An open letter to the American people: Events at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

An open letter to the American people:

As I’ve watched the events unfolding at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over the last several days, the image of an American flag obscuring the welcome sign at the wildlife refuge seems especially ironic.

American flags fly proudly at all 563 national wildlife refuges, signaling that these places are owned and managed by and for all Americans. Like all national wildlife refuges, Malheur is public land. The sign that is obscured reads “Welcome to Your National Wildlife Refuge”- it is a place for all of us to enjoy and we all benefit from its many natural resources. Only now, armed occupiers restrict the entrance to this public resource.

For 108 years, the Malheur Refuge has been conserved as an oasis in the desert for the benefit of wildlife and people. It is a quiet, frozen landscape now, but as spring approaches, trumpeter swans, snow geese, and scores of waterfowl will arrive in this valley to rest and feed in a unique complex of wetlands, lakes and meadows along their migration up the Pacific Flyway. Up to 66 percent of all waterfowl traveling the Pacific Flyway may stop at Malheur – and it provides habitat for over 300 other species of birds, as well as mule deer, pronghorn antelope and other mammals.

Malheur was designated a refuge in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid wildlife watcher and hunter. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, bison were nearly wiped out, the plume trade decimated egrets and herons, and the once common passenger pigeon was gone in the wild. Roosevelt saw a dire future for America’s wildlife unless we, the people, took action to protect important wildlife habitat areas. By the end of his presidency, he had created 51 national wildlife refuges in 17 states, including Malheur.

Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a world-class conservation network extending over more than 150 million acres of spectacular lands and waters from the Maine Coast to the Pacific Islands, but including the recently expanded Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument the Refuge System now manages 573 million acres for conservation. Refuges are managed for “wildlife first,” but not only for wildlife. More than 200 volunteer Friends groups exist to support their local refuges. Each year, more than 40,000 people volunteer their time on a national wildlife refuge, welcoming more than 47 million visitors. In 2018, the Refuge System will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the creation of the first area set aside for wildlife conservation – the Pribilof Islands which were protected by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and now a unit of the Refuge System.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Ore. | Caroline Brouwer
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Ore. | Caroline Brouwer

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.

The management of every national wildlife refuge, by law, requires public input and collaboration. And this is why every wildlife refuge is a little different – it reflects the needs and desires of the community around it.

And despite what the Malheur intruders would like people to believe, ranchers in the West have been working in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for decades. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, in particular, works directly with ranchers and other private landowners to help them improve the wildlife habitat values of their lands. This 25-year-old program has helped 45,000 landowners restore more than 1 million acres of wetland habitat, 3 million acres of upland habitat and 11,000 miles of streams.

The success of the Malheur Refuge over the years has depended on this collaborative, community- and partnership-based approach to conservation. Together groups are working on eradicating devastating invasive carp from Malheur Lake, and an impressively diverse working group came together to create the refuge’s 15-year management plan.

At a recent town hall meeting, that community spirit, and the anger at the occupiers, was well-represented by local ranchers. The video of one such rancher speaks for itself.

The current conflict at Malheur Refuge does nothing to further this collaborative approach to conservation. As the Refuge Association, we work with refuges and communities across the nation and we know how hard it is to strike compromise and balance. The diversity of people who use and love wildlife refuges and the open lands of this nation bring many perspectives and sometimes-competing interests.

However, if the occupiers are attempting to make a point about federal ownership and management of land, they are sadly misguided in their approach. By taking over the refuge headquarters, these occupiers have evicted refuge staff from their homes and workplace, caused local schools to close, closed the county courthouse for at least one day, and placed the refuge’s friends and neighbors in a very awkward and frightening position.

Is it all perfect? Of course not. Can we all be doing more to conserve our heritage and balance the needs of our communities? Absolutely. But the truth is, as Americans we have more in common than we realize when it comes to our love for our land, and so we must all keep our focus on what we can accomplish together.

Draping the American flag over a national wildlife refuge may hide its name, but it doesn’t hide the fact that this place belongs to every American. It was set aside for all of us to use and enjoy in perpetuity. A few angry men holed up in a refuge museum cannot deter the rest of us from keeping an American promise to conserve wildlife for future generations.

The Refuge Association would like to thank all the local ranchers, recreationists, non-profit partners, Friends members and refuge staff who have worked for years to make Malheur a world-class resource for so many Americans.


David Houghton
President, National Wildlife Refuge Association

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is the only nonprofit that protects and promotes the world’s largest wildlife conservation network: the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Welcome Sign | Ken Sturm/USFWS
Welcome Sign | Ken Sturm/USFWS



Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2016/01/an-open-letter-to-the-american-people-events-at-malheur-national-wildlife-refuge/


  1. Amber says:

    Please correct the age of the Refuge System – it will be 115 years old in 2018, NOT 150 years old. These types of little errors undermine extremely important issues like this. Thanks!

