Hostage Fish: The Bundys weren’t the first to invade Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Op-Ed)

Malheur Bundy Fish PNG

The following is an Op-Ed by a fisheries scientist who resides in Burns, Oregon (and recently married a cattle rancher). This article is the author’s own opinion and is not affiliated with an official position of the Burns Paiute Tribe, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, nor the members of The Fisheries Blog. The author has been directly impacted by the events of the past 26 days, and is currently unable to make it to her home because of road closures associated with last night’s events.

My Community

It is of great environmental consequence that the Bundy brothers selected the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside our small community of Burns, Oregon for armed takeover and occupation in early January. Although, several of the militia were arrested last night outside of Burns, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, many militia still remain entrenched at the Refuge with no indication of leaving. Today, day 26, is the first day that this occupation is officially considered a standoff.

What the news reports have failed to tell you is that this has always been a standoff.  Among the huge numbers of migratory birds, deer, antelope, and coyotes, along with vast archaeological resources of vital importance to the Burns Paiute Tribe and to our growing knowledge of North American history are millions of Common Carp that are surrounding the militia, literally, at this very moment in time. The Federal Government has taken major efforts to manage these fish and prevent the impacts of this dangerous invader. However, as long as the militia remain, the carp will continue to invade and destroy the landscape, resulting in a true hostage situation: the rest of the wildlife to the Common Carp.

Carp Malheur

The backs of Common Carp emerge from the shallow waters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These invasive fish completely alter the environment, and hold all other wildlife hostage. Source

National news reports have exhaustively attempted to measure to what degree the armed militia’s views reflect our community sentiments here in Burns (by the way–it hasn’t), how long the occupation will last, what the legal consequences will be, and whether this can be very wrongly construed (and offensively to many locally) as “Cowboys versus Indians” or “Ranchers versus the Federal Government.” However, few have highlighted the complex natural resource issues that birth this type of confrontation in our society. Few have mentioned the importance of the growing role of cattle ranchers in fisheries and wildlife conservation on private lands, and even fewer mention the joint efforts to protect stream ecosystems on public lands. Worse than that, few news reports have talked at all about the direct and indirect ecological costs of so swiftly taking sides.

Perhaps the largest missed story in all of this fodder is how routinely native fish populations become the hostages in battles over land and water use. The current Refuge occupation is just the latest in a long series of unnecessary confrontations.

In spite of the national importance of this particular Refuge to scientific improvements in nonnative fish management, I’ve only seen one widely quoted reference to the role of fish in this conflict in mainstream media. Unfortunately, this reference appeared only long enough to publicize the militia’s gripe that fish biologists are partially responsible for the destruction of America. This attitude has manifested so severely, that federal biologists and managers along with their families were purportedly advised to leave their homes Burns in response to increased threat levels (see “I Stand with Linda Sue Beck”, the local lead for invasive carp control, for an opinion piece on how this follows a trend of aggressive attacks on science in public policy, and on those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to stewarding public trust resources).

In the arid American West, it is fish that often represent the frontlines of conflicts between resources users (all of us) and resources managers (in this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). With an estimated 39 percent of freshwater fish species at some risk of extinction in North America, this is no small or isolated matter. Fish must compete in a long line of uses for water, recently intensified by west-wide drought and a global overuse of water from streams, lakes and reservoirs. For example, take a look at 2014 & 2015—the two hottest years on record in California—and you will see how fish must fare in a long list of vital human needs ranging from food production, household water use, and power generation. The water situation in California has become so dire that state employees must now physically salvage native redband trout from streams before they dry up and an entire genetically unique lineage, evolved over geologic time, is lost in a matter of months.

And it’s not just for the fish’s sake, fish presence and abundance can often tell us how other natural resources are faring: Is our water cold? Is it clean? Is there enough water? Are our forestry practices sustainable? Are we mining at safe levels? In the shallowest sense, fish are indicators of how the health of our shared environment can affect our own well-being. Fish can also tell us something about whether our natural resources will persist, and whether we are overusing them.

Cows and fish can get along

It is here that I want to emphasize several important ironies. To understand them you must first understand that the militia has wanted this land transformed from a federally-operated wildlife Refuge open for public use to fairly exclusive use by private individuals whom they deem to be the original owners. Although few, local Bundy supporters have tried to portray a landscape in which the “tyrannical” federal government and ranchers cannot work together to solve problems.

