Special report: Return to Malheur

Refuge's visitor center reopens for bird-watchers

Special Report: Return to Malheur

BURNS, Ore. - The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was caught in the cross-hairs of a standoff between Ammon Bundy,  his followers and the federal government. 

In a 41-day occupation of the refuge early last year, the standoff drew national attention and thrust the rural community into the spotlight. Employees' offices were taken over and several buildings vandalized. 

It has been over a year since the last four occupiers gave themselves up to authorities. As the court process was playing out in Portland, crews at the refuge began cleaning up. 

Chad Karges has been stationed at the refuge for over 10 years and saw first-hand the damage left behind- One thing that was untouched was the museum. 

"We had no idea what to expect, all we saw was what was coming out of the media, and so we didn't know what to expect when we got back out here," Karges said this week. 

Truckloads of garbage were hauled away as workers tried to erase the traces left by armed militants. 

"It was a large-scale cleanup -- replacing carpets, doing painting, fixing holes in the walls," Karges said. 

Bird-Watchers Flock Back 

Spring at Malheur brings lots of temporary winged guests on their annual migratory stop-over. 

A great-horned owl keeping watch, a different picture from last year. The firearms have been replaced with binoculars carried by bird-watchers.

Bert Nelson and his wife have been coming to Harney County and exploring the refuge since the late '70s, the wide open spaces bringing them back every time. 

"I'm very happy to see it open, because this is one of the prides of Oregon. It's not all well-known. The birds know about it and I know about it, and it's great," Nelson said. 

This is the first time in over a year that the headquarters has been open to the public, as workers opened the refuge in phases over this past year. 

"When we came back, there was a lot of things that weren't like they were when we left," Karges said. 

It was a learning experience for him and others working at the refuge, as security has been upgraded. 

"Any time you go through a major event, there's something to learn from it, and so this was no exception to that," he said. "So yeah, we did learn some things. We've implemented some security site measures that were recommended from the Department of Interior, but to the visiting public, they're not visual, or you don't see them, but they're in place.". 

Birders haven't noticed the changes, but have noticed the different species of birds coming back. 

Laura Johnson and her friend drove from Eugene to check out the birds, and the place that flickered onto TV screens around the world. 

"I was personally interested," she said. "I just want to come set my eyes on where the occupiers had physically been having it in the headlines. You don't get a good mental picture for what it must've looked like and where it was situated. So we were definitely interested to take a look at where it happened and the areas they took over." 

For the people working here, the occupation will be part of the history of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. For the bird-watchers, it's back to exploring the land that will be known for more than its wildlife. 

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