East Oregonian : E.O. (Pendleton, OR) 1888-current, June 29, 2019, WEEKEND EDITION, Image 19

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WEEKEND, JuNE 29, 2019
Staff photos by Kathy Aney
TOP: A white-faced ibis flies earlier this month at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The refuge supports around 20 percent of the world population of this species. LEFT: From the
Buena Vista Overlook, one can see the wetlands of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. RIGHT: Some sleepy-eyed great horned owlets perch in a tree near the headquarters of the
Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
Armed occupation
brings attention to
beauty of wildlife
East Oregonian
For many people, the Malheur
Wildlife Refuge simply wasn’t
on their radar until the armed
41-day occupation of the place
by anti-government protesters in
And that’s a shame.
I, a native Oregonian, am
embarrassed to count myself
among this group. Recently, I
righted the wrong by traveling
to the bird and wildlife mecca
that is 30 miles south of Burns.
After experiencing a full day of
its magic, I was stunned that it
took six decades to come. The
refuge, a dream destination for
any photographer or bird lover,
has a mystique that is hard to put
into words.
Even before reaching the
entrance, my husband, Bill and
I started identifying birds. A
flock of white-faced ibises had
Bill looking skyward instead
of at the road ahead. We pulled
over so he could look through his
binoculars and I could aim my
camera at the birds. It was a gor-
geous sight. An ibis is a work of
art in flight with maroon feath-
ers, white face, reddish legs and
a long curved bill. Bill and I
grinned happily at each other.
As we approached the ref-
uge headquarters, we noticed the
old fire lookout tower in which
anti-government protesters had
stood guard around the clock
during the standoff. A red-tailed
hawk soared overhead. A couple
of hikers walked on a trail that
skirted the tower, chatting softly
as they ambled along. Thoughts
of militants with guns entering
this serene scene seemed far-
fetched and absurd, and yet it had
We parked at the visitor cen-
ter, a complex of buildings that
includes the headquarters, the
Friends of Malheur Nature Shop,
restrooms and other buildings.
Near the pathway leading to
the headquarters, we spotted a
family of great horned owls sit-
ting sleepily in a large grove of
trees. One swiveled his head and
looked at us with round, yellow
The path eventually led to the
edge of Malheur Lake, where a
Canada goose sunned herself on
a log near the shore. A couple of
visitors peeked at the goose from
a nearby bird blind.
I wandered into the headquar-
ters where Alan Contreras sat
behind the information desk eat-
ing a late breakfast between cus-
tomers. Contreras, who lives in
Eugene, was almost through a
monthlong stint of volunteering
at the refuge. After a few min-
utes of chatting with Contreras, I
realized I had hit the jackpot. The
man is a bird aficionado, author
of several bird books, such as
“Afield: Forty Years of Birding
the American West” and “Hand-
book of Oregon Birds.” He also
edited “Edge of Awe,” a book
about the 187,000-acre refuge
and nearby Steens Mountain.
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge
has drawn Contreras back for 49
years straight since his first visit
at age 14.
“I’m a birder, and if you’re a
birder, this is where you go,” he
Every day, Contreras keeps a
list of birds he spies at the refuge.
One spring day, he identified 67
species from the information
center deck.
The door swished open and
a couple approached the desk.
Contreras traced a route on a
map for them and pointed out the
restrooms. As they walked away,
he said the most common tour-
ist questions deal with the armed
occupation and the condition of
the refuge.
“The refuge still has some
work to do,” Contreras said. “The
damage was not to the wildlife.
The damage was to the facilities
and the people in the community.
The refuge moves forward and
does what it needs to do.”
After talking to Contreras,
I walked to the Friends of Mal-
heur Nature Shop. Inside volun-
teer Eileen Loerch, of Boise, said
she has been coming to the ref-
uge since the 1980s. She said the
place has a crazy attraction for
“I would call it magical,” she
said. “I’m always in awe here.”
Pumped up for my day at the
refuge, I hopped back in the car.
We started driving the gravel
Central Patrol Road, which
knifed through a marshy area
for miles and miles with expan-
sive views of the desert and
Steens Mountain. Out our open
windows, we saw birds dart-
ing, soaring, swimming, float-
ing and diving. Birdsong pro-
vided a soundtrack. My camera
shutter clicked as I took shot
after shot. We wrote the name of
each bird species we identified
in my reporter notebook: east-
ern kingbird, ruddy duck, Amer-
ican coot, black-necked stilt, yel-
low-headed blackbird, trumpeter
swan. The list grew and grew. By
the time we pulled into the park-
ing lot at the Frenchglen Hotel on
the other side of the refuge, we
had spotted almost 40 different
species, including bald eagles in
a nest.
John Ross, the hotel keeper,
greeted us. He said about 70 per-
cent of his guests are from Ore-
gon, but the others hail from all
over the world. They come in the
spring for birdwatching at the
refuge and later in the summer to
explore the Steens.
Ross is an ebullient guy who
served a family-style dinner to
guests seated at three deluxe,
high-gloss picnic tables in the
main room. The guests outnum-
bered the population of French-
glen, which is approximately
12. Ross, who honed his cook-
ing skills for six years aboard a
fish processing ship in Alaska,
now cooks on a 50-year-old pro-
pane range in a kitchen that has a
view of the Steens. His guests ate
everything he put down in front
of them.
We dropped into bed, sated
by the food and the day.
The next morning, we headed
out for a day at the Steens.
Snow still covered the 9,738-
foot mountain, so we stayed low.
Over several hours, we hiked the
Indian Creek Trail, visited the
Riddle Brothers Ranch (a two-
story home and outbuildings
that now belong to the Bureau
of Land Management) and ogled
herds of wild horses that roamed
the South Steens. My husband,
a wildlife biologist, argued that
the horses are technically “feral”
horses, not wild, because they
have domesticated ancestors. I
told him I would continue to call
them wild, but in the sense that
they are untamed. We agreed on
one thing, though — the horses
are beautiful and mesmerizing.
We will return to this part of
the state, maybe in May during
the peak of migration or later in
the summer when we can look
down at the white Alvord Desert
or Kiger Canyon from 2 miles
above sea level.
This won’t be my last visit.
The armed occupation of 2016
might have spurred me and oth-
ers to visit the Malheur refuge,
but its beauty will pull me back.
Contact Kathy Aney at
kaney@eastoregonian.com or
LEFT TO RIGHT: A yellow-headed blackbird perches on a post at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The century-old Riddle Brothers Ranch, near Frenchglen, is operated by the Bureau
of Land Management as an open-air museum. A wildflower blooms at the base of the Steens Mountains.