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Malheur: Why It Matters and What Birders Can Do About It

A male Yellow-headed Blackbird proclaims his territory at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—birders should do the same. Photo ©Jeffrey A. Gordon

A Yellow-headed Blackbird proclaims his territory at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—birders should do the same. Photo ©Jeffrey A. Gordon

Malheur matters to birders. It would be difficult to overpraise Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a birding hotspot or to overstate its value for the conservation for birds and other wildlife. It’s just that good.

But even as we birders venerate Malheur as one of North America’s finest birding destinations, we accept that we are just one constituency among the many that love this land and value it for reasons both practical and personal. As David Houghton, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association writes:

“Refuges are a meeting place for people of all political stripes and walks of life: hunters, anglers, birders, ranchers, hikers, school children, researchers, teachers, photographers – and they are community resources. They attract tourism dollars, provide shared natural resources, and often include cooperative uses like farming and grazing in partnership with neighbors.”

We’re appalled that one tiny group of armed extremists presumes to claim this magnificent place and hold it hostage to their own political agenda. Malheur can’t be given back to “the people.” We already own it—all of us, not just a few. Birders join citizens all over the United States, including Sheriff David Ward and the residents of Harney County, in calling for the peaceful restoration of law and order to the refuge.


The American Birding Association extend our thanks and support to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their ongoing stewardship of Malheur and our entire refuge system and for doing the hard work of balancing diverse, sometimes conflicting views of how refuge lands ought to be managed in order to best, “… conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

And to the residents of Harney County, we recognize that all this is taking place in your backyard and that you have had and will continue to have a special, primary role in shaping what the land there is today and what it will be in the future. We hope your lives are back to normal very, very soon.

What Should Birders Do to Help Malheur?

Buy a Duck Stampthere’s no more direct, effective way to register your vote in favor of wildlife and habitat conservation through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service than to buy a Duck Stamp. Even better, buy your stamp(s) through the ABA and register your support for conservation specifically as a birder! Nearly all your money will go directly to habitat purchase. Plus, your stamp is good for admission to National Wildlife Refuges that do charge an entrance fee.

Join or donate to the Friends of Malheur and/or the High Desert Partnership — two non-profit organizations that are directly involved with Malheur and the surrounding area and which would welcome your support are the Friends of Malheur and the High Desert Partnership  Friends groups offer a critical support system to our badly understaffed and underfunded refuges. According to Tim Blount, Executive Director of the Friends of Malheur, “we provide support directly to the refuge and its many programs through donations, memberships, and volunteer opportunities to preserve this special place. Because we are such a remote refuge we don’t have the opportunity for many grants that are available to more urban refuges and so depend on direct support by individuals.” Join or donate to the Friends of Malheur here.

The High Desert Partnership, based in Burns, OR, works to “enhance the ecological sustainability, economic well-being and social vitality of [Harney County and southeast Oregon] communities by using a collaborative decision-making process with all interested stakeholders to solve challenging issues.” Donate to the High Desert Partnership here.

Go birding and SHARE birdingappeals, comedic and otherwise, for a mass invasion of birders to confront those currently occupying the refuge in reality aren’t a good idea, at least not now and for the foreseeable future. But going birding right now at your favorite local refuge or other birding spot, and at Malheur when things resolve, is always a great idea, especially if you share your experience.

When in the field, talk up birding with those you meet, including land managers and staff. Wear your binoculars into local stores and restaurants you patronize while birding. If that seems awkward, just display your ABA Bird of the Year stickers on your cell phone or a similar prominent place and use that as a conversation starter. The most important thing is to talk to other people about birding, especially about how much fun and meaning you find in it and how you’d be happy to help them get started.

As for visiting Malheur itself, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can go on your own, or take part in the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival this April, or join one of the many tour groups that include Malheur on their itineraries.

Finally, share your great birding experiences with those in your social and professional circles via social media and other means. Invite them out birding with you or on local bird club or similar outings. One of the greatest things about birding is how easily and widely it can be shared—always be looking for opportunities to do just that.

