By Ira Zuckerman
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, one of Evergreen’s oldest retreats, is a basin of sagebrush flats and salt lakes tucked into Southeast Oregon. It’s five times smaller than Olympic National Park, but makes a crucial oasis for migrating waterbirds on the western flyway.
Though now retired, emeritus ornithology faculty Dr. Steven G. Herman has trekked his students down to Malheur every year since 1973. “Hundreds of Evergreeners have been introduced to this land,” Herman said.
Back when Evergreen was in its first years, ecologist Denzel Ferguson, Herman’s colleague, was the manager of the refuge field station. This summer, however, Herman will face a more hostile atmosphere in Harney County.
Malheur and it’s neighboring communities saw significant violence between January 2nd and today. A civilian militia occupied the refuge headquarters, demanding that the refuge be taken out of federal hands. This was the latest act in the longstanding battle over public lands management.
On January 26, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the occupying group, was arrested with several other militia members. One of them, 54 year old LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed in the struggle after resisting law enforcement at the traffic stop. Four militia members still remain in the visitor’s center, protesting against government control of the land they consider rancher property for grazing.
Herman knows Bundy and the people he associates with. “They have shot over the heads of my son-in-law and several other students,” he said, “They’re very bad people.”
Since 1973, Herman has been a player in the land management conflict and according to him, “things haven’t changed much since then.” He’s helped remove cows from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, and played a part legislating the 1972 ban on the dangerous pesticide DDT.
People working for the Department of Natural Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Department are subject to constant aggression from locals who’ve historically used this land as a source of income. “The Natural Resource people are embedded in the community. And their children are in school with the ranchers’ children,” Herman said.
Reasonable herds are allowed on these public lands, but Herman considers the consistency of ranch cattle grazing at Malheur to be harmful and is part of the fight to ban overgrazing and let the land serve its primary purpose as a refuge.
Under improper grazing practice by their owners, ranch cattle will eat more grass than the ecosystems of Hart Mountain or Malheur could reproduce. Fences meant to keep cows off the protected grass were kicked down by Bundy and his militants during their occupation.
“The ranchers have always had control,” Herman said. “…but my own effort throughout this whole thing has been to raise the consciousness that this abusive grazing does take place.”