With the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge almost three weeks old and tempers fraying at a community meeting in the nearby town of Burns, Oregon, one voice has been absent from the drama: the Fish and Wildlife Service employees whose work has been disrupted and offices turned into an armed camp by anti-government militants.
In a Raw Story exclusive, former and current employees of the Malheur Refuge have provided new revelations on the conflict between Dwight and Steve Hammond, two local ranchers who have clashed with federal government agencies for decades. The employees claim the Hammonds illegal grazing was damaging the refuge that’s home to 320 bird and 58 mammal species. They allege the Hammonds lawbreaking ranged from aerial hunting of animals in the refuge to death threats against employees and their families to cattle grazing that was altering the entire species composition of critical ecosystems.
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not return a request for comment. Sources say there is a gag order on employees now that the FBI is in charge of monitoring the occupation by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and his supporters.
The beef the Hammonds currently have with the feds is over access to land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. More than 20 years ago the Hammonds also had a permit for grazing on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. That was canceled in the mid-90s because of what officials say was the Hammonds’ constant violation of the permit’s terms. Today, the FWS is still caught in the middle because the Hammonds need to cross the 187,700 acres of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to access the BLM land on which their cattle are allowed to graze.
Marvin Plenert, 80, who served as Northwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1986 to 1994, says the agency tried to accommodate the Hammonds. “We gave them a day to cross through the refuge and they took two or three weeks to do it. They were in your face about everything. They kept pushing the envelope, cut fences, cattle wound up in the refuge illegally.”
Plenert’s tenure overlapped with that of Forrest Cameron, 67, who served as the Fish and Wildlife Service manager of the Malheur Refuge from 1989 to 1999. Cameron, who now lives in Portland and is retired like Plenert, had numerous run-ins with the Hammonds.
In his first in-depth interview since the occupation began, Cameron says the conflict between the Hammonds and the Fish and Wildlife Service goes back to the 1980s when they leveled death threats against the previous refuge manager. Cameron says during his time “one way or another the Hammonds were violating their permit” for grazing cattle on refuge lands. He says it was an ongoing issue and, “They’ve done so many illegal activities that never got to a courtroom.”
“Some violations were not significant,” says Cameron, “and we figured we could correct it by talking to them.”
Once, however, a biologist employed at the refuge reported, “The Hammonds were aerial gunning coyotes on the Malheur Refuge, which is illegal.” Cameron claims the Hammonds had an airplane at the time. “They were flying to shoot coyotes on their (own) land, and we didn’t have a problem with that.” The biologist allegedly witnessed the Hammonds’ plane “flying low, turning tight corners, and shooting, and it was over refuge property.” The issue was raised with the Hammonds “and they claimed they were not over the refuge.” Cameron says, “There were so many other contentious things going on that was one incident we didn’t push.”
In the 1990s the conflict with the Hammonds stemmed from the Fish and Wildlife view that their cattle were damaging the Malheur refuge. It was the following decade that the Hammonds illegally torched BLM lands, landing them in the clink for five years each and sparking the takeover.
It’s now well-known that Malheur, an oasis in the arid Great Basin that spans six states, is called “one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” It’s a “crucial stop along the Pacific Flyway and offers resting, breeding and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife.” But the little-known story is how years of uncontrolled grazing by Hammonds and other ranchers were sending shockwaves through the refuge.
Cameron says when he arrived at Malheur in 1989, relations were “fairly good” with local ranchers, and about 30 of them had permits for grazing and haying on refuge land. Prior to his arrival changes had been made to match grazing policies with enforcement. He says National Wildlife Refuges allow public recreation in any way feasible. “That can be hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking — as long as it’s compatible with the wildlife on the refuge.” Cattle had been grazing year-round on Malheur, but the policy has a higher threshold for economic uses like grazing. “It has to be beneficial to wildlife or otherwise we don’t allow it.”
Implementing the prescribed grazing practices led the Hammonds and Fish and Wildlife Service to butt heads in the early 1990s over the Bridge and Mud creeks and a watering hole for birds. Cameron says Hammonds’ cattle would get into Bridge Creek, a deep canyon, “until someone drove them out.” The cattle would devour woody plant species crucial to the ecosystem.
With the loss of the anchoring trees, the banks started eroding. Cameron says the creek would “become like a drainage ditch and the water table in the meadows around the creek would start dropping.” The effects rippled through the meadow, altering the entire species composition. Unable to reach water, grass would die off, sagebrush and other undesirable species would take root, and ground-nesting birds would lose breeding sites. He says, “Studies show 80 percent of the wildlife that lives in the Great Basin depends on a healthy riparian habitat, and that’s what was along Bridge Creek.”
