Federal employees, absent from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the past five weeks of a headquarters occupation, are planning a new effort to manage the water flows that sustain birds and irrigate fields grazed by cattle there.

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PORTLAND — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, absent from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the past five weeks of a headquarters occupation, are planning a new effort to manage the water flows that sustain birds and irrigate fields grazed by cattle there.

The refuge south of Burns, Ore., uses a network of dams and diversions that funnels runoff from the winter snowpack to ponds and lakes, and helps prevent downstream flooding. Refuge officials say work needs to begin soon to divert water into wetlands and launch maintenance on canals and other structures.

“We are exploring every alternative to meet necessary management actions on the refuge to the degree that they don’t compromise anyone’s safety,” said Jason Holm, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is unclear whether the work will be done by federal employees, contractors or partners in the community, such as local ranchers, Holm said.

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The push to resume work on the refuge comes as three men and one woman continue an armed hold out at refuge headquarters, a complex of buildings located a substantial distance from key structures that need attention.

The refuge headquarters is cordoned off by law enforcement as federal officials attempt to negotiate an end to the occupation. Over the weekend, one of the occupiers, David Fry, posted a bitter series of videos on YouTube in which he taunts the FBI for what he described as a failed attempt to cut off his communications.

“I”m going to do what I got to do. And you guys want to keep my mouth shut. I’m going to keep talking until my last breath,” Fry declared. “Shove your charges where the sun don’t shine. Have a good day.”

Law-enforcement officials declined Monday to comment on the negotiations.

The 187,757-acre refuge, set amid the high desert lands of eastern Oregon, is a crucial stopover for hundreds of migratory bird species and also provides irrigated pasture for 13-area ranches.

The occupation began Jan. 2 as a protest against the prison sentences of two Burns-area ranchers convicted of arson and as an effort to rally support for a movement to transfer public lands from federal to local control.

The protest took a dramatic turn Jan. 26, when Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Fincium was killed by law-enforcement officers during a traffic stop north of Burns in which five other participants in the occupation were arrested.

Since then, a federal grand jury has indicted 16 people involved in the occupation, including Fry and the three other holdouts, who have said they won’t leave unless the charges are dropped.

Meanwhile, local ranchers have voiced their concerns about the work that needs to be done to prepare for high water as the snowpack melts. Those tasks include repairing leaky canals, clearing out beaver dams and adjusting diversions that carry the water into storage areas.

“If you get a large runoff and you’re not controlling your dams right, you can wash out a dam,” said Andy Dunbar, an eastern Oregon rancher who lives less than a mile from the refuge headquarters.

In recent days, Dunbar said there has been a lot of discussion among refuge officials, private landowners and the FBI about the work that needs to get done. Dunbar said he’s hoping it gets started sometime this week.

“There has been a lot of back and forth, and education, and the FBI has been outstanding in wanting to learn about the situation,” Dunbar said.

Once the water diversions are in place, they need to be monitored and adjusted, according to a refuge official.

Conservation groups also are eager for the spring water management to begin.

“The sandhill crane migration already is under way,” said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland. “And there is really important work that needs to get done to be sure the water is in the right places.”