Grazing the Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Cattle have grazed the meadows at Malheur Refuge at varying intensities since its inception in 1908. What follows is a primer on current grazing practices at Malheur Refuge, presented in question-and-answer format.

1. How many cows are allowed on Malheur Refuge (not allotments, but total number of individual cows?)

There is no set number that is considered when treating the fields. The reason for this is due to the high variability in available water from year to year that directly impacts the plant growth in the wet meadows. It is because of this–and also that the vegetation is cut and rake-bunched–that we do not set a limit on the number of individual cattle. It is stated in the Refuge’s cooperative agreements that the cattle are to be removed from fields either by January 31st or when the rake-bunch is depleted, whichever happens first. Supplemental hay feeding (anything extra other than the rake bunch) is strictly prohibited on Refuge fields.

2. Is the fencing around the Refuge mainly for cows?

Yes. Even if we didn’t use the cattle as a means to remove hay from the Refuge, we are surrounded by Bureau of Land Management allotments and private land that all at some point in the year have cattle on them. The boundary fence works as a means to keep the neighboring cattle out. Since Oregon is an open-graze state, the neighbors are not legally obligated to fence their animals in; we have to fence any unwanted animals out. With that being said, we do follow guidelines for wildlife-friendly fencing.

3. When I see ranchers/farmers harvesting hay from the fields of the CPR, do they pay for that hay?

Yes. Even though the cooperators benefit from gaining additional hay outside of their base of operations, we charge for the privilege of using Refuge fields. It is important to note that we use our cooperators as a means of establishing short stubble habitat for spring migratory birds. When the vegetation is removed, the sunlight can reach the ground earlier in the season and thaw the ground out, allowing for earlier plant growth. This early plant growth/early warming gets the insect community active, which is one of the primary food sources for migratory birds. After we flood the meadows, it allows for easier access to food sources for ducks due to the stubble being short. Some time ago, we had an economist come out and assess what the cost should be, given the quality of the grasses on Refuge and the standard operating costs to remove the hay. That is how we came up with our pricing of $17.50 per ton (it typically costs about $60 a ton to cut, rake, and bale hay, plus another $12-15 a ton to remove and transport it, making the total cost between $89 and $92 a ton. Which is around market value for meadow hay.)

4. Are any crops/grasses raised on the Refuge just for cow grazing?

No. By USFWS policy, any secondary use on a Refuge needs to be put through a compatibility determination and is then looked at to determine beneficial use (that is, beneficial to wildlife). So, by policy we do not allow any commercial activities that do not benefit wildlife.

5. Why are cows allowed onto to the Refuge in the first place?

Cattle are used as a tool for hay to achieve our habitat objectives. We work with small- to medium-sized ranches that typically don’t have a large bank account to work with. This is why cattle are used to remove the hay in some cases. We do not have a “standing grazing” operation on the Refuge and that means that everything is mechanically treated prior to cattle being brought in. So basically, we have a haying program where the hay is either removed by bales or by cattle. The same economic analysis cited earlier also found that there are approximately 2.5 AUM’s (“animal unit months”) per ton of hay. That gives us a cost of $7 per AUM ($17.50 / 2.5 = $7) that we charge the cooperators for use of that field. This becomes a more economical option for some of our cooperators since the hay is not being baled and removed by a truck, but the Refuge is still getting the same amount per ton for the residue removal of that field. 

Our haying season is pushed back a little over a month from what ranchers would typically do on their private grounds. We do this to minimize impacts to wildlife and the plant community. The primary nesting season dates set by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are March 1 – July 15 and we do not allow any field operations until August 10. The quality of the hay is considered less than optimal (most would cut their flood irrigated meadows around July 1 for peak protein) but this puts us safely out of nesting season. The cattle are not allowed on until after September 1. This allows the cool season grasses and forbs to store nutrients in their roots to survive the winter. This dormant season usage has been found to be the least impactful, hence why we restrict usage to fall and winter.

As far as the amount brought in annually, it varies with the weather. Suffice it to say that grazing brings in somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 a year (rough estimate). Every dollar generated goes back into the Refuge. We use that money to help keep up our boundary fence; to treat weeds; and a good chunk also goes to our partners to get professionals out to monitor Refuge fields to ensure that we are achieving management goals. Given budget cuts at the national level, none of these goals would be accomplished given our current spending limits. 

Marshall Pond Work Party

Written by Alice Elshoff, FOMR Vice President; Photos by FOMR

On Friday, Oct. 25, twelve amazing and stalwart Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (FOMR) volunteers gathered to get acquainted and prepare to tackle a Saturday full of projects. Since opening the Cranes Nest Nature Center & Store at its new location in the spring of 2018, FOMR has taken over stewardship of the entire Marshall Trail and Pond Observation area, including the viewing blind and the now-paved ADA-accessible loop trail. This trail encircles the location of where the late Refuge biologist Dave Marshall’s residence once stood.

