Abandoned homes. Compromised bank accounts. Threatened family members. Constant fear.
Employees of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge said they’re going through all of that and more, as an armed occupation at the facility reaches its 20th day.
“I’m afraid to go back at this point,” said a refuge employee in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I would say that this is the most disrupted my life has ever been.”
OPB agreed to withhold the identity of the employee because armed militants who took over the refuge have made threats against federal employees.
The conversation marks one of the first times a current refuge employee has commented on the situation. The employee talked about how it’s affected their life and those of their co-workers, and described how the situation could damage conservation work at the refuge.
“Knowing that they’re combing through all of our files, everything that we have that’s government and personal at the refuge, that they have access to our computers, that they know everything from my Social Security number to my shoe size,” the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee said, “it’s a great sense of violation.”
Kevin Foerster, who manages all of USFWS’s refuges throughout the Northwest and Hawaii, called the threats to his workers “egregious.”
Foerster said the agency has taken steps to keep refuge employees safe, including monitoring their credit and moving them out of Harney County. While only those working in the county have been relocated, a USFWS spokesman said the agency has put its facilities on alert.
“That’s an attack on individuals,” Foerster said. “It’s just not right, whatever their cause is, that’s just not right.”
Current USFWS employees said they’re angry and frustrated by what the armed militants, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, have done at the refuge.
In the days since the refuge was taken over Jan. 2, employees have regularly spoken to each other. They say they’re angry, even devastated, about being displaced.
“Some have children that are school aged, some don’t. But regardless, to have an entire upheaval of the entire family unit is very disruptive psychologically for all of our families,” the current refuge employee told OPB.
But talking helps, the employee said, noting there’s “therapeutic” value in sharing frustrations.
The refuge employees are still getting paid as the occupation stretches into its third week. Some workers are able to do their jobs remotely. For others, the agency has found temporary work in other locations.
For the federal employees who have stuck around, law enforcement said recently that the threats from militants have continued.
“That loss of a sense of safety,” the refuge employee said, “we don’t realize how core and how important that is until that’s been compromised and it definitely has in this situation.”
And the emotional toll is growing. The current employee spoke openly about the difficulty of concentrating because of obsessive thoughts, saying day-to-day work is both hard and a welcomed distraction.
“When everything that you hold dear, from your personal life to what you’ve achieved in your professional life, has all been seemingly taken away from you by people who have no comprehension of who you are or even the place where you live — it’s a difficult thing to process,” the employee said.
“I have some friends that believe that perhaps the militia is doing a good thing,” the employee said. “It’s quite surprising and disappointing.”
Foerster put it more bluntly.
“I suspect that Teddy Roosevelt’s probably rolling over in his grave right now if he knew what was happening out there,” he said. The former U.S. president established the Malheur refuge in 1908.
Foerster and the current refuge employee expressed concern about the damage that could happen to the refuge and the relationship with surrounding ranchers if the occupation continues.
The refuge relies on some cattle grazing to help maintain a healthy habitat for birds and other wildlife. In turn, the ranchers rely on the forage the refuge provides.
But the problems aren’t limited to personal relationships.
Workers manage water levels at the refuge using a series of dams. One of the reasons is to manage a carp population in Malheur Lake that swells each spring. Carp are an aggressive species that eat almost anything, and can hurt the ecosystem migratory birds depend on.
“If we’re not able to keep up with our water delivery system then all the progress that we’ve made in removing carp from the wetlands in the Blitzen Valley will be compromised and we could lose five years of work in just a matter of a month with our absence,” the refuge employee said.
If that absence continues into warmer months when the snowpack melts, it could even lead to flooding and major road damage in the county.
If the Bundys get their way, federal workers won’t return to the refuge. Earlier this week, the militants told a group of Harney County ranchers they want the federal government out of the area permanently. They asked ranchers to cancel their grazing leases with federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the USFWS.
The Bundys said grazing on the public lands would continue, however, with ranchers being protected from repercussions by armed militants.
Foerster said if the Bundy plan occurred, it would be against the law.
“That’d be a contractual violation, as well as a regulation violation,” he said. “It’s just not in anybody’s best interest to go down that line.”
The Bundys and their supporters said they originally came to Harney County to stand up for two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who went to federal prison for arson earlier this month. USFWS employees acknowledge that their relationship with ranchers in the area has been strained at times.
The refuge employee who spoke to OPB said they’ve personally been threatened in the past by the Hammond family, but the employee was quick to say that the relationship had become much more positive in recent years.
It’s a turn that’s representative of the overall improving relations with local ranchers, according to USFWS officials.
“We see Malheur as a model for collaboration,” said Foerster. “Locals have influence as to how that refuge is managed.”
Since the occupation began, the employee said, some ranchers have called to say they’re upset by the occupation and the damage it’s done to the community.
Despite the continued threats and fear being created by the militants, the employee said they still see Harney County as their home.
“I love working at the Refuge,” the employee said. “I’ve always seen myself as retiring there.”
In the end, the employee said the Bundys would fail in their quest to take over the refuge and rid the county of the federal government.
“I would say ultimately they picked the wrong community … that the ranchers in Harney County do not share their issues,” the employee said. “We will move forward together.”
Reporter John Sepulvado contributed to this report.