We all know the story: By the turn of the 20th century, tens of millions of herons and other waterbirds had been killed in Florida for their plumes. Just in time, when the great heronries were almost gone, that brutality drew the attention of a wider public, and slightly more than a hundred years ago, scientists, politicians, and citizen conservationists came together to finally put a stop to the slaughter. Out of that triumph emerged the national wildlife refuge system, the modern Audubon Society, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

It is a true story and an edifying one—but it is not the full story. Though Florida’s egret colonies are always the setting in the standard retelling, the same carnage was being carried out a continent away, in the vast marshes of southeastern Oregon. In the 1890s, plumers at Malheur were “earning” up to $500 a day on the backs...

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