Firstly, the Burns Paiute Tribe has presented a strong opposition to the claim of original ownership from the onset, since portions of the land north of the Refuge were federally signed to the tribe in a since-dissolved reservation in the late 1800s, all of the land having been used by their ancestors. Further, the land has been managed primarily for fish and wildlife (mostly birds) since Roosevelt declared it a Refuge in 1908, providing many critical benefits to the public such as carbon sequestration water storage, hay production, and bird watching opportunities, the latter brings an estimated $15 million per year into Harney County, no small haul for a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in Oregon.  By the way, we can thank Roosevelt for his foresight 100 years later as we enjoy the benefits: he created the Refuge in response to the rapid disappearance of many bird species due to commercial overharvest.

Second: Local ranchers have long been invested in successfully collaborating with the Refuge, mostly notably on its 15 year management plan (“Comprehensive Conservation Plan”), signed into action in 2013. Locally, the CCP has been heralded as a highly cooperative success from ranchers and feds alike and could result in major partnered accomplishments such the systematic control of invasive nonnative common carp. This trend of landowner participation in fisheries conservation recently skyrocketed into public view with the recent removal of Oregon Chub from the Endangered Species Act list, making it the first fish to be recovered to the extent that the Act need no longer apply. According to many of my colleagues involved directly in the latter effort, private landowner involvement was one of the key factors underlying this success. Without their involvement, the chub might still be listed or worse, on their way to eventual extinction.

Lastly—and for the fish–much of this land in question is not land at all, it is mostly water.

Mostly water

Out here, in the Northern Great Basin, this ecological hotbed is teeming with aquatic wildlife in numbers that easily trumps the population of the entire state of Oregon. This is a desert with an inland marsh so vast that in wet years it covers an area about twice the size of Washington D.C.

Malheur Lake comprises a large portion of this 187,757 acre Refuge. One of the great pluvial High Desert basins remnant of the last Ice Age, the lake reached a maximum known size of 160 square miles in the flood years of the 1980s. Streams that feed Malheur Lake drain from the Steens Mountain Wilderness, the largest fault block mountain on our continent in one of the largest land area counties in the U.S. to overwhelmingly meet the 1890 definition of “frontier,” coming in at 0.7 people per square mile. Draining from the Steens, the Blitzen River hosts one of the premier redband trout fisheries in Oregon. If you are a birder, you may not make your Big Year without a spring stop to this portion of the Pacific Flyway. Of course, the Bundys strategically selected it because of its shared boundary with the Hammond Ranch, home to two men who were incarcerated earlier in the month on a federal arson conviction and whose case initially spurred the controversy and subsequent invasion of outside militia onto the Refuge and into the town of Burns.

While this may be Malheur Lake’s debut into pop journals such as Rolling Stone, it is already nationally known in fisheries circles for ambitious partnerships seeking to control invasive common carp, which are estimated in the millions in the Refuge lake complex.  Common carp, a native to Asia and Europe, are ecological engineers, meaning they transform the habitat making it better for them but, on the Refuge, worse for native users such as trout and migratory birds. Since the Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge system has a mandate to manage for native species, active control efforts for the common carp have been central to the stewardship of the lake. These efforts have greatly evolved over time, from the experimental use of explosives to kill carp to the use of a robotic carp that collects data on the fish’s locations and movements, useful in understanding environmental variables that may be manipulated in a targeted control regime. Refuge personnel have also been working collaboratively with commercial fisherman to remove carp from the lake. This creative approach provides the control effort with a connection to a market for the fish: carp are used worldwide for both fertilizer and a food source.

Carp are tough to control: it is commonly thought that after a nuclear apocalypse all that would remain are cockroaches and carp.

The battle to curtail them is year round. Even in the coldest depths of winter carp are fished or telemetry tracked under the ice. Had the Refuge not been suddenly invaded by armed militants, staff would be likely preparing for a busy field season filled with adaptive efforts to understand carp invasion and mitigate its impacts with some very long term goals in mind, contributing to our national understanding of how to solve this type of widespread problem–as opposed to leaving our town with their families, fearing for safety and unsure how long this will continue. As of today, we here in Burns are unsure if these federal employees will ever choose to return. In natural resources circles, we will lament this drain of talent and passion, two attributes that can be so difficult to attract to rural areas.