Keep watching and keep speaking out



obviously, the situation at Malheur merits continued monitoring by birders. We ask that you keep informed and help us keep informed. One of the real strengths of the birding community is its reach—we have reliable, trustworthy eyes, ears, and voices all over the ABA Area and around the world. Use the comments section here, our discussion group on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever means of communication you favor to join the conversation and to raise our collective voice. Together, we can be strong advocates for Malheur and all the places, birds, people, and traditions we hold dear.

Finally, if you’re not already an American Birding Association Member, please do join us. If you are, thank you.

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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
  • Johanna Van de Woestijne

    I don’t buy duck hunting stamps because I don’t hunt birds. The stamps misrepresent my non-extractive interests in wildlife. When duck hunters are out shooting ducks, I can’t even enjoy the area myself, with my binoculars and cameras. I’d much prefer to support wildlife areas with the purchase of wildlife conservation stamps, but I don’t seem to be able to find those. I do not share many interests with sport hunters. I understand culling and wildlife management where the natural predators have been culled by management, that benefits hunters and ranchers. I don’t agree with it, but I understand that once the apex predators have been culled already, that some deer populations etc can become habitat damaging too. But, I don’t support sport hunting for the fun of it, which seems to be what duck hunting stamps are doing. Where can I buy wildlife conservation stamps?

    • Dave Irons

      Johanna, I think you misunderstand what Duck Stamp money funds are used for. They mostly go to waterfowl habitat enhancement and conservation, in essence helping the birds that you enjoy watching. It is the Federal “Duck Stamp,” not the “Duck Hunting Stamp.” I don’t hunt either, but I do own a Duck Stamp because I like ducks, especially those tough to ID brown ones.

      • Johanna Van de Woestijne

        A Federal Duck Stamp supports duck hunting: ONE STAMP, MANY USES
        In addition to serving as hunting license and conservation tool, a current Federal Duck Stamp is also a free pass into any national wildlife refuge that charges an entry fee

        • Dave Irons

          Not sure why you choose this venue to argue the merits of the Duck Stamp. In my view the point of this blog is a more pressing matter. Have you become a member of the Friends of Malheur NWR or the Friends group for a NWR near your home? If not, why? Please support your conservation effort(s) of choice. No one is insisting that you have to buy a Duck Stamp as one of those choices.

          • Johanna Van de Woestijne

            I bring it up because everytime I ask about supporting wildlife conservation in wildlife refuges I’m told to by a duck stamp, which supports hunters (and the gun business), rather than supporting bird watchers. This is from the Federal Duck Stamp web page, “We strongly encourage all waterfowl hunters to visit our Migratory Bird Program Hunting webpage and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hunting website, where you will find useful information and links, from where you can buy a state hunting permit, to where you can go on the nearest national wildlife refuge to hunt.

      • DNADEB

        Thanks for your reply. Duck Stamps definitely support the maintenance of the habitat for ducks and many other species. In Pennsylvania it is necessary to continually remind people that buying a hunting license helps maintain the over 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands that people other than hunters use for birding, hiking, etc. The Ruffed Grouse Society is another group that supports habitat maintenance for Ruffed Grouse but many other birds and mammals benefit as well including the endangered Golden-winged Warbler.

        • Johanna Van de Woestijne

          Habitat maintenance that is maintained for hunters does NOT support wetland biodiversity, but rather favors habitat for huntable target species for hunters. NOT the same thing as being a proponent of wetland biodiversity.

          • Justin

            Well, then just ignore it and keep complaining while the hunters pay for your joyous hiking trips while you go, bird watcher!

          • Johanna Van de Woestijne

            You don’t get it, I am paying for the hunters if I buy duck stamps. I pay six figures in taxes each year to the federal government. I support the the outdoor industry suppliers, cameras, boots, binoculars, GPS, etc. I’m a very important part of the economy, willing to buy wildlife conservation stamps. I pay my fair share. But, I don’t want to pretend that hunters, who support the gun industry, are on my team. They aren’t and I don’t want to give them free freight. Neither to I support anti-fed gun toting terrorists.

          • Justin

            No, I get it just fine. You assume that because you “buy a lot of stuff and have money” that you support enough of the outdoors (even though really you’re just supporting corporations).

