In the Oregon Standoff, Science is a Hostage


523679850_1df25124a0_zIn the mid-1990s, when I had half a biology degree and precious few practical skills, I was hired as a field assistant on a desert tortoise research project in southwestern Utah. It was a strange and wonderful job at a strange and not-so-wonderful time: In order to protect the tortoise, a threatened species, the federal Bureau of Land Management had recently limited grazing in tortoise habitat. While most ranchers had accepted government compensation for the restriction of their grazing privileges on public land, a few had refused to accept payment—or move their cattle.

One of them was a southern Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy. As he told The Washington Post at the time, he was opposed to the “land grab,” and was “digging in for a fight.”

Dig in he did. In the years that followed, he racked up $1 million in grazing fines and fees, and in the spring of 2014, when Bureau of Land Management contractors finally moved to round up his cattle, he vowed to do whatever it took to stop them. After a tense standoff with armed Bundy supporters, the agency backed down. This past January 2, as the country now knows, Cliven Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan led anti-government militants in an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon.

It’s been more than 20 years since the Bundys and their ideological allies dug in against the law and the public interest—and science and scientists are still in their line of fire.

During the time I worked in Utah, threats like Cliven Bundy’s were taken quite seriously, and for good reason. While anti-government sentiment was nothing new in the region, it was at one of its periodic peaks, and regulations designed to protect sensitive species were a particular sore point. Gas stations sold empty tins labeled “Desert Tortoise in a Can.” (Gas stations in the Pacific Northwest sold tins labeled “Spotted Owl in a Can.”) Biologists avoided talking about their work in public, fearing loogies in their French fries—or worse.

In late 1993, a bomb was tossed on to the roof of the Nevada state headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management office in Reno. In the spring of 1995, a pipe bomb blew out a window and damaged walls at a U.S. Forest Service office in Carson City, Nevada. Four months after that, also in Carson City, a bomb exploded under a van parked outside a Forest Service employee’s home, shattering the vehicle while his wife and children watched.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my employees,” Jim Nelson, the Forest Service district manager for Nevada at the time, told USA Today. “They can’t go to church in these communities without having someone say something. Their kids are harassed in school. Stores and restaurants are not serving them.”

Though my three seasons in Utah were eye-opening and unsettling, I was a short-timer. Many of the scientists I worked for were not, however, and I saw how deeply the conflict affected them. These were people who could identify birds by ear and knew the names of hundreds of desert plants. They worked for the public-land agencies because they believed that the work they did would, eventually, be used to create policies that served the public good. They were not, as a rule, people who enjoyed controversy. They were certainly not trained or equipped to deal with mortal threats, or with the corrosive stress of being despised by their own communities. It took a toll on them, and it still does. And while the particulars of the issues have changed, the threats to agency employees in the region have not abated.

Grazing on the country’s public lands was first regulated in 1934, in response to horrendous erosion problems on the open range. In the eighty years since, those rules have changed to reflect new science, new laws, and new public concerns. This is not to say that the management of grazing—or of any other activity on public lands—is perfect: far from it. It is politicized, poorly funded, often poorly executed, and shadowed by genuine historical grievances. Plenty of people think it’s not tough enough. But it is also part of a generations-long and often quite earnest effort to serve the public’s interests on public land, informed by both science and stakeholders. Again and again, the Bundys and their ilk have taken that effort hostage.

This past weekend, California ecologist Travis Longcore published a post about Linda Sue Beck, the federal fish biologist whose office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is now occupied by the brothers Bundy. The Bundys have piled Beck’s desk with pizza and bullets. They’re making coffee in her small laboratory. When two Reuters reporters paid a visit, the Bundys referred to Beck as “The Carp Lady.”  “She’s not benefiting America,” Ryan Bundy said. “She’s part of what’s destroying America.”

As Longcore points out, Beck’s work is in fact part of a long tradition of scientific research at national wildlife refuges, a tradition that has guided wildlife management for more than a century. The management of refuges, like the management of other public lands, is imperfect, intertwined with politics and bureaucracy. But without the science conducted on its behalf, we would all be poorer—in species, in natural resources, and in splendors of many kinds. Longcore writes:

The armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is, therefore, not just an attack on a federal property. It cuts deeper than that. It is an attack on the modern science-based approach to land management and it is an attack on the value and worth of science and scientists in the United States.

There’s plenty of dark humor to be had in the Oregon standoff. From a distance—and even from some vantages nearby—the whole thing can look like a badly supervised sleepover. But for biologists like Linda Sue Beck, and for her colleagues throughout the region, the threats are real, and so are the guns. And they know, from decades of experience, that there’s nothing funny about either.

Photo of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Flickr user John Bromley. Creative Commons.

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21 thoughts on “In the Oregon Standoff, Science is a Hostage

  1. For years I have tried to develop a pacifistic attitude; I wanna live with a Quaker demeanor. But this situation has set me back. I say let’s go in and just Waco their butts. It’s what they want. Let’s give it to them. I’ve had it with them holding our nation hostage. I pay my taxes; they need to pay theirs. These are terrorists; just like Timothy McVeigh.