Carp Removal Malheur

Previous efforts to remove carp from the Refuge proved to have economic value. A new contract to remove carp has been signed, but the militia situation at the refuge is jeopardizing this opportunity. Source

Fish as hostages

This is also not the first time fish have been hostage, nor is it the first time that public lands have been aggressively invaded. Immediately to the North of the Great Basin & Malheur Lake, the Columbia River Basin is home to Pacific salmon species that seen an overall decline since the 1800s, despite small gains in numbers through an approximately $300 million dollar a year program funded by electricity revenue from the hydropower dams on the Columbia River. Their home waters are now filled with a litany of ecologically destructive nonnatives with carp, brook trout, northern pike, and walleye among the invaders.

At the heart of this problem, many fish are not where they are supposed to be today. Aggressive predators such as Eastern brook trout are in decline in their native range on the East Coast, but prolific on the West–and precipitous of decline of imperiled natives such as bull trout. In turn, bull trout are not everywhere they’re supposed to be, disappearing from as much as 60% of their historic home range in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. For salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, approximately 55% of historic habitat has been blocked by impassable hydropower dams, leading many of us to believe that full recovery is not possible without providing safe passage through these facilities into currently unoccupied waters.

The solution would seem simple, take away the fish that aren’t supposed to be here and replace them with fish that are. Release fish back to where they were before we messed with the system. However, it is in this endeavor that fish become hostage to national and regional politics. For example, in the early 2000s, the Bush administration quietly halted collaborative efforts to restore salmon and steelhead to the estimated 2,000 miles of blocked habitat in the Snake River above the Hells Canyon Complex. All due to concerns of a small minority of resource users in Idaho that embody the Bundy worldview: that conservation and industry cannot coincide. One must always be traded for the other. The fish were held hostage and nothing happened. This worldview is, of course, completely false when we look at fisheries restoration in practice and to the important contributions of the ranching community to restoration. This worldview becomes exceedingly ironic when we consider that we must work collaboratively to ensure that these resources are even there at 25, 50 or 100 years into the future.

So, here is choice before us: do we value fish? Do we want fish to be around in 50 years? 100 years? Are we willing to accept the environmental consequences both caused and as indicated by the disappearance of fish? Are we willing to build necessary partnerships and embrace more collaborative models of land management? Do we want healthy rangelands, forests and rivers to be available to our grandchildren?

Or will we join the militia in a simplified world in which fish and cows are in a perpetual stand-off in a series of unsolvable problems?

Many challenging decisions are before us as a society when it comes to land and water use. As a fish biologist married to a cattle rancher (we had a cow and a fish as cake toppers at our October wedding), it is my personal opinion that the farther out into the future we look the more similar our goals for the future become: abundant fish and wildlife, healthy streams and rivers, power production that does not cause a net loss in natural resources, robust food production by small owner operators in healthy rural economies, recreation, open spaces…the list continues.

The farther out we envision, the more I am convinced that ranchers are fish conservationists at heart and often in practice, wholly unlike the message that the Bundys would have you believe. And certainly not the message that the Refuge has embodied in recent years. In this scenario, the militia has stood completely alone, surrounded only by invasive fish.

Erica Maltz is the Fisheries Program Manager for the Burns Paiute Tribe in Burns, OR. She has been working with fish since 2004 including projects on bull trout, brook trout, redband trout, Chinook salmon, steelhead, lake sturgeon, and mummichogs. Originally from Maine, she has spent the last 8 years living and working in Eastern Oregon and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Fisheries and Wildlife Administration at Oregon State University while working full time for the tribe. She recently married a cattle rancher outside of Burns who has taught her a lot about the difficulties of raising cows, and of the issues that face modern ranchers. In her spare time, Erica is an avid outdoorsman who loves to hunt, fish and rockhound.

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3 responses to “Hostage Fish: The Bundys weren’t the first to invade Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Op-Ed)

  1. Hi Erica, someone linked this blog to comments on an article in the Washington Post. Your post really explains a lot that we don’t get from the media. It would be great if you could submit this to the Washington Post or New York Times as a guest writer. There is a small group of Americans that have closed minds, but most of us truly want to understand. Thank you for the work that you do for our wildlife.

  2. Thanks for this informative and thought -provoking article. It was while I was volunteering at Malheur, that I began to understand the truly destructive capabilities of invasive species. I was there for the first studies on carp and help with installing radios and experiments to see which fish would eat the carp eggs. I was in awe at the energy and hard work that went into determining ways to get rid of the carp.

    And I’ve volunteered at Red Rock Lakes NWR and have seen how ranchers and the refuge work together to improve Red Rock Creek for the Arctic Grayling, which are almost extinct in the lower forty. This article needs a much wider distribution. Hope it gets much more press.

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