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Ranchers & Environmentalists Work|Together as Refuge Takeover Drags On

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - A classic Portland drizzle fell on about 200 protesters who shouted "Bundys go home!" at a rally Tuesday afternoon held by the Audubon Society against the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

The Audubon has long collaborated with refuge managers to maximize habitat at what it calls "one of the most important places on the continent for migratory birds."

Every spring, more than five million ducks, a million geese and 100,000 swans stop to rest and feed in the massive complex of lakes and wetlands in the refuge before they head south over the arid Great Basin.

"From an ecological perspective, I think the Malheur is one of the most important projects in the western United States," Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, said in an interview after the rally. "It's a massive, massive restoration project."

Ammon Bundy and about two dozen supporters seized the refuge headquarters 17 days ago, demanding that the federal land be turned over to area ranchers and the county to control.

"It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the miner back to mining and the rancher back to ranching," Bundy said in the early days of the occupation.

Bundy claims grazing cattle are good for the birds. He also says the federal government has no right to the land and is unilaterally making land use decisions that are detrimental to local ranchers.

"The best management is when people are using it," he told Courthouse News.

Harney County residents have repeatedly questioned Bundy's claim that the goal of his occupation is to restore justice to local land-use issues.

"It's clear at this point that the Bundy group does not have the interests of Harney County in mind - they're in it for their own agenda," Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement on Tuesday.

Sallinger said it was odd that Bundy chose the Malheur as the setting for his showdown.

"From a collaborative perspective, it's one of the most important projects in the United States," Sallinger said. "They picked an ironic place to make their stand, because really Malheur should be known as the place of consensus. And there's lots of conflict out there, don't get me wrong. There's plenty to worry about and argue about. But Malheur is one of the bright spots."

He added, "It would be ironic if this occupation, this very intentionally divisive action, resulted in further collaboration."

Sallinger said that spirit of partnership has continued during the occupation. He said ranchers, environmentalists and Harney County commissioners have been actively working during the last two weeks to get new grants for projects on the refuge from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

Disparate groups with supposedly opposing ideologies have been working together at Malheur for years.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with ranchers, environmentalists, and state and tribal government officials to adopt a 15-year plan to remove invasive carp from Malheur Lake. Carp have reduced the number of waterfowl born at the lake from 180,000 to 10,000 birds per year.

The non-native fish yank plants out of the bottom of the lakes in search of invertebrates, killing the plants the birds need for food and cover and rendering huge expanses of water useless as bird habitat.

Scientists and ranchers are also working together to preserve traditional flood irrigation on the surrounding ranches - a method that creates bird habitat both on and off the refuge.

"That work has continued unabated," Sallinger said. "And I think in some weird way - it's not how you'd like it to happen - but I think what this may ultimately do is catalyze some really positive stuff that's the antithesis of what the occupiers hope to see happen."

He added, "And that really would be the best way to repudiate them. To let them watch people collaborating together from their jail cells."

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