Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the Militia and the Audubon Society

Today (Jan. 5) is the 111th birthday of the National Audubon Society. It is a day to celebrate birds and efforts to protect them and their habitats in the face of continuing threats, most recently from anti-government militia members who would like to see at least one national wildlife refuge dismantled.

A greater white-fronted goose specimen Pamelia photographed at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge nature museum in southeastern Oregon.

Pamelia and I photographed the four species shown here—a greater white-fronted goose, a northern harrier, a western tanager and a horned grebe—and many others at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2010. At the time we were doing reporting for a magazine story on the Pacific Flyway bird migration. In the course of writing that piece we saw that the network of national wildlife refuges in the western U.S. is essential to the annual migration of tens of millions of avian species, especially water birds.

The Malheur refuge was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 to help protect species such as great egrets, which, along with many other large birds, had nearly been wiped out over the previous two decades to provide feathers for women's hats. That same slaughter had prompted the founding in 1896 of the first Audubon chapter, in Massachusetts, and had led to the 1905 murder by egret poachers in the Everglades of Guy Bradley (see photo below), a famously courageous game warden linked to the Florida Audubon chapter. 

Feathered hats were so fashionable at the turn of the 20th century that millions of birds were killed to provide plumage for them.

These are great egrets, a species brought to the verge of extinction by the craze for those fashionable hats.

A northern harrier at the Malheur refuge museum.

The refuge has a driving route for bird-watching visitors.

A western tanager specimen, again from the Malheur refuge display.

A horned grebe.

At the Malheur refuge we saw Canada geese and a variety of other waterfowl, wading birds and raptors.

The Malheur refuge, a key stop for migrating Pacific Flyway birds, was already under assault from carp—introduced into Malheur Lake in the 1920s as a food source for local residents, but now an environmental nightmare that has eaten the insects, plants and fish eggs needed by birds—even before this week's news that it has been taken over by armed militia. One militia member, Ammon Bundy, complained to CNN that the refuge sat on land that could have been used for ranches and mining. "This refuge—it has been destructive to the people of the county and the people of the area," said Bundy.

That's not exactly a happy birthday message for the Audubon Society, but it's a reminder why organizations such as Audubon—and the voices of everyone willing to stand up for wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive, including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—are as important as ever. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Guy Bradley, now an icon in conservation, was just 35 when an egret poacher in Florida shot and killed him.