wildlife refuge

What Value Does A Wildlife Refuge Share With Us

Behind that lonely sign, lies not a place we can afford to ignore, rather it is the very heart of Mother Nature.

The ongoing armed takeover of the public Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is a learning opportunity.

Here I share with you the lesson I learned 50 years ago in just such a place.

I have a personal history with wildlife refuges in the high desert west, long ago I spent time working at a wildlife refuge on the border of Northern Utah and Nevada, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. My job, as a fledgling biologist, was to help count the waterfowl that lived and passed through that remote desert oasis. And a true oasis it was perched on the edge of the Great Bonneville Salt Flats, surely the most desolate land on earth, the refuge was a marsh land fed by artesian springs that was a frozen marshland in winter and a steaming marshland in the blistering 100 degree heat of summer. A paradise on earth.


In the foreground is the small refuge headquarters, much like the Malheur refuge headquarters presently occupied by armed terrorists of waterfowl. A small part of the spring fed desert oasis wetland and bird paradise is seen in this photo.

There are but a very few of these desert oases in the Intermountain West, they protect a small portion of the 5% of western wet lands that have been spared and remain in a more or less natural state.  For the vast majority of locals let alone American’s they are lost lands, lost as they are neither tourist worthy destinations nor geographic wonders. Mile after mile of flat feature-less lands overshadowed and hidden from view by towering sagebrush, towering all of a foot or two above the marsh land. What possible purpose or worth might the places be. Or why would anyone go there?

One of my most vivid and first memories of my work at the Fish Springs wetland was spending my first two weeks there assigned to count eggs in the nests of myriad species of waterfowl that nested there each spring.  I dressed in shorts and a t-shirt with tennis shoes and plastic bag containing my lunch and well before dawn I would head out and wade over the miles of marsh through knee to waist deep water, or more often muck visiting the islands of marsh plants that had those vast mucky moats protecting the nesting birds from the abundance of coyotes, kit foxes, and badgers that shared the landscape.

I loved to carefully make my way in the dark to those mucky islands where I would sit quietly awaiting dawn to break. When dawn came something wonderful happened.


Desert refuge ducks at dawn

At first light the birds would start to awake as was made known by some quiet quacking here and there. With the building light the chattering grew until in one instant in time in unison all of the birds in that vast marsh, tens of thousands perhaps a hundred thousand would all take to the air at the same moment in a wildly cacophony of sound, web feet splashing on the water, wings beating water and air, and every single bird hollering at the top of their lungs their praises to the coming of another beautiful day in paradise. Indeed I came to know their paradise well. Some years this is a place of true refuge with food and a safe place to rest and raise their chicks for tens of millions of birds.

When John C. Fremont passed through the area in 1844, he wrote that birds were so numerous they made the sound of “distant thunder” when taking wing.

My birds would fly great circling arcs around their wildlife refuge for an hour or so then settle back down almost as suddenly as they had taken flight. For the rest of the day they would dabble and dive into the mucky waters taking in food for themselves and the families they were raising. For me the rest of the day was slogging through the muck carefully tallying into my waterproof notebook the number of each species I could count and especially the number of eggs or young in their nests.

Mine was a solitary stealthy job so as to disturb the mother and father birds as little as possible. I learned some new things about life and nature such as what a really terrible sunburn could be and how one could paint oneself totally red by sitting still for a few minutes to allow the mosquitoes to begin their feasting then swiping a hand in a smearing painting motion over arms and chest which resulted in an instant total paint job of scarlet red. At times then I swore a lot on the bad ‘mozzie’ days, now some 50 years later I know giving that blood was an incredible blessing and a very low cost toll to pay for such memories.

Delicate and bautiful ballorinas of the desert west include the colorful avocet and black neck stilt partner.

Delicate and ‘beautiful ballerinas’ of the desert west refuges include the colorful avocet and black neck stilt partner.

Over the summer and into the fall new flocks of baby birds learned to fly. All became my charges, I was like a childcare helper in a vast stinky nursery. I loved them all but I have to admit some were more favored than others, the avocets and curlews seemed to me to be almost mirror images of each other. The bitterns were the shy ones. Some few Great Sandhill Cranes were sometimes seen, mostly they were on the way to their beloved Malheur Refuge to the North and West. All manner of waterfowl found and made this desert oasis a miracle on earth.

Today’s tragedy

So today when I read about the violent men who claim to be ‘ranchers’ seizing by force of arms and threats of violence the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a neighbor to my Fish Springs, it brings a tear to my eye. It is fortunate that it is still winter as in the winter months these desert oases are perhaps less vulnerable to fantasies of such men of ill will and simmering violence. I hope before the spring thaw begins and this precious bird land will be free of these special predators. It is desperately important that we make sure they are gone by the time the birds begin to arrive.

If you think, as the federal authorities seem to think, that this remote wetland is a safe place where no harm will be done by allowing these madmen to occupy it THINK AGAIN!

The Malheur Refuge as are all of the wildlife refuges of the world are the most precious lands on this planet we share with nature. We must protect them before all else and protect them the most not the least.

If you doubt this I urge you to find your way to one of the great western desert refuges before the sunrises and sit down, best of all with your young children or someone else near and dear to you. Don’t make a sound and don’t move around and wait for the dawn and experience the reason life on Earth is still full of wonder! You will never again think of these refuges of being so remote and unimportant that we, as a society, can ignore what goes on there!

I hope that you like I will not want to ever again allow the brigands seize such precious lands, the true heart of Nature, and place it under threat.

I have spent a lifetime since my fledgling days helping to care for the birds and their refuge home. Lend a hand if you care too, share this post with your family and friends.

Here’s a bonus for you, the trailer from the film “Winged Migration,” many of the birds in the film are found in our precious western wildlife refuges.

UPDATE: 11 February 2016 – The armed takeover of the Malheur Refuge is finally over today with the last of the miserable maniacal miscreants arrested and on their way to jail.