The story of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge starts with women’s hats - elaborate feathered hats that were part of a fashion craze that was sweeping Europe and the United States in the late 1800s.
The hats were audacious, colorful and sometimes included more than just feathers – picture heads, wings and whole stuffed birds sitting astride the fancy lady’s head.
To feed the haute couture appetites of the middle and upper classes, so-called “plume hunters” were crossing the county, killing millions upon millions of birds.
In 1898, the plume hunters found Malheur Lake.
According to photographer William Finley, a pair of hunters wiped out the population of “white herons,” or egrets, in just a day and a half. In an article in the Atlantic Monthly, he wrote these words.
“Malheur has seen many such massacres, but none so great as that,” he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910.
A decade later, when Finley explored the Malheur marshes, the egrets were still gone.
“I am satisfied that of the thousands of white herons formerly nesting on Malheur, not a single pair of birds is left,” he wrote.
In response to the devastation he found, Finley pushed for the creation of what is now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It was the 19th refuge created by President Theodore Roosevelt.
More than a century later, the 300 square-mile sanctuary is one of the most important migratory bird sites in North America. Three hundred twenty different species of birds use the refuge each year.
And the “white heron” is back.
Hunting for certain bird species is still allowed on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – at least it is when the refuge is open. But the armed occupation by the Bundy clan has put a crimp in the current bird-hunting season.
Hunting on public lands offers a relatively inexpensive alternative to paying private landowners to use their property.
“There’s some people that are able to afford access to private lands for some of their outdoor recreation and that’s great for certain things,” says Bryan Huskey of Idaho.
The Malheur refuge regulates where people can hunt, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife determines what kinds of birds can be hunted and when.
“For the bulk of sportsmen like myself, we enjoy being able to go anywhere we want on public lands and roam and explore and create adventures on our own with some fuel in our pick-ups and our own two feet,” Huskey says.
Kris Millgate, Tight Line Media
Hunters visited the Malheur Refuge about 1,000 times in 2011. Half those visits were made by Oregonians. The rest traveled in from surrounding states.
Hunters and anglers from all over the Northwest are speaking out against the Bundy’s takeover of the refuge, including members of the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
“What’s going on here is an illegal armed occupation of a federal government refuge – of a wildlife refuge that’s supposed to be a sanctuary for birds and animals is being taken over by the people that want to part it out like an old impala,” says Mark Heckert, a member of the backcountry group from Washington.
By the end of January, duck and goose hunting season at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will close. Then after the ice clears, fishing season will open on the reserve’s lakes and waterways.
But until the Bundy situation is resolved, U.S. Wildlife officials say access to the public land will remain closed.
Kris Millgate of Tight Line Media contributed to this story.