Written by Norman Clippinger, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Biological Science Technician/Photo courtesy of Norman Clippinger

I have spent the last five years working as a seasonal Wilderness Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, but due to budget constraints, they halved their number of rangers park-wide. If I couldn’t be a park ranger, I wanted to continue my seasonal work as a biologist. I applied for what was nominally a Biological Science Tech position at a number of locations, and nearly landed one close to my Colorado home working on an endangered species in Wyoming. So when I got a call from James Pearson, a Fish Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), it wasn’t clear to me at first what I’d be doing out in eastern Oregon, at that place where some folks took over the Refuge headquarters for a while. I’m not a fish biologist—I did my Ph.D. dissertation on an endangered mammal. I could have waited for another job somewhere else, but it was late in the hiring season—I took a chance and accepted James’ offer.

I found out in my first week that there were big problems in ecosystem function in the Harney Basin, specifically with Malheur Lake. The wind blows strong nearly every afternoon in the spring and summer, and that mixes sediment into the water. On my first day of duty here we went out on the airboat to check on the “sondes” (more on that later).  You can’t see your hand one foot under the water in most places in the lake. There are very few fish in the lake compared to others of its size, and what few are in the lake are the invasive Common carp. I read that back in the 1930’s people in the basin (and elsewhere during the worldwide Depression) were starving, so it seemed like a good idea to add a quickly reproducing fish in what seemed like an endless wetland.  While there were reductions in the water quality after the introduction of the Common carp, it seems that the combination of the carp and the massive expansion of the lake in the 1980’s lead to a dissipation in the number of birds utilizing Malheur Lake. Still a great many, mind you, but many fewer than when biologists observed the lake just decades ago.

What happened? As biologists, it’s our job to try to find out why the bird populations have dwindled, and that’s why the team of paid biologists and volunteers from USFWS, High Desert Partnership (HDP), US Geological Survey (USGS), the Friends of Malheur, Audubon Society, local tribes, and other agencies have come together to try to diagnose the ecological malfunction as quickly as possible. Only then could we come up with possible solutions. One thing we did know was that Malheur once had very little open water, with lots of emergent vegetation like cattails, rushes, sedges, and grasses in one huge hemi-marsh. The invertebrates (snails and insects) that fed on the vegetation were food for the huge population of migrating birds. Now it’s mostly a large, shallow, open water lake. Was it the carp eating the emergent vegetation? Or are the carp mostly a symptom of ecological dysfunction, and the main culprit is wind-driven sediment in the water, preventing the growth of new vegetation? Or do blue algal blooms feed off nutrients in the water to block light and choke out other plants?

My part in trying to find the answers was to lead the water quality team. You might ask, what’s water quality? I asked—and found out that water quality is a combination of many water characteristics including pH, dissolved minerals, suspended sediment (turbidity), and algal components that are suspended in the water. How do we measure these? In part by using a device called a sonde: an array of instruments attached to a computer, memory, and set of batteries that will measure the factors of water quality listed above. Part of my job is maintaining and calibrating these instruments, something I’d never done before. We would go out on the lake in airboats to reach the sondes we put out there for week after week recording of data. Oh, and as James told me on my first day, I wouldn’t have another bio-tech to work with—I’d be “in charge”—i.e. doing all this on my own. 

All life requires nitrogen and phosphorus sources (“nutrients”) to make proteins and DNA. That includes the blue-green algae and other varieties of photosynthetic organisms floating in the water. A second part of my job is carefully taking samples of water from Malheur Lake and the two major streams flowing into the lake: the Silvies, and the Donner und Blitzen rivers. These samples will help us determine if nutrient levels are driving algal blooms in different parts of the lake. In other words, if there’s lots of nitrogen/phosphorus in the water, algae grows quickly, and could be blocking light from reaching the shallow lake bottom, preventing the growth of emergent plants. We also collect suspended sediment samples to see if the wind-driven sediment was blocking the life-giving light. Fish biologists were also conducting another study of carp effects on vegetation up at Windmill Pond, but they also required water quality samples for comparison to Malheur Lake. It was turning out to be a very intense summer job!

But as it turns out, I didn’t do the job on my own. I was taught about the various aspects of the job by James, and Casie Smith of the USGS. They did a great job teaching me, and so I was soon calibrating the sondes and deploying them more easily. Ben Cate, Mark Chowning, J.P. Friedrichsen and many other technicians at HDP and Audubon helped me gather samples, transport me and my gear, and calibrate sondes. Ben and our USFWS office-mates Ed Sparks and Alexa Martinez ferried me on the lake via the airboats. The administrative and maintenance staff of both USFWS (thanks to Suzanne McConnell and Jeff MacKay) and HDP provided my finances, ground support and transportation needs. I discovered again that it takes a small army of dedicated people to make any scientific endeavor a reality. (I couldn’t list you all here!) And our scientific work is only possible if interested people in the area and nationwide provide the financial and political support. 

Now nearing the end of my summer at Malheur, I was able to learn a great deal, work hard, and explore the surrounding countryside in eastern Oregon.  I discovered the hardworking and supportive people of this area were my safety net and partners in discovery. I hope the work here continues to shed light on the problems plaguing the Malheur Lake system. Together we can address the problems we’ve all had a hand in causing, and find solutions that will lead us back to a more productive ecosystem. I’m glad I took a chance on Malheur. It is a journey worth taking.