Grievances of outside protesters don’t seem to fit Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where local Oregon ranchers and federal managers spent years working out their differences and arriving at a collaborative “adaptive management” plan.

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DIAMOND, Ore. — On a winter day of steel-gray skies, some 450 head of cattle found welcome forage in a flat, boggy expanse of lowland acreage. There, they grazed on a buffet of blue joint, creeping wild rye and other grasses that were cut and piled in the fall and now help them survive during these lean winter months.

This field is part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which has a headquarters now occupied by armed anti-government protesters.

Over the past week, as the protesters raised a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me Flag,” they have portrayed the refuge as emblematic of federal tyranny in the rural West, and demanded the land be placed under local control.

For others, this remote refuge has become a very different sort of symbol, one that shows how federal agencies can reach out to different groups with different agendas — tribes, environmentalists and ranchers — and find common ground on how to manage the nation’s public lands.

Though armed protesters angry at federal policies are occupying its headquarter, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge managers in recent years have improved cooperation with ranchers who graze there. (Steve Ringman & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

These efforts involved a dialogue that stretched over half a decade as people struggled to reach consensus. Their work culminated in a landmark 2013 plan to guide management of the 187,757-acre refuge that — set amid the desert lands of the northern Great Basin — is a crucial stopover for hundreds of migratory bird species.

The plan affirmed that cattle, if carefully controlled and monitored, could help achieve refuge management goals, such as knocking back invasive plants. It called for rigorous and ongoing reviews to find out what strategies work, and what don’t, for the federal grazing leases now extended to 13 area ranches.

This “adaptive management” is part of a broader American philosophical tradition that celebrates both democracy and the scientific method, according to Nancy Langston, author of a book about the refuge.

The plan also has earned the respect of the cattleman whose herd grazed on refuge pasture this past week. He is Fred Otley, a fourth-generation rancher whose 93-year-old mother, Mary Otley, is still agile enough to run the swather that cuts grasses in refuge fields.

Over the years, Fred Otley has had plenty of conflicts with federal land managers. But the current refuge leadership appears to have earned his respect, even as some disagreements still persist about management of federal lands that provide his cattle vital fall and winter feed.

“To me, what is important is that the refuge has really listened and taken a more collaborative approach,” Otley said. “Automatically, that helps build better relations with the community.”

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The efforts to develop the 2013 refuge plan have had ripple effects. They helped lay the groundwork for another cooperative program to protect sage grouse that started in Harney County, home to Malheur, and is credited with helping convince the Interior Department last September to not list the grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The program enlists ranchers to take steps on their private land to protect the bird, such as by removing weeds or uprooting junipers that offered perches for predators — moves that can also improve pastures.

“We started saying what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” said Tom Sharp, a Harney County rancher who helped launch the cooperative effort that grew to encompass 53 ranches and 320,000 acres.

The work drew praise from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell when she traveled to eastern Oregon last March. She referred to Harney County’s approach as the “Oregon Way” and promoted it as a model.

Upset over sentences

The protesters who control the refuge headquarters were drawn to Harney County from across the West by the prosecution of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, two local ranchers.

The Hammonds haven’t run cattle on the refuge since the 1990s, but they have grazed their herds more recently on land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

They were convicted of arson for setting fires on some of those lands in 2001 and 2006. The two served time in federal prison, but were incarcerated again last week after a federal appeals court said their sentences were too short.

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The U.S. Justice Department’s handling of the case spurred a backlash from many in Harney County who felt the longer sentences — five years each — were a miscarriage of justice.

Hundreds gathered Jan. 2 in nearby Burns for a protest march to show solidarity with the Hammonds.

That solidarity extends to Otley, who has known the Hammond family for decades. “No one is getting any sleep with Dwight and Steve going to jail,” he said.

For Otley and plenty of others in the community, the new prison terms were a fresh outrage from a federal government that controls most of the land in Harney County — a place where prosperity has been hard to come by in recent decades and the population has been on a decline.

Although opposed to the refuge occupation, some hope a peaceful end could help stoke a movement to transfer more federal land to local control.

