Welcome the tundra swans

Now that’s how Malheur is supposed to be occupied.

The same day four final holdouts ended the armed occupation of a remote wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, a new occupation was just getting underway.

According to two decades’ worth of federal data, Feb. 11 is, on average, the earliest date migrating tundra swans begin appearing at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, exiting the Pacific Flyway to rest in the vast wetlands of the high desert oasis.

Northern pintails have probably already arrived. Red-winged blackbirds, too. This weekend, expect snow geese, then killdeer and sandhill cranes. They will keep coming deep into May – fresh wing beats descending unarmed and unintimidated.

And not talking about freedom while stealing public land at gunpoint.

On the other hand the occupation has made Malheur better known.

“We do have the migratory bird festival in April, and my hunch is that festival is going to be bigger than ever because Malheur being in the news has increased the awareness of an awful lot of people,” said Harv Schubothe, the president of the Oregon Birding Assn.

Membership in the Friends of Malheur has soared in recent weeks, as has the number of people offering to volunteer with the Oregon Natural Desert Assn. As Jeff Holm, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon, which operates the refuge, put it: “Make lemonade out of lemons, I guess.”

But there’s stuff that needs doing, water management and invasive species control, that’s not getting done because of the occupation and now the investigation.

The FBI said Thursday it was bringing in an expert from its Art Crime Team to work with the service and the Burns Paiute Tribe “to identify and document damage to the tribe’s artifacts and sacred burial grounds.” Greg Bretzing, the head of the FBI in Oregon, said the investigators would determine whether there had been violations of federal laws protecting tribal and archaeological sites.

Charlotte Rodrique, tribal council chairwoman for the Burns Paiute Tribe, said in an interview on Friday that she was concerned after seeing videos of armed occupiers rifling through tribal artifacts stored at the refuge and that they had apparently used heavy equipment to carve out a roadway near an area where tribal members who died in the 19th century were reburied.

She said that in the long memories of wildlife and of the tribe, the refuge is essential and sacred. It is never truly off limits and it has no firm borders.

If only people like the Bundy gang respected that sort of claim.

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