The law allows no big-game hunting on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where this deer resides. The Hammonds are suspected of illegal poaching on the Bureau of Land Management property. ©Barbara Wheeler, flickr

I heard about another act of wildlife poaching this morning. Only this time it wasn’t African elephants or Indian tigers or Indonesian rhinos. It was in the U.S., and it involved deer.

The poachers have been sentenced to five-year terms and have turned themselves in for transport to prison today, January 4, 2016. That probably would have been the end of the story, except that a militant group in support of the poachers has now taken over a federal wildlife refuge.

We might ask ourselves why we should care about a rhino that falls to a poacher’s gun, a lion that’s taken by a hunter’s bullet, an elephant that succumbs to the hacking off of its tusk or a shark that’s left to die when its fin is cut off and the animal is thrown back into the sea. These sorts of things happen far away from our everyday lives, in countries and in oceans we may never visit or see.

Is the poaching of African elephants really a distant problem for those of us in the U.S.? ©Dave Luck

But how people choose to react to and resolve such wildlife issues—even though they may live on the opposite side of the globe—could hold cues on how we should handle the same kinds of problems here.

Human interests: a wildlife refuge takeover

In 2012, a jury convicted Dwight and Steve Hammond (father and son) of Oregon of using fires in 2001 and 2006 to destroy federal property. The 2001 fire, known as the Hardie-Hammond Fire, was set in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. During the trial, witnesses testified that the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.

According to a news release from the District of Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches and told his companions to light them and drop them on the ground. The resulting fire burned 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations. Later, Steven Hammond phoned the BLM office in Burns, Oregon, and claimed the fire was started on his family’s property for the purpose of burning off invasive species. It then, he said, had inadvertently spread onto public lands.

The Buena Vista Overlook in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge provides a spectacular view of Steens Mountain. ©Jeff Sorn, flickr

Steven Hammond was also convicted of arson for a 2006 fire, known as the Krumbo Butte Fire located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and again in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. After an August lightning storm had started numerous fires, a ban on burning was put in effect while BLM firefighters tried to put out the blazes. Despite that ban, Steven Hammond started several backfires in an attempt, he asserted, to deprive the lightning-caused fires of fuel and save his ranch’s winter cattle feed. Hammond’s fires burned onto public land for the second time.

Committing arson on federal land carries a five-year, mandatory minimum sentence. During the 2012 trial, the Hammonds argued that such terms were unconstitutional. They were granted sentences well below the required five years. A court of appeals, however, upheld the federal law, stating, “Given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.” The appeals court ordered that the Hammonds be resentenced in compliance with the law.

Now, an armed, antigovernment group has seized empty administrative buildings on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in protest of the sentences both Hammonds received. Ammon Bundy, a rancher and the group’s leader, says that the creation of the wildlife refuge has been destructive to the 7,100 residents of the economically struggling, rural Harney County, who rely on the timber industry and sheep and cattle ranching. In a CNN interview, Bundy contended that the refuge was made possible by the government’s taking over 100 ranchers’ homes and livelihoods in order to “make themselves a little park.”


In the late 1880s, plume hunters discovered that egrets—whose feathers were prized by hat-makers—nested on Oregon’s Malheur Lake. By 1898, the hunters had wiped out most of area’s egrets.

Wildlife interests: a much-needed “little park”

President Theodore Roosevelt established Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on August 18, 1908, as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. Malheur became the third refuge in Oregon and one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi.

That refuge was sorely needed. By the late 1880s, plume hunters had decimated North American bird populations in pursuit of feathers for the hat-making industry. They killed large flocks indiscriminately. Eventually, the plume hunters discovered the large numbers of nesting birds on Oregon’s Malheur Lake. In 1908, 10 years after the hunters had wiped out most of the egrets there, wildlife photographers William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman reported that the egret population still had not recovered. With backing from the Oregon Audubon Society, Finley and Bohlman proposed the establishment of a bird reservation. Today, the “little park” that Ammon Bundy spoke of is 187,757 acres of wildlife habitat with more than 320 bird species, many of which—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—are listed as priority species in national bird conservation plans. The refuge is a crucial stop along the Pacific Flyway, offering a resting, breeding and nesting spot for hundreds of migratory birds.

The takeover of this important national wildlife refuge (sparked by the Hammonds’ sentencing) represents an old story: a quarrel over land rights when human and wildlife interests clash. The World Wildlife Fund states that the human-wildlife conflict affects rich and poor alike. I’d add that it also affects those in India as well as in Illinois—or even in Oregon.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for hundreds of birds, such as this blue-winged teal. ©Barbara Wheeler Photography, USFWS volunteer, flickr

And that’s why we need to care about poaching throughout the world, whether it’s against African elephants, Indian tigers, Indonesian rhinos or Oregon deer.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,