            Duck stamps go to support habitat. They don’t go buy more guns and bullets or purchase more blinds.

            I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more ridiculous reason than “Because I’m rich and buy lots of stuff and I want to pretend that I’m helping the environment by not having a clue where the profits go to!”

            Seriously – that’s pretty weak.

          • Johanna Van de Woestijne

            I didn’t say I was rich, I said I pay more than my fair share of federal taxes, because I don’t have a Bermuda escape account. I’m NOT a corporation. I pay large federal taxes and expect that federal lands will be protected from gun toting idiots, which includes duck hunters.

          • Justin

            Just on a whim, let me check…..yep. I pay taxes too! Woot! And though I don’t hunt ducks because they taste fowl (ha!) I do hunt big game as that’s a major source of the food on my table. And if the land is public, then we must adhere to the wishes of ALL people. You like to look at ducks – good for you! Others like to eat them! Good for them! And all of those gun toters are the ones who are paying for your being able to look at them! Woot!

            Pretty self-serving views of the world ya’ there, I must say.

          • Johanna Van de Woestijne

            False. You are incorrect. You do NOT provide the financial support for our federal lands. I do. I pay large federal taxes. In support of those lands. How much do you pay?

          • Justin

            LOL. You’re the type of person who thinks because you pay more in taxes that you’re world view is the only view that should be recognized. Yeah, you can take your little ‘better than thou’ attitude and suck on it. Fact is – you don’t pay me, or my taxes – and last I checked, both of our votes count.

            But…you’re making me want to just go shoot ducks because people like you have this “entitled” viewpoint of themselves (much like liberal welfare moochers). I’ll tell Bambi you said hi – he’s in the freezer.

          • Johanna Van de Woestijne

            I’m in no way a civil welfare moocher. I’m an immigrant, from parents with 4th grade educations. I worked hard, pay my taxes, don’t cheat on my taxes, take care of my kids, and care about the future. I’m NOT entitled, but I come from nothing, and pay my gratitude forward, to the environment and my fellow citizens. The only reason you can have deer in your freezer is because the ranchers and feds killed all the apex predators on MY TAX DOLLARS. Now, it is your turn to give space to the natural habitats and take your guns home and stop shooting the apex predators, just so you can hunt in the wildlife areas which MY TAXES are paying for. YOU are the FEDERALLY SUBSIDIZED GUN TOTERS. Don’t call me the entitled, when I pay in taxes more than you earn.

          • Justin

            You’re making me giggle..a lot. I guess you think you paying more in taxes means you get more say. Guess what? You be wrong.

            The only reason I can have deer in my freezer is because I get my happy ass out there and hunt them. Guess what? I grew up on cattle ranches 🙂 And my company (as in MINE) PAYS the USFS directly for what I do, so I’m quite confident that more of my money goes directly to fund the environment than any small portion of your piddly taxes. I’m not federally subsidized in the slightest, oh foolish entitled one.

            Ranchers and hunters managed predation and wildlife long before the feds were involved. But you won’t hear about that because that’s involved in your preconceived biased viewpoints. Hudson Bay Company managed the NW for 60 years without any issues until more settlers came. “Apex predators”..lol. I’m done with this – I’m not gonna waste any more of my time with a maroon.

          • Western Birder

            “I didn’t say I was rich …” You did say you pay 6 figures in federal taxes. That sounds like > $100,000. You pay in taxes more than most people I know EARN. Sounds like rich to me. So forget the Duck Stamp. Donate to the ABA Birder’s Exchange, or the ABA Young Birders Program, or … ?

    • David Hartley

      This thread for obvious reasons needs to end. Please keep future comments on topic. – ABA Blog Peacekeeper

  • Dave Irons

    Thank you Jeff for this insightful discussion of what we can do to support our beloved Malheur NWR during the current occupation. I am an Oregonian and in part an Eastern Oregonian (there is a difference). All told, I’ve spent months of my life in Harney County and on the refuge. There is a snow-covered memorial bench with my late daughter’s name on it at the refuge headquarters. This is my place, your place, and ultimately OUR place. It is a cathedral to birders from not only around this country, but around the world. But it is so much more.

    Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding Harney, Malheur, and Lake Counties make up what we locals generally refer to as southeastern Oregon. These are massive counties that would gobble up some of the smaller states, but they are sparsely populated by people whose families have been on this land for many, many generations. Immigrants to this expansive and arid landscape are few and the locals would mostly tell you that’s just fine with them. Connections to the land and the living that is often made off of it run deep, something that more transient city folks like me don’t always understand. My politics and views and theirs don’t necessarily mesh and if we were to start talking presidential elections or conservation we might just end of having to grab a beer and agreeing to disagree. That said, the people of southeastern Oregon are by and large, decent, extremely hard-working, law-abiding folks. Would be Bundy-types are few and very far between. One-on-one, they will stop along the road and chat with birders, ask you what you’ve seen and then tell you about the bobcat that they saw just down the road. Wave to them as you drive past them on the road and they will almost without fail wave back.

    What you won’t find in these parts are fedora-wearing hipsters, people talking bout the comparative “hoppiness” of micro-brews, or food carts. Portland, the Willamette Valley, a rugged scenic Oregon coast and a liberal culture are what most non-Oregonians think about when they think about Oregon. In terms of landscape and culture, southeastern Oregon couldn’t be more different.

    This last distinction is important to recognize, especially as it relates to the resolution of this occupation. The people of Harney County weren’t looking for outsiders to ride into town to teach them how to protest. They didn’t invite more outsiders to show up in order to provide security detail during the occupation. Finally, they don’t necessarily want a bunch of white-hats from Portland or beyond coming to their rescue and ridding them of the unlawful occupiers. In their minds, this occupation is happening in their “backyard,” thus they want to take the lead in solving the problem.

    I am now a member of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and a donor to the High Desert Partnership. My passion for birds is just part of the reason that I support these two organizations. My love for Harney and its neighboring counties, the landscape, the people and the culture of this corner of Oregon runs to my core. Escaping my urban home turf to bask in the high desert several times each year is always a cleansing and truly spiritual experience. I like to think that the folks who have chosen to make this place their home have done so for reasons that go far beyond the space available to graze cattle. For this reason I encourage you to support the two organizations named above, as they involve mostly local folks working to make sure that Harney County and Malheur NWR continue as we have come to know them…truly wonderful places.

    • Cathy Sheeter

      Well said Dave.

  • Laurie Larson

    Yes, birders and all who love nature should be concerned about Malheur. But I had been wondering what the real original owners, the Native Americans, thought about this militia occupation. I listened carefully to the NPR story yesterday on just that subject. You can read it:

    http://www.npr.org/2016/01/09/462513600/native-american-tribe-worries-oregon-militants-could-damage-ancestral-land

    Takeaway quote:
    “The tribe is very offended,” says Charlotte Rodrique, the chairperson of
    the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, in an interview with NPR’s Michel
    Martin. “[The militants’] theme, of course, was that we’re going to give
    it back to the original owners, which were the ranchers. Of course,
    that rubbed me the wrong way because that’s our aboriginal territory.”

    • Johanna Van de Woestijne

      And, even before the indigenous people, came the wildlife, including many birds, for thousands to millions of years.

  • Johanna Van de Woestijne

    In reply to Justin:
    You don’t get it, I am paying for the hunters if I buy duck stamps. I pay six figures in taxes each year to the federal government. I support the outdoor industry suppliers, cameras, boots, binoculars, GPS, etc. I’m a very important part of the economy, willing to buy wildlife conservation stamps. I pay my fair share. But, I don’t want to pretend that hunters, who support the gun industry, are on my team. They aren’t and I don’t want to give them free freight. Neither do I support anti-fed gun toting terrorists.

  • Glenn

    What should birders do? I generally am not a cold-weather birder, but I am feeling the itch for myself and a few hundred of my friends to take a birding expedition to Malhuer real soon and remind some folks what public land and wildlife refuges are actually for.

    • Cathy Sheeter

      Lots of raptors at the refuge this time of year 😉

    • Mike C

      The way this thing is going, these numbskulls will be around when waterfowl start to move through…hopefully not much longer than that though.

