Just over a week into the armed occupation of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge, the self-identified militiamen camped out there aren't just upsetting locals. They've begun to piss off yet another group — birders.
That's because the occupiers are perched on one of the best spots for birdwatching — and an essential, flourishing ecosystem for migrating birds — in the West: the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which lies within one of the biggest avian highways in the country.
The refuge is 187,000 acres of shrubs and wetlands, an oasis in an otherwise unforgiving landscape that sits helpfully in the path of the Pacific Flyway, one of North America's four major north-south migratory routes. It's the perfect place for birds to rest, breed, and refuel during long journeys, and an ideal spot for bird enthusiasts to glimpse a rare species.
Noah Strycker is an avid birder from Oregon, who just completed a "big year." Beginning in Antarctica, he spent the year crossing 41 countries on all seven continents, identifying a record-shattering 6,042 species of birds — about 58 percent of the estimated total species on Earth.
Strycker makes several trips to Malheur every year, and at one point lived in the very bunkhouse where the militiamen are now stationed. When he first heard about the occupation, he couldn't help but laugh.
"Occupy Malheur? Strategically, that's like taking over a rest stop," Strycker said. "As this episode continues, though, I'm angry. These guys don't care about anyone's interest except their own, and they have no idea where they are. Malheur is a special place to Oregonians and to birders. It's remote, desolate, and starkly beautiful; the kind of place where Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese stop traffic."
To say the refuge is off the beaten path is an understatement — the two closest large cities are Bend, Oregon, 150 miles to the west, and Boise, Idaho more than 200 miles to the east. The refuge was set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, when feathers were in fashion and plume hunting was rampant. 320 species of birds have been spotted at Malheur, more than anywhere else in Oregon.
While the reserve, at least in normal, occupation-free years, may be frozen and largely deserted in winter, it won't be long before it is swarming with activity.
"There wouldn't have been another human within miles when this militia arrived on a weekend. As spring approaches, however, birds and birders will arrive en masse. If these guys aren't gone by then, there will be real trouble," Strycker said. "Bird migration doesn't really ramp up until April. If the occupation somehow lingers that long, there will be a heavy impact on the region's tourism."
The good news is that the presence of humans alone, according to Washington, DC-based birder and writer Nicholas Lund, shouldn't disturb the wildlife.
"[The birds] are used to having people at their refuge. It depends on what sort of activity these guys get up to," Lund said. "If they are just hanging around and occupying, then I don't think it would make much of a difference. But if they started burning things, if they were out on the lake boating around, that would be trouble."
'Between the game birds and the water fowl, there's plenty of stuff for them to potentially shoot at.'
The out-of-state occupiers have vowed to stay "for years" if necessary to make their point, against the resentencing of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, which they consider double jeopardy, and for the return of federally owned land to local ranchers. But whether they're actually prepared for a lengthy standoff has come into question, after one militant's request on Facebook, which has since become a punchline of sorts, for supporters to send "snacks… energy drinks… anything you think will help."
Notwithstanding their stock of gluten-free jerky, courtesy of a recent PETA delivery, it's worth considering the combination of heavily armed and potentially hungry occupiers with — literally — sitting ducks.
"Between the game birds and the waterfowl, there's plenty of stuff for them to potentially shoot at," Lund said.
One nature photographer and wildlife tracker from Bangkok named Kevin, who goes by the pen name Norwegian Chef, wrote an open letter to the occupiers that has been widely shared online, warning: "We are watching your every move, and we have been watching you for a long time."
He claims to be a lawyer, and that the "terrorists" committing "sedition" should expect civil lawsuits from environmentalists.
"For years those of us who are wildlife photographers, birdwatchers, and carers of wildlife, have been documenting the activities of you poachers and criminals around many of our nation's wildlife refuges," he wrote. "With our powerful cameras and ability to move unseen in the wilderness, we have found and documented your illegal hunts, your illegal traps and all sorts of illicit activities, and are constantly feeding that information to law enforcement."
Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, had strong words for the occupiers.
"Despite their flags and patriotic overtures, don't mistake this standoff for anything than what it is: An attempt to use guns to seize control over what taxpayers own and bully the government into acquiescing to their demands," Suckling said. "These are special places that deserve protection for values that we all hold dear: clean air, water, and refuge for wildlife. Americans, collectively, have decided that these public lands need and deserve protection. That shouldn't be undone at the behest of men with guns and a dangerous view of how a government should be run."
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom
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