    1. Dave Edwards says:

      System will be 150 years old in 2018 with the first unit being established by President Grant in 1868.

    2. Pat says:

      Thank you, Dave Edwards.

    3. Debra says:

      I had no idea how to approach this beorne-ofw I’m locked and loaded.

  2. Warren Keogh says:

    Thanks to the NWRA for piping up. IMHO, the letter would be more effective if not so long, and by mentioning the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that settled federal land ownership and water issues in Malhuer NWR quite some time ago. (See: http://openjurist.org/185/us/47 and http://openjurist.org/295/us/1)

    1. Warren Keogh says:

      My earlier submitted comment (above) is “awaiting moderation”? Please explain. Thanks

      1. Rita says:

        I wonder how the Indians feel about losing all the hunting ground, buffalo, fish, wildflowers and their homes to the white man. All in the name of conservation and progress.

        1. Robert says:

          We are not from India we are Native American People thanks!

  3. Rob says:


    From the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service history of the National Wildlife Refuge System: 1869 Congress designates the Pribilof Islands in Alaska as a national reservation for the protection of fur seals.

    1. Desiree says:

      And Rob and Amber – President Grant set aside the Pribilof Islands in 1868 by executive order and then Congress codified the action with legislation the following year. We commonly refer to the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge – and while I would say the President Grant started the idea of setting aside an area for wildlife conservation, President Roosevelt created a system and thus, we usually use the March 14, 1903 date as the official beginning of the National Wildlife Refuge System. But there’s a strong argument to be made that it actually dates back to 1868.

      Regardless, it’s important to know that our belief in wildlife conservation goes back to the action by President Grant. To know that a mere three years after the end of the Civil War, we were thinking about preserving wildlife – and from the General leading the charge to preserve the Union no less. That in itself speaks a lot about the values of someone who has witnessed the near end of our nation.

      1. Todd HALLMAN says:

        Well said Desiree

  4. John and Becky Bradley says:

    We appreciate your letter. Your message certainly reflects our values related to the conservation of our natural heritage. We are grateful for having an organization such as the National Wildlife Refuge Association diligently working with members of Congress, with staff of national outdoor conservation and recreation organizations, and with other powerful stakeholder groups to do the utmost to assure the successful operation and maintenance of our National Wildlife Refuges and the wildlife and lands they protect.

    Thanks again for your commitment to working together with folks in communities to accomplish your mission and one which we heartily support. John and Becky Bradley, Newark, CA

  5. Lisa Mayo says:

    Thanks for speaking out for the Refuge System and reminding citizens that the beauty of public lands — even in the West — is that they belong to all Americans and they protect our common wildlife heritage.

  6. John Verdon says:

    Let’s hope this occupation can be resolved in a peaceful manner. Perhaps you can muster support from locals and Friends groups in the area and sit down together and come to an understanding. Common sense needs to trump an aggressive approach. And then establish a 15 year plan jointly influenced by all parties, incorporating the wishes and needs of both parties (ranchers & NWRS).

  7. Christine says:

    Hi Amber. We updated that sentence: In 2018, the Refuge System will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the creation of the first area set aside for wildlife conservation – the Pribilof Islands which were protected by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and now a unit of the Refuge System.

  8. Nuri Pierce says:

    These men are armed occupiers. They should be made to leave the refuge for the purposes it was created as soon as possible.

  9. Richard Spotts says:

    Nice letter. So where is the Action Alert to put grassroots pressure on DOJ and FBI officials to do their damn jobs? The occupying terrorists were emboldened when nothing was done after the April 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff. History is now repeating with zero enforcement. They had dinner last night at a Burns restaurant, still have refuge power, and are getting UPS supplies. The conservation groups have been asleep at the switch for years on this growing militia threat.

  10. Pete Jerome says:

    I agree Richard – besides the obvious felonies, these guys represent an ongoing threat to agency law enforcement officials as they go about their routine land management activities – if you recall we had to deal with the precursor to this movement when Stone Lakes was established many years ago.

  11. John Eadie says:

    And many thanks to those who labored long and hard and with great pride in managing National Wildlife Refuges across this Nation. Many of those are no longer with us but there are still those who have retired and continue to work for the National Wildlife Refuge System. I retired in 1994 but in April, 2016 I will lead my 10th group of private citizens to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Mine is a labor of love!! The Malhuer Refuge INVADERS know no such loyalty except to them (very selfish) selves.

  12. Andy D says:

    Thanks National Wildlife Refuge Association for publishing this statement, but as others have stated here, its past due that conservation organisations be taking action to have the law enforced and have these thugs taken into custody.