  2. From the article linked above:
    “The brass back in Washington and agents in field offices throughout the West should look back to a different, less infamous siege from 20 years ago, one that offers a more helpful model for responding to these situations. In 1996, a group calling itself the Montana Freemen — which operated a number of money-making scams and made armed threats against county officials in Jordan, Mont. — similarly defied the federal government in an attempt to create its own homeland out on the prairie.
    “It took 81 days to wait them out, during the harsh Montana winter and into the muddy Montana spring, but rather than rush in, as in Waco and Ruby Ridge, FBI negotiators eventually persuaded all the people inside the Freemen compound to surrender peacefully. Several of the chief perpetrators wound up doing extensive federal prison time for a variety of bank, wire and mail fraud charges, as well as for making threats against county and federal officials.
    “There can be a middle ground between the bloodshed of Ruby Ridge and Waco and the tacit acceptance of what’s going on in Burns. We know from how the FBI handled the Freemen that federal authorities are perfectly capable of bringing extremists who brandish weapons and threaten government employees to justice without creating martyrs or worsening the situation. Somehow, in the intervening 20 years — and amid the changes in administrations along the way, not to mention personnel and law enforcement philosophies — that lesson got lost.”

  3. The points and sentiments expressed in the post — with which I essentially agree — aside: Turn off the power to the site. As a taxpayer, I resent subsidizing the illumination and warmth of those fools.

  4. Don’t Waco it, please. That headquarters building is a beautiful, recently renovated CCC-era structure. It would be a real shame if anything happened to it.

  5. Nice piece. I’ve worked in both eastern and western Oregon as a Federal ecologist in rangeland and timberland. In the past few years we had established positive relationships with environmentalists, timber-dependent communities, and ranchers, when we all realized that working together was better stewardship for the land and resources than constant bickering. Bundy et al. must not have gotten the memo.

  6. I agree with Dave. Also, how about a roadblock to stop supplies getting in? Why has there been no response at all? As an Oregonian and a biologist, it is very frustrating to see such domestic terrorists treated with kid gloves when peaceful protesters are often arrested and removed from public places.

  7. Michelle, you say no one wants a Waco, but the Bundys clearly do. Cliven Bundy has engaged in dangerous, illegal behavior for more than 20 years with no downside for him that I can see. I don’t want a Waco, but neither do I want to encourage further crimes against the land and people. Twenty years of forbearance encouraged this occupation: I don’t want to wait until they lynch a biologist before law enforcement discourages another.

  8. The Bundys believe that they represent the many, when in fact they are on a very small island, with a bunch of other selfish, greedy, and potentially violent thieves bent on taking what belongs to all of us.

  9. first off i want to say, i am speaking only to the issue of public land grazing-where I find the only way to get abuses settled is by suing the BLM in court because of their unwillingness to tackle any of the land management issues themselves until forced to do so by a court of law, BLM has allowed welfare ranching to get out of control, the purpose of the Taylor act and the formation of the BLM was to get it under control, an over haul of the BLM and an end to welfare ranching is what is needed. I resent the fact that not only my tax dollars subsidise ranchers poor grazing practices but that I have to donate money to lawsuits to stop it AND pay tax dollars for BLM to defend back practices in court in cases the BLM rarely wins in the battle of evidence, and where federal judges have routinely accused BLM of producing false claims and flat out lying

  10. Good background – thanks. I was initially OK with a “wait ’em out” strategy. But there are photos in the New York Times today of supporters who brought their 9 year old to visit the building this past weekend. That’s beyond ridiculous! It’s way overdue that road access should be blocked and power cut off.

  11. I am very happy to read this.

    I live in Western Oregon (Lane County) and I was a youth when the Spotted Owl was added to the list. My father worked in lumber mills up until I was 17 and this hit us hard. We got by and now I am in a better place than I ever would have been had things stayed the same. I was forced out into a bigger world and it opened my eyes. My dad never actually recovered and spent the rest of his years as a painter, unable to secure anything better. Not because he was unintelligent or unmotivated. Mostly because he had so many other former lumber industry people to contend with for the same jobs.

    I can empathize with people seeing their way of life gradually or suddenly shifting away from their historical way of life. It’s a hard thing to contemplate the changes in your life that will bring. I can NOT sympathize with them though. Their methods are out of the wild west, and that kind of thinking *needs to go*!

    These people can either fight, tooth and nail, and be slowly subsumed by the world around them, or they can take the challenge in both hands and find real solutions. Not grandstanding and performing acts of terrorism against the country.

  12. Thank you so much for this story, Jerry. So important to remember that in the rural West, the Bundys’ attitude is the exception, and not the norm.

  13. I woke up this morning to read in the Oregonian that the militants now have their own self appointed judge and a plan to charge and try people who are against them in their own court (see They actually said that there should be enforcement of their law! This is a dangerous escalation which feels like a taunt to try to get some sort of action out of officials. Every day without action seems to embolden them and their supporters. I find it all to be quite frightening. I keep thinking of the Taliban destroying ancient artifacts and art. Then I read that one of these militants has conducted ATV rides through ancient native sites to protest protection (–limits-utah-canyon/). How can you reason with such tiny minds?

  14. These guys advocate taking public lands for private cattle ranching, which I strongly oppose. Sure, federal agencies are not perfect, but I strongly support their mandate and efforts to protect the natural history of this country. Get rid of cows and bring back bison. Give the land back to the native americans. But give it to a bunch of disgruntled rednecks? No.

  15. These militia people can eat, pray, love, reproduce, live, laugh, shoot, stockpile, swear, drink, gather, film, write, photograph, farm, vote, smoke, drive, fly, watch, read, learn, teach, travel, fish, hunt, breed, farm, grow, buy, rent, borrow, invest, vacation, etc, etc, etc…..Then when they are done with all that stuff, they invoke armed revolution to protest how terrible their lives are and how awful it is to live in the United States. They are detached from reality, sad a person had to die.

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