BY JIM DIXON 243-2122

In 1980, bird-watching visitors to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge complained that the cows were destroying critical wildlife habitat. So Nancy and Denzel Ferguson, the husband-and-wife naturalist team who lived just down the road from the sanctuary headquarters, started a letter-writing campaign to draw attention to grazing abuses.

They got some cattle off the refuge, but ranchers were furious. The Fergusons received telephone death threats on many nights. A group of ranchers threw them out of a local dance in the early '80s.

That night, a caller told Nancy that "a bunch of us guys are coming over to get you." She politely asked who was calling. "Dwight Hamm—" she recalls the caller stammered, before being drowned out by other voices in the background.

Dwight Hammond Jr., the same rancher whose prison sentence for arson sparked the militants' recent takeover of the refuge's headquarters, had been one of the people whom Nancy says pushed the Fergusons out of the dance. (Hammond and his son Steven Hammond are in federal prison. Larry Matasar, the Hammonds' attorney, declined to comment.)

The claims of the armed men now occupying the federal building in Harney County would be all too familiar to Denzel Ferguson. After earning a Ph.D. from Oregon State University in zoology, he spent a quarter-century fighting to protect public lands from ranchers who thought they had a right to use them however they pleased.

For an aging group of Western natural history buffs, Malheur will be forever linked to Denzel and Nancy Ferguson. For most of the 1970s, the Fergusons ran the Malheur Field Station, an environmental education outpost housed in a former Job Corps center at the edge of the sanctuary.

Twenty-two colleges and universities funded the station, which offered summer classes for budding biologists, botanists and birders. Nancy and Denzel lived at the station as resident faculty, while visiting students bunked in nearby dormitories. The beer-soaked parties held in the drab, tin-sided building called the Greasewood Room were legendary among baby boom-era college kids.

But the Fergusons were serious about protecting the southeastern corner of Oregon they called home. Their time at Malheur exposed them to the environmental degradation caused by a century of unrestricted cattle grazing.

Much of the refuge land was devoted to either grazing or growing hay, and the wildlife supposedly protected in this special place was often killed by farm machinery or displaced by cattle. More than 400 miles of barbed-wire fence snaked across the refuge, and the Fergusons often found the desiccated remains of deer and other animals caught in the jagged strands.

The Fergusons' outspoken criticism of what they called "hooved locusts" on the refuge and other sensitive public lands took a toll. After a decade of running the field station, they left in 1982 and moved to rural Grant County. Nancy and Denzel wrote Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, the first book to challenge the myth of the Western rancher and seriously question a century of unrestrained grazing on public land.

Denzel Ferguson ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1992 but lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Smith (R-Ore.) in the mostly Republican 2nd District. Ferguson called Smith "a tax-supported beef lobbyist" for his efforts to keep grazing fees down, and quipped, "I hold no grazing permits on public land, so you will only have to pay me once."

The Fergusons' book details how "welfare ranchers" profit from federal subsidies and public spending. The current standoff is about money, too; federal officials say the Bundy family owes $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, and the Hammonds have a history of running cattle on public land illegally.

Denzel died in 1998, to the very end ranting about the cows tearing up the landscape he loved. Nancy still lives in Eastern Oregon. She says Denzel wouldn't be surprised by the militants now holding the refuge hostage: "It's just like what he'd seen before."

And for the protesters' claims about returning the land to the original owners? "He'd laugh at them," she says, "and he'd say, 'Let's give it back to the Paiutes.'"