By: Alex Wilson
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon is going into it’s fourth week of an armed occupation by self-proclaimed constitutional activists. The standoff began on January 2nd and was initiated by Ammon Bundy, son of esteemed Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy is accompanied by an unknown number of individuals, all of whom are equipped with firearms and have pledged to remain on the property for as long as “it” takes. The end result that the group is demanding is not yet abundantly clear, however what brought them to the location is evident.
The protest began following the sentencing of two Harney County ranchers who were convicted of arson for a intentional burn that occurred in 2001 on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land. Although they had previously been convicted and sentenced, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that the sentence imposed was unlawful due to its shortness in length. Subsequently, both ranchers were re-sentenced to an additional several years in federal prison.
Enter the Bundys. They, along with the rest of the militia, are here in Oregon to protest both this incident and the alleged federal government overreach when it comes to land management. The group has gained many local supporters in addition to many concerned citizens. Despite the potential risks to public safety, local conservation groups are raising concerns about the safety and care of the wildlife which occupy the refuge. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge is home to a great variety of birds, mammals, amphibians/reptiles, fish, and acres of natural habitat. Visitors flock from all corners of the region every year to enjoy the refuge and take in the sights. Many of these visitors are also very passionate and concerned for the welfare of the wildlife which occupies the refuge.
Maeve Sowles, president of the Lane County Audubon Society said, “As a conservation organization, we see the refuge as essential for the wildlife.” She went on to explain that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a place for people to come and enjoy the scenery, which is one of the premier birding destinations in the state of Oregon. “It is land that from some people’s perspective is not being used, but it is,” she said. As long as the refuge is occupied by the protesters, it will remain closed which results in many would-be visitors having to cancel their plans. Additionally, she expressed concern about the wildlife and habitat being harmed during the occupation due to lack of oversight by officials.
North Eugene High School science teacher Sarah Chylek took a different approach in her concern surrounding the site. She referenced the portion of the refuge which is designated Native American land and is host to many artifacts and sacred locations. “I find it incredibly ironic that they are demanding the land be returned to the rightful owners when the rightful owners are clearly the Native Americans,” said Chylek. She went on to explain that her biggest concern is damage to the artifacts and sacred lands.
Meanwhile in Harney County, residents are ready for the group to move on including Harney County Sheriff Davis Ward who has been vocal on the matter since the occupation began. Oregon Governor Kate Brown is also becoming anxious for the the group the depart the refuge and is pressuring federal authorities to take more assertive enforcement action against the group. In recent days, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has had more contact with group leaders, but is yet to achieve a resolution.