How much longer are we going to have to put up with the cowboys who have barged onto the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, armed to the teeth and making demands? The situation is both comic and frightening, and it is easy to lose sight of the basic problem, which is livestock agriculture. What we need to do now is to act compassionately and vigorously to protect the wildlife refuge itself. Let’s make the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge an actual wildlife refuge. This means enforcing the principle of law, but going further. We need to change the law and get the cattle out of Malheur completely.
Ranchers already have a great bargain on grazing federal land — ridiculously low fees for grazing permits, which amount to a huge multi-million dollar subsidy of the cattle industry, even before we figure in the tremendous environmental damage inflicted by cattle. What these cowboys want is to have even more access to public land than they already have. They want ranchers, loggers, and farmers to have complete control over the refuge.
There’s something else that is making a lot of us a little nervous, though. This is the memory of what happened the last time we had a showdown over grazing in protected areas. This occurred in 2014 — and the cattle ranchers won. The federal government had dithered with Cliven Bundy (Ammon Bundy’s father) literally for two decades over Cliven’s blatant and illegal intrusion into protected wildlife areas. In 2014, their patience finally exhausted, the government sought to impound Bundy’s cattle. Cliven Bundy mobilized his supporters and they drove federal authorities off at gunpoint.
They got away with it, too. You’d think that this would have at least been followed with arrest warrants. None of this has transpired, and the huge sums of money that Cliven Bundy owes for trampling over environmentally fragile land where cattle shouldn’t be in the first place are still uncollected.
The power of the livestock industry permeates the West. To speak out or to question the cowboys’ wisdom can endanger you politically or even physically. Some of the Hammond gang (two of whom are now serving time) roughed up Denzel and Nancy Ferguson (authors of Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, highly critical of public lands grazing), breaking Denzel’s glasses, at a dance in the Diamond Valley some 40 years ago. Or, just look at the National Western Stock Show, now going on in Denver as we write, and to which all the civic leaders now bow in humble obeisance.
The militants’ inept use of the media, inability to coordinate with other equally deluded groups, and difficulty even coherently voicing their demands, has to arouse some sympathy. On the other hand, we cannot allow ourselves the slightest sympathy for their demands or for the political threat which these demands represent. For years the cattle industry has had the most egregious influence on all aspects of land use and nutritional policy, brushing aside common sense, science, and human decency. That is our real enemy. Any sympathies we have for the ranchers or the local economy should be directed towards finding them an alternative form of employment.
Expanding the power of ranching in Malheur is outrageous and ludicrous. The cattle industry has dominated the area for well over a century, even after Theodore Roosevelt designated Malheur Lake a refuge in 1908, and problems continue down to the present day.
What we need to do now is end all cattle grazing in Malheur, whether legal (by grazing permit) or illegal. Grazing cattle is incompatible with being a “wildlife refuge”; you can have one, or you can have the other, but not both. Cattle are manifestly not “wildlife” and cattle grazing in Malheur is quite destructive of wildlife. Steve Herman, a zoologist who has closely followed the problem of livestock grazing on wildlife at Malheur since the 1970’s, noticed numerous problems in Malheur caused by grazing cattle. The cattle trampled on nesting bird eggs, trampled the soil, and removed vegetation, turning much of the area into a cattle wallow. Then predators (such as coyotes) killed the birds because the birds were forced to nest in unprotected areas with little cover.
The birding community is up in arms over the situation in Malheur. A satirical article, which however reflects a lot of seething anger among environmentalists and birders, declares that the birders are converging on Burns to try to “take down” the terrorists. Birders warn the terrorists in Oregon, “we’re watching you,” and promise to document — nonviolently — the ranchers’ illegal hunts and traps.
A vast number of bird species visit Malheur, including white pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, eared and western grebes, and double-crested cormorants. Six species of hawks and five species of owls nest there. It is a Mecca for birders, who bring a considerable amount of tourist dollars to the area.
Birders, environmentalists, and animal protection groups could be significant allies here. The smart people in these three groups need to be talking to each other about the situation and ways in which they can work together to bring about the needed changes. Let’s restore order, both political order and environmental order, to Malheur. If we can get cattle off the refuge, we’ll be able to see the difference to the land, and perhaps we can use this approach as a model for dealing with the cattle problem in national wildlife areas, national parks, and other federal land.