Now the Bundys’ militia threatens to spoil that partnership, conservationists say.
“One of the exciting things is that the refuge brought the local community together ... they all came together and agreed to restore Malheur,” Sallinger said. “The occupiers are trying to sow complete discord.”
In addition to delaying vital habitat restoration in time for spring migration, Bundy's occupation has cut off birders from one of the best places in the U.S. to sight new species.
“Malheur has indeed been a mecca for birders as long as I’ve been involved,” said Harvey Schubothe, president of the Oregon Birding Association. “I think you can probably assume that we’re obviously not happy with the situation there.”
While Schubothe said he supports the Bundys’ right to protest, he and Sallinger worry about the occupation’s effect on the wildlife and the blocking of birders like himself from accessing Malheur.
“It’s certainly a good time of year to be over there,” Schubothe said. “We’re always looking for that next bird that we haven’t seen before.”
Schubothe said he got into birding after an excursion to Africa during his college days decades ago. After his return, he started noticing the local birds he had previously taken for granted, including the bald eagle.
“I grew up in a period of time when, because of chemicals like DDT, there was a point in time when the bald eagle was an endangered species,” Schubothe said.
Schubothe and Sallinger agree that federal and local efforts to restore habitat for birds, especially at important sites like Malheur, must be allowed to continue.
Malheur was made into a refuge only after being nearly destroyed in the early 20th century, according to Sallinger. At that time, the hat trade led to carnage in the area as plume hunters wantonly killed the birds to get decorative feathers.
It was only after Portland Audubon founder William Finley published powerful photographs of the destruction that President Teddy Roosevelt made Malheur a national wildlife refuge in 1908. The aim was two-fold: to protect an important bird habitat and to allow future generations of people to enjoy viewing nature.
While Malheur's occupiers say they want the federal government to hand over the land to locals, Sallinger says they are doing the opposite by deterring conservationists, birders and local tribes from accessing the refuge. “We look forward to seeing the refuge restored to the people," Sallinger said.
With wire services