  • SeEtta Moss

    Bravo, this is a strong conservation position that I can fully support. Just joined ABA.

  • Dave Irons

    Given that this is not the time or the venue for a debate about the duck hunting and the Duck Stamp, I will be shortly deleting my earlier responses to “Johanna.” Her vitriole and willingness to refer to duck hunters as “gun-toting idiots” reveals to me that she is not someone who I want to discuss any issue with, therefore I will be removing my comments, so as not to be a party to her ranting.

  • Linda Brandon Powers

    Make no mistake these are very dangerous men who are holding Mahleur hostage. Do not be fooled by their hapless takeover. These people are part of the group who are active in counties, and states throughout the west trying to pass legislation to “give back” land to the states. They want to graze without care for the riparian area, they want to give land to special interests to mine and log.They are dangerous and we all need to be following this and local and statewide efforts to seize the commons!

    • svizzerams

      Amen! Their arrogance is astonishing. I live in North Central WA and this thinking is very prevalent. Just this weekend a Northern Hawk Owl was shot by a land owner because birders were coming to see it from a public access road. There is a lack of respect for the wildlands and the wildlife that depends on it to survive. I read a comment by a guy who was upset because he couldn’t ride his motorcycle in some desert areas. His rationale seemed to be that because it looked like “nothing was out there” it should be allowed, not understanding that that “nothing” is habitat. I’m starting to get a bit of a militant streak about these kinds of actions and attitudes. If a few hundred go to Malhuer – I’d consider being part of that action.

      • Dave Irons

        And sadly, you going there would only make a bad situation worse. Stay home please. The people of Harney County aren’t in need of more outsiders coming to protest.

        • svizzerams

          I used to live in Hines, of all places. Many years in eastern WA and eastern OR. I love the sagebrush steppes and live in them now. But I get what you are saying. If it could make a difference – I would support any effort by being present.

  • birder69

    Rather enjoyed a cartoon on the internet where a pair of birders with their books and binoculars came up these clowns with their guns and signs. The man says, “Look, Agnes, over there. Two firsts for Oregon: loons and cuckoos.”

  • Steve Siegel

    These yahoos may eventually leave the refuge out of cold, boredom, or community pressure, but do we really believe that they will be the last? Wildlife refuges look like prime real estate
    to some people with livestock to graze (and not just cattle…could you imagine what a place
    would become if they let free-range goats and sheep in). If these guys are permitted any success at all, their ilk will start up all over the country, and that means a refuge near you. The Malheur bunch are already suggesting to local folks that the refuge’s heavy machinery is there for the taking, so go on in and dig something up. Trying to dilute their guilt among the community. Living far away there is little I can do, but I joined the Friends of Malheur. Maybe that will help some.

    • grackle1

      And where the crazy yahoos go (claiming they want to give us back land that is already ‘ours’–did you see in the NYT today that they patrol every morning to make sure anybody who in their eyes ‘isn’t supposed” to be there is gotten rid of? this is a pure cattle baron land grab, is all!), there where be the crazies who have no agenda at all other than to rabble-rouse, commit acts of violence, and the like. This is a very dangerous situation and the longer they let it continue, the worse things will be. I can’t believe nothing is being done.

      • svizzerams

        You have to appreciate the irony of the intent of their patrols, don’t you.

  • Jason Crotty

    I don’t find much to add to Dave Iron’s comment, aside from a note that the intellectual basis (and there is one, though one need not agree with it) is broader than this single refuge. Rather, it is a dispute regarding the use of public lands, particularly in the West where the federal government owns so much of it, that touches many refuges. While there is much to commend in supporting Malheur specifically and I encourage any such support, there are Friends groups for many National Wildlife Refuges, and there are membership, contribution, and volunteer opportunities for birders in NWRs in every state and near most major U.S. cities. The stronger the support for the National Wildlife System as a whole, the stronger will be the support for any individual refuge.

  • 2realistic

    Thank you for getting vocal on this. We may have to take more action soon so it is encouraging to see the local and national organizations taking a stand!

  • Mike Patterson
American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
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