawn."
Herman travels to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge every year to study the bird life, sometimes bringing students from his bird-banding class on nearby Steens Mountain. Waterfowl from the refuge wetlands can travel a mile or more to nest in the uplands, Herman notes, and this oasis in the midst of the southern Oregon desert boasts waterfowl production to rival the world-renowned prairie potholes region of the northern Great Plains.
"There were great nesting areas in the uplands in the old days," Herman recalls. But about 20 years ago, the National Wildlife Refuge manager opened up the uplands up to livestock grazing. Instead of recognizing the impact of livestock, however, refuge officials blame bird declines on non-native carp in the streams and lakes. "They blame the carp for the decline of waterfowl production, which is now only 10 percent of the original production," notes Herman, referring to the invasion of non-native carp that now stirs up silt in local waterways, affecting the growth of aquatic plants. "But the carp have been an epidemic for decades."
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge bent over backwards to accommodate local ranching interests, allowing large tracts of fertile bottomland to be converted to cropfields producing hay, buckraked into piles each autumn. Local ranchers turn out their cattle on hayfields throughout the refuge for winter-long feeding. Refuge officials have claimed that this heavy winter grazing warms the soil and increases the availability of insects for shorebirds and waterfowl that stop through on their migrations.
Not 30 miles from Malhuer, the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge was calm and peaceful while down the road the militants brandished assault rifles, misquoted the Constitution and railed against federal land managers for not giving ranchers a fair shake. Unlike Malheur, Hart Mountain has been closed to livestock grazing for decades.
Established in the 1930s as a breeding ground and habitat for pronghorns and other wildlife, commercial livestock operations grazed Hart Mountain for its first half-century. Barry Reiswig took over as refuge manager at Hart Mountain in 1989. "I was told that it was a great program and that livestock grazing was beneficial for wildlife," Reiswig says. "But the site manager told me a different story." Riparian areas along streams and beside springs, hotspots for wildlife production under natural conditions, had been grazed into muddy wallows, and production of aspen trees so important to songbirds was being grazed and trampled to death by cattle. "Since 80 percent of the critters in the Great Basin depend on riparian zones, it didn't seem like any way to run a refuge," Reiswig remarks.
Because livestock grazing on Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge started well before federal environmental laws took effect, there had never been an environmental assessment of grazing impacts on the refuge. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit, representing a number of conservation groups, under a federal law that requires National Wildlife Refuges to be managed "for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats" and allows activities on each refuge only when compatible with "the specific purposes for which that refuge was established."
In the response to the lawsuit, Reiswig commissioned a refuge management plan. "We gathered data on a lot of species," Reiswig recalls. "The data was overwhelming that we didn't need grazing."
Half a dozen livestock permittees who grazed cattle on Hart Mountain consulted their attorneys, who advised them that if they switched the cattle to pastures off the refuge, the lawsuit would be moot. The ranchers voluntarily removed their livestock from the refuge. According to Reiswig, "Once they took the cows off, the refuge began to recover immediately."
Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge was permanently closed to livestock grazing in 1993 under the new refuge management plan. Today, the aspens have come back with great vigor on Hart Mountain, the streamside vegetation is lush and the grass grows tall in the uplands. And without the constant push-and-pull between the livestock industry and wildlife managers, there are no flashpoints of conflict that outside agitators can turn to their advantage.
This tale of two tefuges illustrates that National Wildlife Refuges best achieve their purpose when they are managed for the benefit of wildlife. Compromising the mission of our National Wildlife Refuge system to accommodate economic interests can open up a Pandora's box of problems, even when federal managers try with the best of intentions to collaborate with local interest groups.
Variations on this conflict are playing out between moose and the oil industry in Alaska's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, between road projects and emperor geese in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge farther west in Alaska, and between the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and the motorized mayhem of the border patrol in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona's remotest deserts. And few political battles in any arena can rival the decades-long donnybrook between the oil companies that want to drill in caribou calving habitat on the Arctic Coastal Plain and the conservationists who want to see these critical habitats on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge permanently protected as wilderness.
President Theodore Roosevelt established Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1908 to protect its vast abundance of bird life from the depredations of plume-hunters seeking big profits in feathery adornments for women’s hats. Perhaps he is up there somewhere, looking down at the debacle that befell his creation, and wondering why. The simple solution is to nip all of these controversies in the bud by reserving National Wildlife Refuges for the wildlife.
Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director with WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.