Past volunteer efforts in this area have included the planting of many native and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. It is one of many goals that we increase the presence of vegetation that would support the needs of migratory and breeding birds that visit Refuge Headquarters. In addition to planting, there is an ongoing effort to protect and irrigate in the hopes of increasing the chances of survival. Over the summer the Tribal Stewards crew removed old wooded exclosures from around many trees and shrubs while beginning the process of constructing new wires structures. This weekend we finished the job by weeding, mulching and fencing the remaining 11 plants.

Meanwhile, an additional contingency of our work crew set to the task of planting willows behind the existing willow wall. This wall is meant to reduce disturbance to wildlife utilizing Marshall Pond, but is currently in a state of disrepair. The long term solution to this is to grow willow tall and dense enough to create a living wall. Eventually the existing structure will be removed. The living wall will screen the pond from the adjacent Marshall Trail while providing nesting and resting habitat for a variety of birds. 

Our team also transplanted clumps of beautiful native Great Basin Rye to the trail area. This bunch grass is expected to out-compete the existing non-natives that occupy the space. It will take repeated transplant efforts, but we expect that our annual fall work parties will chip away at this year after year.

Finally, a third team of volunteers set about installing new plant identification placards throughout Refuge headquarters. Earlier in the year residential volunteer John Roth, botanist and retired science teacher, set about identifying as many unique trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers as he could find! It was quite the task, but he came up with an extensive list from which 60+ placards were ordered. Following the census, volunteers Jeff and Liz Jones of Bend worked at placing numbered garden stakes and producing a GPS map that correspond with John’s list. Placing these ID placards was the final piece of this project that John began in June. A huge thank you is owed to everyone who was a part of this process. We see projects like this one as vital to the transformation of the outdoor space at Headquarters feeling more interactive and informative to visitors.

With so many people coming together from across the state to join us for this work party we are moved by the generosity and good nature of our Friends and Members. We look forward to spring when we can see the results of our hard work and come together again for our next work party!

Great Basin, Great Dark Skies

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Tara Lemezis, Portland Audubon

and suddenly I saw
the heavens
Unfastened
and open,
Planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
Riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
Void,
likeness, image of
Mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.”

-Excerpt from “Poetry” by Pablo Neruda

This excerpt by Neruda so accurately captures the feeling of looking at night skies from within the Great Basin. Layers upon layers of stars, dancing across the sky and through space. Astral calendars and maps, guiding humans and wildlife since time immemorial.

Unfortunately, light pollution is drowning out our access to dark skies and nocturnal nature (Fig. 1). Images of the U.S show that most of the eastern U.S. experiences some amount of light pollution. Moving west through the central U.S., the points of light become smaller, giving the appearance of largely “unfettered” dark skies. However, when you look at images of light pollution measuring the quality of night sky, we find that little of the U.S. experiences “truly dark” skies (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Lights of the United States. This image shows the concentration of lights on the U.S. landscape.
Figure 2. Dark Sky quality across the United States. The Bortle Scale measures skies from “truly dark” (black or dark gray areas) to “inner city” (pale gray areas). 

The Great Basin happens to be one of these areas, and we here in Harney County are lucky enough to be almost in the center of a large patch of truly dark sky (though if you look closely, you can see the effects of artificial light in Burns). Efforts to protect these dark skies are underway. One such effort is a partnership between Portland Audubon and the Burns District BLM to obtain Dark Sky Wilderness designation for the Steens Mountain Wilderness, under the International Dark Sky Association. Though this designation isn’t a legislative one, and thus lacks “teeth,” it is still an important part of recognizing the importance of dark skies and public lands for wildlife and human health.

Dark sky features, such as stars and the Milky Way, are important navigational tools for migrating birds and other wildlife. Additionally, nocturnal species developed specific circadian rhythms (patterns of light/dark) that dictate sleep, mating, flowering, migration, and other stages of diverse life cycles. When light pollution disrupts these patterns, there can be serious consequences. For example, today, lights from large cities represent the brightest point on island horizons, causing baby sea turtles to travel toward cities and away from the ocean upon hatching. In humans, prolonged exposure to artificial light has been linked to sleep disorders, obesity, and heart disease by the American Medical Association. 

What can you do to support dark skies? Changing light bulbs to “warm light” LED bulbs is a great start. These LED bulbs don’t include light in the blue spectrum and are therefore better for humans, wildlife, and mitigating light pollution. Another important step you can take is turning off unnecessary nighttime lighting, including but not limited to porch lights and other outdoor lighting. You can also support Lights Out programs in your area. For more information about what you can do to support human and wildlife health, follow the link to Portland Audubon’s Light’s Out page

Image of the Bortle Scale and Dark Sky Quality. Burns, OR is in the “green” column, while the Steens are in the far right “black” column. What do your dark skies look like?

A New Look for Malheur

Written by Carey Goss, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Specialist/Photos by USFWS

On your next visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, you can expect to be welcomed with new interpretation and directional signs.