    If they were Native Americans or African Americans or Muslim Americans, they would likely all be dead by now, at the hands of the police.

  13. Mariane Rowland says:

    Thank you for posting this great letter!
    Please keep posting, and perhaps start petition, or anything that unifies your supporters. The occupiers are not exemplifying their right to freedom of speech, but abusing it with their criminal behavior.

  14. Greg says:

    Thanks NWRA a very nice message and show of support for the System and the Community. Reasonable heads will prevail! It matters not to me if it was 150 year or 115 years it was a darn good idea that took vision, persistence, honesty, integrity and a lot of hard work by many Americans. That same spirit will carry the day.

  15. Dan Ashe says:

    Thanks NWRA!

  16. Tim Julison says:

    Thank you David. You could not have said it better. You mirrored my exact sentiments concerning this very disturbing and very self serving issue. I worked as a refuge employee for close 30 years and over that time, I’d seen the very good, the bad, and the very ugly among refuge neighbors and visitors. I have been very angry with these self serving ranchers with there outrageous and ridiculous demands since the start of there illegal occupation. I sincerely hope that many citizens outside our refuge community take the time to read your letter and make their own judgements on this disturbing issue above and beyond what some of the media and certain political groups may say.

    Thanks you so much, Tim

  17. Patricia Wilburn says:

    I am deeply concerned about the innocent children who are in the company of the trespassers and worry about what will happen to them should things get out of hand when law enforcement has to step in to dislodge the group. Young children should not have to pay for the wrongdoing of their parents and they have no choice in such a situation but to stay with their relatives. I am very angry that the refuge has been invaded because it will undoubtedly have negative impacts on the wildlife the longer these people remain but I am also very fearful for the lives of the youngsters in the midst of these heavily armed militia.

  18. Judith Wolverton says:

    What a wonderful letter! We need some muscle behind the truth. I felt so lucky that a new Wildlife Refuge Center in Tualatin, Oregon in our area is about 6 miles away from my home. Lots of majestic bald eagles!

    I think the Feds who own these Refuges, should come in armed and offer them no charges if they leave immediately arrest these people. These lands belong to all Americans, not just these people or anyone other group like these people.Good luck to you to keep these people out

  19. Dan Trachsel says:

    Very sincere, informative and well written article. Thank you for sharing the importance and significance of our NWRA systems. The key takeaway for me is the reminder that these refuges belong to all Americans, and not to a select and angry few.

  20. Rachel Taber-Hamilton says:

    Thank you for this letter. My very first response when I learned of this situation was, “That’s my park! They can’t have my park!” I have always felt deeply grateful to public park services for wildlife and historical conservation efforts. I would be glad to help this situation in whatever way is helpful to you. If it’s letter writing, petitioning or coming down there in protest. It really is my park, and I want you and yours to know that for all you’ve done for the American people by maintaining these wildlife heritage lands, I am in this with you. I feel it’s the least I can do.

  21. Marsha Johnson says:

    The action at Mahleur is anarchy. Why isn’t the government doing anything to protect the peoples’ land from those who want to steal it. Anarchy is infectious.

  22. Robert A. Behrstock says:

    On a more practical note: Are Refuge personnel on paid administrative leave because of the occupation? If so, that is a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars and reason enough to drop tear gas through the windows and put these bullies in jail where they have belonged since the first day of the occupation. In any other country, the ravens would be cleaning up the scraps of the occupiers by now. Block the roads, stop the food deliveries, shut down the “man” cave.

  23. Bruce Moffatt says:

    Nice statement and summary. Thank you.

  24. Linda Jacoby says:

    Again only one sided. I think the preserves are a good thing. But they have overstepped their boundries They keep adding more and more land and then restrict when and who can use it. Meanwhile taking away the much needed range for cattle or sheep. Enough is enough. We have plenty of preserves in place. Take care of what you’ve got. You certainly haven’t done right in a lot of areas. Not only BLM but the USFS and other agencies. Here in Northeastern Oregon we are fighting to keep roads open into some of these areas, but as usual. They don’t listen to the people in the area. There should be some Wild areas, but we have enough. Especially as we age we can no longer access these areas because of health reasons, so why lock it up so a few people can enjoy and the rest only support? Our government needs to listen to the people from the area they are dealing with. Some people are afraid to speak up for fear of being marked. This should not be. Especially when you are letting foreigners in and not even keeping track of them after they get here. Wonder why we have lost faith in our government?

