Revisiting Malheur, one year after the occupation

Allice Elshoff first saw Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1959. The 82-year-old, who lives in nearby Bend, Oregon, still goes there “whenever I can get away,” to bird-watch and volunteer. But this spring, on her first visit after the January 2016 occupation by armed anti-federal militants, everything felt surreal, she says: She had to notify refuge staff in advance and stop at the gate for an identification check by armed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees.

There were no other visitors and few employees, so it was unusually quiet. Elshoff, vice chair of the board for the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and a team of volunteers had come to reseed native grasses destroyed when militiamen bulldozed a new road. “It felt good to be there,” she says, working in the place where the Bundy brothers and their supporters did so much damage. “(We were) trying to make things real again. To undo the bad that had been done.”

Today, a year after the occupation, most of Malheur’s 188,000 acres are open to the public again, but the headquarters, museum and visitor center remain closed as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the National Wildlife Refuge System, improves security to the buildings and gates. The agency has already spent $4.3 million repairing damaged buildings, rebuilding kicked-in walls, and cleaning up trash and backed-up toilets.

That’s on top of the roughly $2 million it spent during the takeover placing temporary law enforcement officers at understaffed refuges across the West to help avoid more militia-type occupations. The agency hopes to have the Malheur headquarters open again by early spring, when the Ross’ geese and sandhill cranes arrive.

The cost of the 41-day occupation has only added to the financial burden on a system that has seen repeated budget cuts and staff reductions. Half the refuges in the U.S. lack their own managers, an increase from 2007 when a third of them lacked managers. Law enforcement employees are at an all-time low, leaving refuges across the U.S. vulnerable. And an unfriendly Congress isn’t likely to provide relief, especially in light of the federal hiring freeze imposed by President Donald Trump.

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