The sandhill cranes and the red-winged blackbirds are now landing in Harney County. The snow on the hay fields is melting. Bird calls fill the air near the still-closed headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The migratory birds may not sense any difference this spring as they flock to the lakes and wetlands, but for the 16 federal employees who work at the refuge, this season will be very different from years past.
Throughout the entire 41 days of the occupation, refuge employees were not allowed to talk on the record with reporters. Out of safety concerns, they left their homes.
On Tuesday, for the first time since the armed takeover of the complex, refuge manager Chad Karges sat down with journalists along with refuge ecologist Jess Wenick.
41 Days Of Uncertainty For Refuge Employees
Karges returned to his home near Burns only a week and a half ago, after being absent through almost the entire occupation.
“I just got Christmas decorations put away,” said Karges. “It’s never pleasant to be displaced from your home and community.”
Karges was the first of the refuge employees to leave town shortly after the occupation began on Jan. 2. He went at the urging of law enforcement. Karges wouldn’t talk about what specific threats led to that decision, citing the ongoing criminal investigation into the occupiers. Within days after his departure, he asked the remaining refuge employees to leave town, too.
Karges was “not all that surprised” to hear about the occupation initially. He was actually expecting some sort of action from the out-of-town militants who arrived in Burns in mid-November, although he didn’t have reason to suspect they’d target the refuge.
“Why they chose the refuge headquarters I don’t know,” Karges said.
For refuge employees, the occupation disrupted nearly every aspect of life. Ecologist Jess Wenick was out of the country at the start of the occupation. He came home only to have to leave again, immediately.
“It was very frustrating to know that I had to be escorted by law enforcement from the airport just to repack and leave again,” Wenick said.
Far from home, he watched in frustration as the occupiers spoke about the federal government and refuge employees like him.
“Here was someone else telling my story, and telling it inaccurately,” said Wenick, who is from a ranching family in Harney County. “These outsiders came in and were telling us who we were. I was going, ‘Well, wait a minute. My dad was born in this hospital.’”
Wenick worried about his personal information, including family details stored at the refuge, throughout the occupation. OPB confirmed that the armed militants collected and documented sensitive information on the federal employees at the refuge, and used government computers. The occupiers’ plans for that personal information, if they had plans, is unknown.
“We will open it as quickly as we possibly can.”
The 16 full-time employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are all back to work, but not back to normal. Now that FBI has left the refuge, federal staffers are busy assessing the damage and necessary repair work before the complex can reopen.
Karges said that a big part of the assessment phase is simply dealing with a “mess that was left behind.” Occupiers abandoned a significant amount of property as well as some vehicles and at least one ATV. Personal items belonging to the occupiers were tagged and put into storage by law enforcement, to be returned later.
The occupiers dug trenches and built a road within the complex, and refuge staff will work with the Burns Paiute Tribe to figure out a rehabilitation plan within sensitive archaeological sites. Refuge employees will also assess the status of the heavy equipment used by the occupiers.
“It’s messy,” Karges said. “That’s a good way to describe the whole refuge headquarters: one big mess.”
One of the main headaches he’ll have to deal with is finding, replacing or reorganizing all of the government files displaced by the occupiers. Conservation plans, maps, information about grazing permittees and other vital information were stored in offices used by the occupiers.
“Everything got moved,” Karges said. “A file used to be here, and it may be in the shop now. We just don’t know where things are at right now.” He expects it will take weeks or longer to reorganize all of the files now in disarray before work can start again.
But the buildings are mostly intact.
“There’s not a lot of structural damage,” Karges said. “Filthy carpets, painting -- that’s the kind of thing we’re going to have to deal with.”
It’s not yet clear where funds for rehabilitation and restoration will come from, or how much those efforts will cost. The refuge budget is $2.1 million annually, and Karges says there’s no contingency for unexpected events of this scale.
"This is completely outside of the norm," he said.
Conservation Programs Disrupted
The occupation ended just as the refuge was approaching a critical time of year for irrigation and water flows to the ponds and lakes where migratory birds thrive.
The refuge includes a complex system of canals and ditches that flow into wetlands, marshes, lakes and ponds that provide habitat for millions of birds. The flows have to be adjusted daily as snow melts off of Steens Mountain starting in late winter.
Refuge employees would have normally spent all winter fixing and adjusting more than 1,000 irrigation gates and mechanisms on the 197,000-acre refuge.
"There's a main water canal that needs repair, but that didn't happen due to the occupation," said Wenick, the refuge ecologist. "Water can't flow down that main canal until the repair, and it feeds thousands of acres."
That delayed repair means less habitat for the birds, for now.
"They need to land on water. And there was no water to land on, in certain areas," Wenick said. But I think because the occupation did end when it did, we were able to get folks on the ground to start addressing these things."
Another project delayed by the occupation was management of invasive carp. Karges said the refuge was in the middle of crafting a species management plan when the occupation began.
"We're just not prepared to move forward with that right now because we weren't doing that preparation during the winter months," Karges said.
Restoration, And Moving Forward
The annual Harney County bird festival will continue as planned in April, but it's unlikely that the refuge headquarters will be open by then.
The nonprofit Friends of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is coordinating volunteers to help with facility repairs, landscaping, fence building and habitat restoration, but work is not expected to begin until May at the earliest.
Wenick said he also hopes to see volunteer efforts targeting Burns, too.
"The impact of this occupation has been community-wide," Wenick said. "We're hoping to see the volunteer needs go throughout the community. There are a lot more needs than just at the refuge itself."
For Karges, the occupation gave him even more determination to collaborate and cooperate with ranchers, conservationists, local government and other partners and change the antagonistic dynamics between land users.
"The militia threw a lot of rocks at this community. And the community is in the process of picking up those rocks," Karges said. "But what this community is also good at is finding the gold in those rocks. We're going to take something that wasn't positive and turn it into something beneficial."