  25. Bill Valenti says:

    I’ve done a re-write of Woody Guthrie’s iconic song:

    This land is my land
    And I’m gonna take it
    No fedral gubmint
    Gonna make me pay
    I’m gonna run my cows there
    And you can’t stop me
    I’m armed and dangerous
    And you’ll rue the day

    Don’t need no tree huggers
    Don’t need no sage grouse
    Don’t need no bureaucrats
    Watchin’ over me
    Just want to be left alone
    To run my business
    And don’t pay no attention
    To them subsidies

    This land is my land
    And I’m gonna take it
    No fedral gubmint
    Gonna make me pay
    I’m gonna run my cows there
    And you can’t stop me
    I’m armed and dangerous
    And you’ll rue the day

    And damn all you city folk
    With your welfare cheaters
    We cattlemen earned all this
    Hell, can’t you see?
    The Lord said help yourself
    And I’m doin’ the Lord’s work
    This land is my land
    And its all free

    This land is my land
    And I’m gonna take it
    No fedral gubmint
    Gonna make me pay
    I’m gonna run my cows there
    And you can’t stop me
    I’m armed and dangerous
    And you’ll rue the day

  26. John Kendall says:

    I like the tear gas idea, Bob!

  27. Stephen Brown says:

    Refuges and National Parks are the few places where native wildlife have a safe place to breed, eat, and be protected. My trips to the Malheur have been rewarded by seeing a multitude of animals and having the peace and serenity of the High Oregon dessert. These are the peoples lands, these trespassers need to be arrested and charged and let the refuge staff get back to their business and the community of Burns get back to not having to fear these invaders.

  28. Mary Blackwell says:

    Thank you for that informative article. The illegal issue will be resolved eventually. I hope no one will die from it. Everything else can be resolved. I am grateful for those who can before long before me and had a vision for our beautiful country. I love visiting the refugees. I’m a nature photographer. Thank you.

  29. Diann Oliver says:

    All of this info about the Refuges is great and wonderful but I didn’t see in the letter how all this got started. I have read numerous reports on the family that is involved, the bad behavior of the BLM and the FW folks and I have to say I was appalled. Some of the tactics used by these gov’t organizations was just back handed and vengeful. I don’t believe everything I read but I have read enough to know that there was a lot of shady dealings on the part of the gov’t. The gov’t was trying to run this family off of their land plain and simple. I hate it has come to this but folks are really tired of big gov’t stepping on the working man. I think things could have been handled a lot better by both parties.

  30. Martin says:

    I just started a monthly donation to your organization because of this letter. Thank you for protecting our land. I would happily go the rest of my life without eating beef but I can’t go a month without losing myself in wilderness.

  31. Steve Caicco says:

    Great letter, David. Thanks. And as a reminder to everyone, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festval is April 8-10 this year. Let’s make this the biggest one yet and show the folks in Harney County that we support them and our Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

  32. Michal says:

    I’m just reading reports now that these noobs occupying the refuge are tearing down fences, burning signs, and also accessing government information and going through boxes of data and collected material.
    It was a wonderful letter but like a few others I think it definitely needs more edge and muscle. These people and their followers around the country are only encouraged to repeat this illegal behavior if they do not fear any reprisal.

  33. Nancy Curry says:

    Thankyou NWRA for this letter of support. Well written and speaks for all of us who love and support the National Wildlife Refuge System.

  34. Julie Maizels says:

    Thank you for expressing what many Americans who appreciate and enjoy National Parks and Refuges are thinking.

    This occupation has gone on long enough. It is time for the local and federal police forces to evict these criminals, by force, if necessary.

  35. M says:

    Please call these men what they are, terrorists. They meet the very definition.

  36. Kamin lambertson says:

    From what I read when this first started, the couple that manage this refuge and other local BLM land need to be transferred or let go from their positions. Not a whole lot of collaboration between them and the father and son ranchers who they made sure went back to jail! Have you asked them or their family how their going to run their ranch collaboratively for the next 5 years? Federal managers tend to take ownership of the lands they are hired to manage and we the people aren’t always the first thing on their agenda. Correct me if I’m wrong but please, send the Bundy brothers to serve some time instead of the neighboring ranchers.

  37. AintThatAmerica says:

    Perhaps a group of citizens should form up and make some citizen arrests to shed the land of these illegals.

  38. Ron Reynolds says:

    The American people should realize that, by-and-large, employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System are hugely dedicated individuals who work to serve the citizens of this country by protecting and managing important wildlife and habitat resources so that these treasures can be enjoyed by current and future generations. They typically work long hours, under a variety of dangerous, uncomfortable (even hostile) conditions, and often without compensation. They do this out of passion for the wildlife resources under a personal oath of conservation ethics, unlike the Bundy’s who are motivated by greed and selfishness. Every day I thank the visionaries of this country who made the effort to set aside large areas of land for citizen ownership. As access to private land in America continues to become more restricted, I am pleased we have Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and other public land to trek.

    Ron Reynolds, Zimmerman MN

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