Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Sage Brown @SageBrown

One Leader, four Crew Members, one volunteer photographer and an ONDA Staff member walk onto a Refuge… No punch line, just an amazing week of exploration, learning, fun, project completion and relationship building!

As you may know, the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife agreed to financially sponsor the Northwest Youth Corps Tribal Stewards Program to spend a week of their time at Malheur NWR this summer. Many of our Members made contributions to this effort and we were able to fund raise $3,377.33 of our $4,500 commitment which was quite a feat in 4 short months. That $4,500 went to the Oregon Natural Desert Association who coordinated this effort and effectively moved this team of young adults across the state over 8 weeks. 

On their first day at the Refuge the crew got the lay of the land through an introduction to the Refuge at Buena Vista Overlook before making their way to Boca. At Boca Lake the crew conducted waterfowl surveys with Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, Teresa Wicks. Teresa explained to the group the history of how the Refuge came to be and thus the origin of some modern-day management challenges and successes. While conducting surveys they learned scanning and counting techniques in addition to data recording and the use of binoculars and scopes. They were fortunate enough to come across a brood of ruddy ducks which was clearly memorable since it was still a topic of conversation days later. 

Participants were quick to mention one of their highlights included getting out on Malheur Lake with Malheur NWR Fish Biologist James Pearson. James spent an entire day with the team going into detail explaining the impact that the non-native common carp are having on the Blitzen River Valley and Malheur Lake.

The team was able to see one of the Refuge’s fish traps and understand more about the ways in which the Refuge is attempting to combat this problem (i.e. trapping, electroshocking, etc.). The team also spent a couple hours doing some hands on training including an introduction to water quality sampling, nutrient sampling, and juvenile fish trapping via minnow traps. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was of course donning life jackets, hearing protection and heading out on an airboat to see the lake up close. The team also got to spend time on a project for the Friends. As stewards of the Marshall Pond Trail and observation area we have ongoing habitat improvement projects that were in need of helping hands. The crew were tasked with removing old wooden cages from around trees and shrubs that were outgrowing them. Replacing the cages with new, wider, wire cages would mean weeding and mulching each tree and shrub first while being mindful of the extensive irrigation system. After the work was done we had a lengthy chat about the value of a diverse skill sets that can be transferable to all kinds of career opportunities. I told them my tale of how I started out in the middle of nowhere rural Pennsylvania, got a degree in Marine Sciences and 12 years later found myself in the high desert of Eastern Oregon. The point being, you may never know where you are going to land but if you take flight and value the opportunities and relationships that come your way… you are bound to be happy and fulfilled in your work and your life. 

Carey Goss, Wildlife Refuge Specialist at Malheur Refuge, offers her perspective on working with the Tribal Stewards:

“The group was warmhearted and kind. When I first met them, I instantly knew they had developed a camaraderie with each other which became apparent with personnel at the Refuge. The projects we gave them were designed to provide a glimpse of the work conducted on the Refuge, which included wildlife and habitat management, project enhancements to protect cultural resources and provide quality experiences to visitors, and activities with aquatic health. To increase their career awareness in the USFWS and other conservation groups, the Tribal Stewards group met with several personnel for an introduction to law enforcement, biology, fire, maintenance, management, and administration.

As part of the program, I was able to meet with the group to provide an outreach opportunity to share stories of how the Refuge was established; the history of the George Benson Memorial Museum; and described the Refuge’s many programs: cultural resources, wildlife management, wildlife and habitat, and visitor services. The group was always engaged and every project given to them was accomplished successfully. On the last day of the program, the Tribal Stewards group visited Steens Mountain to capture the beauty and importance of the large fault-block mountain to the Refuge. For the duration of the program at Malheur, the group stayed at P Ranch, government quarters at the most southern tip of the Refuge and had an opportunity to explore the Refuge to enhance their experience. I am especially thankful of the projects they completed at the Refuge and look forward to having them return.”

Ed Sparks, Habitat Biologist at Malheur Refuge, shares his experience on working with the Tribal Stewards:

“On Thursday August 8th, the tribal stewards group worked with me all day. We started off in the morning around Marshall Pond pulling scotch thistle. We pulled thistle till lunch time and were able to completely fill the bed of my pickup in that short amount of time. We then left for P-ranch where we had planned to cut small regrowth juniper. However due to lightning, we spent the last few hours of the day talking about refuge management and career planning. I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend the day with the young people. We laughed, talked about music, and spouted random movie quotes while we pulled the prickly plants. They asked great questions in the afternoon and I know that these guys have bright futures ahead of them. Couldn’t ask for a harder working, charismatic crew to spend the day with.”

The Friends are also hopeful that the Tribal Stewards will return to Malheur NWR in summer 2020. As we work with ONDA and other partners to make this happen, we will keep you informed on ways to help support this program.