Malheur and the Plumers

Snowy Egret

The print and online media, running out of things to say about this absurd “occupation,” have turned over the past few days to casting the confrontation as one between kooks and birders, an approach that may add a little bit of human interest but at the same time trivializes the matter: the struggle is one between armed insurrectionists and the principles of this country, not between one vaguely picturesque group of citizens and another. I for one will be happy to start reading essays and articles that frame the matter in those terms, rather than puff pieces worrying about Oregon birders’ year lists.

Meanwhile, the constant repetition of the same story of the refuge’s founding has started me wondering: was Malheur really created to protect the white herons of the desert marshes?

Kind of. Even in the late 1890s, plumers were shooting snowy egrets on Lake Malheur in horrific numbers; some claimed to have earned $500 a day from the feathers they stripped from the bird’s backs — and that in the long-ago time when a dollar was a dollar.

By 1908, though, when Roosevelt established the first wildlife reservations at Malheur, no one was shooting egrets, for their plumage or for any other reason: the birds were gone, nearly or entirely extinct in southeast Oregon. George Sizemore and Charles Fitzgerald, the first wardens appointed, were concerned instead with the water birds that persisted in the area: ducks and swans, shot “merely for the feathers, which are sold at so much per pound.”

And grebes.

Clark's grebe

It’s been virtually obliterated from birderly memory, but the plumers of the west probably wrought more havoc on western and Clark’s grebes than on any heron species. The first indictments filed against feather poachers in Burns, Oregon, cited the killing of hundreds of grebes, with one hunter responsible for a full thousand birds; one shipment, seized at the post office, contained eight hundred skins, destined for New York City to be turned into fancy capes, collars, and muffs.

Those days are over. But I can’t help thinking it’s even worse now: a hundred-odd years ago, they were stealing the resources of the land. Today, it’s the land itself.