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Birders, the Media, and the Malheur Standoff

Birders paying attention to the ongoing situation at Malheur NWR in southeastern Oregon are probably puzzled by the extent to which the interest of birders has driven some of the media narrative about the occupation. Birders, more than hunters and fishers and other stakeholders, have been perceived as one of the major victims here, and increasingly as the refuge’s potential saviors.

Looking out over the field station at Malheur NWR. Photo: Lucas Bobay

Looking out over the field station at Malheur NWR. Photo: Lucas Bobay

This, or course, has been expressed in a number of different ways, from the satirical to the realistic, to, well, you’ll see…

Look, we’re the first to admit that the idea of thousands of khaki-clad, scope-toting birders descending en masse on the occupied refuge headquarters is funny. It’s a visual that is too good to deny, even as theater.

Heck, the ABA has even been pulled into it.

The armed militants who have occupied the Oregon wildlife refuge may be encouraged the apparent lack of response by government authorities. But their stand is reportedly doomed anyway, since they picked the worst possible location to make their point, according to a source at the American Birding Association.

“The Malheur sanctuary is home to approximately 320 avian species beloved by birders. BIG mistake.”

The nearby town of Burns has seen a rapid influx of birders who are determined to eject the illegal occupiers. The birders possess a number of advantages when it comes to combat in open terrain, according to those familiar with the hobby.

“They are masters of disguise who know how to blend into the outdoor environment, whereas the enemy, with their pickups, massive guns, and loud obnoxious personalities, tend to stick out like a sore thumb.”

As a point of clarification, the ABA is not involved in organizing a covert special ops unit of birders to take back the refuge. Which, to be fair, is precisely the sort of thing we’d have to say even if we were.

Yet, there have been some that seem to have taken this idea and run with it. A popular post on the left-leaning website Daily Kos from American ex-pat Kevin Vang seems to be characterizing birders as some sort of backwoods ninjas, which is flattering but more than a little generous.

You will never see us, but we and our cameras will always see you. We will #takebackmalheur from you terrorists, and will not rest until every one of you thugs and poachers is behind bars where they belong. You may think that your communities support you, but the majority do not and as many as support you, many more despise you, and your every move is being documented in great detail. The birding networks are ablaze right now about everything going on in Malheur.

Birders are concerned to be sure, but detailing and documenting “every move” is stretching things more than a little.

But beyond the weird and the satirical, birders have been vocal about protecting our stake in this refuge. An editorial in the New York Times by birder and author Peter Cashwell has been shared widely on social media and on various listservs and email groups over the last few days. He probably comes the closest to exemplifying birders’ relationship with the National Wildlife Refuge system.

This is the purpose of a national wildlife refuge: to use our collective wealth and will to protect something important to all of us. The Blackwater refuge in Maryland has treated me to the stirring sight of hundreds of wintering tundra swans, while in New Mexico, I glimpsed the comical crests of my first-ever scaled quail at the Bitter Lake refuge. At Nebraska’s Crescent Lake, I’ve seen the tiny tiger-striped chicks of the pied-billed grebe floating close to their mother, while overhead graceful black terns balanced in the wind, a thousand miles from the sea.

I value my time on these refuges deeply, but I am also well aware that anything I see there — everything I see there — can also be seen by anyone who follows me. When I use that land, I do not use it up.

Even Oregon native and recent world Big Year champ Noah Strycker has been mined for comments, stating in a New York Times piece.

“There are birders who will go into war zones to see birds,” [Strycker] said, “so at least a few will go regardless. They’re angry about the situation, and the closer we get to spring, that anger will build.”

He’s undoubtedly right there. The Audubon Society of Portland, whose statement in response to the occupation lays out the stakes as plain as can be, intends to go on with its scheduled events at Malheur in the spring, including their birdathon fundraiser. They will be part of the hundreds of birders that make the trip their every year. It’s a real opportunity for birders to do some good, and ABA President Jeff Gordon will have more on that tomorrow right here.