“We are very upset that you chose to take the aggressive action,” said a draft letter from a group called the Harney County Committee for Safety that was read aloud to more than 100 people at a community meeting in Burns on Friday. “We approved of most of your message, but disapprove of your unilateral method of occupation.”

The small band of protesters who have taken the refuge headquarters includes Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher involved in his own high-profile standoff in 2014 with the federal government over his failure to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees.

Bundy said the refuge had been “the tool” the federal government used to take away ranch land.

“We have a lot of work to do to get the people back to using and claiming their rights, and this facility seemed to work really well for that,” he said.

Conflict nothing new

The Malheur refuge was formed in 1908 under President Theodore Roosevelt as a reserve and breeding ground for migratory birds, which were being decimated by hunters who killed them for plumage for women’s hats.

By then, the region already had a turbulent human history.

Standoff in Oregon

Malheur’s marshes, ponds and lakes were a vital water source for the Paiute Indians. The Indians later were pushed out by cattle ranchers who used the water to help build up large ranching empires in the late 19th century. The ranchers, in turn, faced pressure from farmers drawn to the region.

Refuge managers, in their early years, sought to restore wetlands that had been drained for pasture and farming.

Cattle grazing persisted on the refuge. But in the 1970s, managers reduced grazing as protections for stream-side habitat increased. Some grazing leases, for example, were not renewed when ranchers died.

For the past two decades, grazing levels have remained largely unchanged. But the extent of the grazing rankled environmentalists, some of whom felt that cattle had no place on a federal wildlife refuge.

So there was plenty of tension among all interest groups who began meeting in 2008 to forge the new 15-year plan for the refuge.

Managers at other federal refuges often had chosen simpler ways to craft these plans. They tasked staff to write documents that then went on a shelf after public hearings.

Tim Bodeen, who served as Malheur refuge manager from 2008 to 2013, thought a more participatory approach could produce a plan with more impact and community backing.

It was a risky strategy: Efforts to forge consensus on conservation issues often fail, and early on it looked like the process at Malheur might implode due to all the mistrust.

But with help of a facilitator, people kept coming to the meetings.

They had green cards that they could hold up when they agreed with a plan objective, yellow that they could show to indicate concerns, and red that stood for flat out opposition. When someone held up a red card, the group would go back and work on the objective some more.

“Whenever we got to a decision point, that was a really good tool,” recalled Bodeen.

United on one thing

Through this process, one major point of consensus emerged.

Whatever anyone thought about cattle grazing, a top threat to the refuge came from carp. The invasive fish species had spread throughout Malheur Lake and, through its pervasive presence, was uprooting aquatic plants and destroying much of the important waterfowl habitat.

Over the decades, as carp populations soared, waterfowl production on the lake declined to less than 10 percent of its potential, largely due to the fish.

“It became very clear to me that the number one problem — by a very large margin ­— was that Malheur Lake was dying before our eyes,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Portland Audubon Society.

Sallinger was deeply involved in developing the refuge plan and called it one of the most successful such efforts he’s participated in over the past 25 years.

The final plan involved plenty of compromises, acknowledging a role for grazing but also calling for some changes in livestock uses of the refuge if the science indicated it was necessary. And, through the trust built among participants, refuge managers gained support during a bad fire season to open emergency grazing to ranchers whose pastures were burned by wildfire.

Otley said he was too busy to attend the group meetings. But friends he respected had attended and briefed him, so Otley was confident he could live with the outcome.

The plan also put a whole new spotlight on the war on carp, which the refuge had waged unsuccessfully for years and now is expanding under the direction of a fish biologist, Linda Sue Beck.

Beck has guided that effort from her office at the stone headquarters building claimed by protesters last week. The protesters had cleared a space on her desk to make room for boxes of pizza and ammunition, according to two reporters from Reuters.

In an interview with Reuters, Ryan Bundy, brother of Ammon, referred to Beck as the carp lady. He said she could come claim her personal belongings, but should not return to work as they prepare to refashion the refuge into what some protesters have called the “Harney County Resource Center.”

“She’s not here working for the people,” Ryan Bundy said. “She’s not benefiting America. She’s part of what’s destroying America.”