With David Fry’s surrender to FBI agents Thursday morning, birders and environmentalists breathed a collective sigh of relief.
They’d grown increasingly anxious watching as the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife refuge that began Jan. 2 dragged on for weeks and then for more than a month. Fry was among a group of four holdouts who dug in after the departure of most occupiers Jan. 26 and 27.
With each passing day, the standoff posed a greater threat to the spring migration that draws millions of shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds to the 187,000-acre bird sanctuary.
“This couldn’t have ended soon enough,” said Harv Schubothe, president of the Oregon Birding Association.
Spring thaw is just around the corner, and Schubothe worried what might happen if U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel couldn’t be present to direct the flow of melting water. He feared northbound swans, geese and sandhill cranes might arrive at Malheur to find dry meadows where wetlands should be. Unmanaged melt of this year’s copious snowpack could also cause flooding that might breach levies and wash out roads.
The standoff also threatened the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, an April event that offers a major tourism boost for the county.
When the last occupier exited the refuge Thursday morning, all those threats disappeared. Their minds eased, refuge supporters turned to the formidable task of moving on and mending relationships frayed by the occupation.
“There’s a consensus that we never want this to happen again,” said Chris Gardner, who serves on the board of the nonprofit Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “We want to make sure the refuge and Burns and the Harney County community are in partnership going forward, so it doesn’t happen again.”
For Gardner’s group, the occupation came with an upside. Bird lovers and environmentalists angry about the standoff channeled their feelings into action. The Friends of Malheur grew from 40 members to more than 700 over the course of the occupation. The group took in more than $25,000 in donations.
“Our treasurer has just gotten flooded with envelopes,” Gardner said.
The 41-day standoff began when Idaho businessman Ammon Bundy led a band of militants in an unannounced seizure of the refuge headquarters. Bundy’s insurrection fizzled on Jan. 26 when he and other occupation leaders were arrested on a highway north of Burns. LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the occupation, died in the encounter.
Known among birders and environmentalists as the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system, the vast preserve surrounding Malheur Lake is a rare source of abundant water in the arid Great Basin and a crucial point along the Pacific Flyway. Its importance to migratory birds can’t be understated, Schubothe said.
“The number of different species that depend on that oasis is just astounding,” he said.
In a way, the occupation leaders had fortuitous timing. Malheur’s wetlands are relatively empty in winter, with fewer birds present save the occasional hawk, quail, raven or owl. But the refuge comes alive in the spring as hundreds of species ranging from grebes and pelicans to warblers and finches arrive to feed and breed in its wetlands.
The standoff has likely ended with enough time for refuge staff to prepare for the migration, but cleaning up the occupiers’ mess could continue for weeks or months.
In a statement Thursday, Fish and Wildlife officials said they’ll be working to “assess and repair damages.”
In addition to the big task of managing water, refuge staff have been kept from the mundane duties of checking fish screens that keep invasive carp from tightening their grip on the refuge habitat, fixing fences and getting contracts in place for the summer.
“All that stuff that goes into making a place like Malheur function optimally, that’s stuff you can’t do on the spot,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. “You need to be prepping throughout the year.”
Sallinger quietly visited the bird sanctuary weeks into the occupation. Hoping to avoid the flurry of protests, counter-protests and news cameras, he brought little more than his binoculars and a bird list.
“I felt it was important to see for myself,” he said.
The swans had already arrived and the first sandhill cranes were coming in. Other waterfowl will arrive soon.
Although Sallinger was alone during his visit, other birders are planning trips to Malheur now that the occupiers have left. Hundreds have answered the environmental groups’ call for volunteers to assist in the cleanup effort.
Alan Contreras, a Eugene educational administrator and avid birder who began visiting the refuge as a child, plans to be among those returning this spring.
A lifelong Oregonian whose roots in the state go back to 1871, Contreras, 60, had taken the refuge occupation personally. He resented its out-of-stater leaders, who seemed to feel they had more right to the land than he did.
“I have asked my family to place my ashes there when the time comes,” he said. “It’s that kind of place.”