Cameron oversaw the rebuilding of fences around the refuge that had been wiped out by floods in the 1980s, removing some corrals for cattle that were of little use under the new grazing guidelines, and restoring habitat. He claims corrals in areas where cattle grazed “enticed the Hammonds to leave them there and they would get into the riparian areas, rather than moving them through the refuge.” Both Cameron and Plenert, the former regional director, say the Hammonds would leave their cattle on the refuge for weeks at a time, damaging the land despite the clear rules.
Cameron says, “The cattle like to eat the young plants, willows, elderberries we were trying to introduce in the creek banks, it’s like candy for them.” An entire replanting was wiped out by the Hammonds’ cattle and “a year or two later we would go back and try to restore the habitat to stabilize the creek banks.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service built new corrals for ranchers. Cameron says, “It was on dry land, had a water supply, and trucks could get in and out to haul cattle if needed.” As for the 30 other permittees, “We were able to work with them very well. It was really mainly Dwight Hammond. We tried to work with Hammonds but they didn’t want to lose the free grazing they had for a long time. But the grazing was illegal to begin with because it’s wasn’t their property.”
In August 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to fence a waterhole used by the Hammonds cattle as well as by waterfowl. The family disabled a Caterpillar vehicle, blocking construction of the fence, and Dwight and Steve Hammond were arrested and charged with felonies for impeding, intimidating and interfering with federal officers.
The charges were lessened and eventually dropped after the Hammonds entered into an agreement with provisions including a halt to interfering with fence construction and moving their cattle through the refuge in one day, which Cameron says is doable.
Leading up to the 1994 incident were the death threats. Cameron says, “My wife would take these phone calls, it was terribly vulgar language. They said they were going to wrap my son in barbed wire and throw him down a well. They said they knew exactly which rooms my kids slept in, in Burns. There were death threats to my wife and two other staff members and their wives. My family went to Bend rather than be in the community because it was so volatile at the time. The families of my biologist and my deputy manager family had to relocate as well for a short time.”
“At the refuge headquarters, one of the Hammonds said they would tear my head off and shit down the hole. One of the Hammonds told my Deputy Manager, Dan Walsworth, they were going to ‘put a chain around his neck and drag him behind a pickup.’” Cameron says it became practice “never to meet with the Hammonds alone and usually to have a law enforcement officer present.”
Despite the mediated settlement the Hammonds continually violated the permit for the Malheur refuge, says Cameron, so he cancelled their permit. The Hammonds went through an appeals process with Plenert upholding the decision to revoke the permit.
By the time he left Malheur Refuge in 1999, Cameron says the “Bridge Creek canyon was slowly healing. But if the cattle got in there for a week, all the restoration would be lost.”
Cameron says he does not know the conditions of the habitat now, but the atmosphere in Burns and Malheur seems to have deteriorated.
One current employee at Malheur refuge, who asked to be identified as “Steven,” says, “It is a really frightening time for workers on the refuge. They are demoralized and afraid. Workers have asked to be transferred out of Harney County.”
Steven claims Malheur Refuge employees were told last year, “Pull Fish and Wildlife Service insignia off trucks. We were warned to keep our heads down and not get near the Hammonds property.”
The occupation by the Bundys and their armed supporters are also affecting wildlife. Steven says, “There are a pair of great horned owls that are nesting in the watchtower that the militia is occupying as a sniper tower. Last year the owls had five fledglings, which is outstanding, and they are supposed to be coming back in January to nest. This is about the habitat, not the Bundys.”
An open letter from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge staff that appeared on its Facebook page on January 19, stated, “We believe many in the media (as well as those sympathetic to the illegal occupiers) were surprised to hear that the community—while frustrated with the Hammond situation—did not leap to the support of the militants. We are not surprised.” The unnamed writers said refuge employees had been part of Harney County for over 100 years, and “nearly 40% of working adults” were employed by the government. They concluded with the hope that “ this difficult situation will lead to even stronger bonds between the Refuge and the community that has supported us. We feel for you, because we are you.”
No one knows how it will end, particularly now that a militia spokesperson says they have “no plans to leave.”
Marvin Plenert says that worries him as it “sets a precedent for other wildlife refuges. There are about 500 refuges, and a lot are isolated refuges in rural areas. A group could take over any refuge, any BLM headquarters, like they did at Malheur. It’s a scary situation, I hope we can end this in a peaceful way.”
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.