|The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge provides important breeding grounds for greater sandhill cranes and other birds. Credit: Roger Baker / USFWS|
As I write this, the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has just ended: 41 days of shock, disbelief, disappointment, frustration, anger, followed with dedication, preparation, perseverance, pride, compassion, and ultimately, relief that it is all over. And realizing that a new phase—repatriation and recovery of the refuge—is just beginning.
Malheur’s outstanding staff will move quickly to assess the damage and formulate a restoration plan. And the individuals who perpetrated these crimes sit in jail, or in home detention, awaiting trial for their actions. Of course, as Americans, we cherish the concept of presumed innocence, until and unless convicted by a fair and impartial court, so please, as difficult as that may be, make sure your public and personal comments reflect a respect for this most basic and important principle of our justice system.
I share your relief and joy that the occupation is over. It will take some time to repair the damage—both physical and psychological—that this occupation has left in its wake. But we will repair it! And like all adversity, squarely faced, along with our friends, neighbors and partners, we will emerge stronger than ever.
Even so, I’m acutely aware of the burden and stress that has been placed on so many employees. In particular, the staff and volunteers of Malheur who were displaced from their work, had their personal lives upended, and endured unwarranted harassment and intimidation. Through the entire ordeal, they maintained their flawless professionalism, aiding the response to the occupation, and continuing their contributions to the Service’s conservation mission. I cannot thank all of you enough, or adequately express my admiration for your conduct during a very dangerous and unpredictable time.
I also want to acknowledge staff from the regional office and across the nation who worked incredibly long hours in the Joint Incident Command Center and elsewhere to respond to this crisis. In particular, our Law Enforcement agents and Refuge Law Enforcement Officers, who coordinated closely with the FBI and local law enforcement to protect the public and stakeholders over the long weeks of the standoff, and played a key role in bringing the perpetrators into custody to face justice. But, our response represented the entire Service—one Service—the "Service family" we frequently and proudly speak about: Business administration, information technology, personnel, ecological services. Everyone who was asked jumped at the opportunity to serve. Also notable, the exceptional work of our communications professionals in external affairs over the course of the 41-day occupation. To all who supported this effort, thank you!!!
We also saw the importance of enduring partnerships. During this travail we enjoyed courageous and supportive statements from the Burns Paiute Tribe, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society, and Trout Unlimited. Their words and actions during this time of need will be forever remembered. These great partnerships are the result of your work! Thank you again!!
Many others across the West have endured similar threats and intimidation because of your status as federal employees—not just during the Malheur standoff, but during the earlier Bundy Ranch incident and other flashpoints. I know that some of you continue to feel vulnerable. Please know, your safety and security is our highest priority, and I hope that you see our commitment reflected in our actions over the past 41 days. We have been in continuous communication with the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department throughout this entire process.
It is unacceptable, and criminal, for any Service employee to face threats of violence for doing his or her job. And it will not be tolerated. I urge you to contact law enforcement professionals if you experience any coercive actions or threats. We are committed to protecting you, and holding perpetrators accountable for criminal acts.
It’s an incredible testament to Chad Karges and his fantastic staff that the community of Burns rallied to the defense of the refuge and its work. The work of the Portland Ecological Services Office, in building sage grouse candidate conservation agreements for Harney County were reflected in calming statements by ranchers. And their voices were joined by people and organizations from across the nation and the world. The armed occupiers found almost no public support, in large part because for years, Service employees have worked to build and strengthen partnerships with local ranchers and landowners. Together, they’ve developed voluntary conservation agreements supporting private, working landscapes surrounding the refuge. These partnership-driven conservation measures benefit native species like sage-grouse, while also keeping local ranchers and their families on the land they’ve stewarded for generations.
I consider ranchers in Harney County and across the West to be an integral part of the landscape and culture of the West. They’re also vital to protecting and preserving native wildlife on millions of acres of interconnected public and private lands. They have our support and understanding, and they know it. Our task now is to reconnect with them and our partners, and to recommit to a strong working relationship.
Each and every one of you has much to be proud of, and I’m humbled by the way you’ve handled this crisis. I know you will move forward to pick up the pieces and knit them back together again—and that we will be stronger because of it.
Thank you again for all your courage, perseverance and professionalism. You are a credit to the Fish and Wildlife Service and public servants everywhere. Let's take a moment today and pause to be thankful.