For the past several years, the Refuge has been working diligently on improving an integrated set of orientation features for visitors to easily find accurate, timely and appropriate information and feel welcomed. We want our visitors to not only be aware of their options for safely pursuing self-guided activities, but to feel welcomed. This effort consists primarily of new trailhead and interpretive signs aimed at providing enhanced wildlife observation, photography opportunities and interpretive opportunities while connecting visitors with historic and natural resources. 

At the beginning of your trip to Malheur, stop at the Narrows Pullout along Highway 205. New interpretive panels have been installed and the information therein will serve as a gateway for your experience at the Refuge. We suggest visiting Refuge headquarters afterwards, which will be a good starting point for your visit. The Visitor Center, Nature Center & Store, along with the George Benson Natural History Museum, are located at the Refuge headquarters. Knowledgeable volunteers and staff will be available to provide information and answer any questions. Headquarters also has new interpretive panels at the Malheur Lake Overlook and Marshall Pond Trail. 

As you begin to explore the Refuge, you will notice new welcome and orientation panels at all entrance points. Each entrance will have the basic information for visitors to be aware of their options for self-guided activities with a little story of what you may experience in that section of the Refuge. 

Whether you travel along Hwy 205 or the Blitzen Valley Auto Tour route you will find yourself at the Buena Vista Overlook. This is a must-stop after experiencing the landscape and solitude of the northern half of the Refuge. The interpretive panels have been updated and you will find one of our new trailhead signs at the base and the top of the overlook. These new trailhead signs are located at each of our trailheads. 

If you haven’t visited Krumbo Reservoir, south of Buena Vista Overlook, we suggest you do. The reservoir may be off the beaten path, but provides an opportunity to view some seasonal ponds and one of the deepest water sources on the Refuge. You will be welcomed with trailhead signs along the way to the reservoir and at the reservoir and beautiful viewing areas. 

Once you have made it to the southern tip of the Refuge, please stop at the historic P Ranch. At the parking area, you will be welcomed with new interpretive panels, trailhead signs and sitting areas. A portion of the P Ranch area is also one of the locations where angling is permitted including Krumbo Reservoir and East Canal. East Canal is another stop we encourage visitors to check out.

East Canal is located near Page Springs Campground and provides visitors an option to walk the route or drive. At the entrance of East Canal, there will be information to help guide you. 

Now that your trip is close to being over, don’t forget to stop at the Frenchglen Wayside across from the Frenchglen Hotel. New interpretive panels will highlight areas near the Refuge that you can explore and an entrance to the Barnes Springs Footpath. If you happen to visit in the late summer or fall, please make a stop at the historic Sod House Ranch (open August 15 – October 15). Sod House Ranch provides an opportunity to take a step back into time. If volunteers are not available to provide a guided tour, you will have new interpretive panels to share the story of the past. 

Malheur is a wonderful place for visitors and with the new interpretation and directional signs we hope you leave the Refuge with a memorable experience that fosters a connection between yourself and nature, and with an appreciation of the Refuge’s unique resources. 

A Volunteer’s Appreciation

Written by Isabelle Fleuraud, FOMR Volunteer/Photo courtesy of Isabelle Fleuraud

Five and a half years ago, my family unexpectedly moved to Harney County from Tucson, AZ. A year before that, my husband took his new post here, and so I accompanied him on the long drive from Southern Arizona to South East Oregon. And because, as a naturalist and aspiring geologist, he always seeks the most winding and least traveled path, I first discovered Harney County via the full 133 miles of OR Hwy 205 – known in part as the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway – from Denio, NV to Burns, OR. Along the way, on that late September day, we stopped at the historic Frenchglen hotel for a picnic, from where I first discovered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; that day, we traveled the full length of Malheur Refuge and also stopped at the headquarters and at the Narrows. Over the next few years, we made many visits to the Malheur Refuge, exploring how the vast landscape, wetland vegetation and abundant wildlife magically change with the seasons. In 2016, we helped with the post-Malheur Occupation cleanup and were introduced to, and began supporting the Friends of Malheur, and at last, this spring, I decided to start volunteering here under the guidance of the Friends’ remarkable executive director, Janelle Wicks.

Once a week, as I get up early and make the 36 mile drive to Refuge Headquarters, encountering at most a handful of cars between the old Hines Lumber Mill ruins at the edge of town and the CCC-built headquarters, it’s as if I moved to another world for the day. And the drive home always takes me an extra 20 minutes as I can never resist the temptation to stop along the way to observe and attempt to photograph the late afternoon light flooding the extraordinary landscape.

In late spring and early summer, after I was trained to use the cash register system, I worked mostly in the lovely Crane’s Nest gift shop, book store and visitor center, interacting with birders and visitors eager to share how delighted they are to be at Malheur and to inquire about the Refuge and its wildlife, while making sure the store shelves were well stocked and neatly presented. By mid-July, as the number of visitors began to drop, Janelle trained me on how to generate and print thank you letters for new members, and carry out various inventory and other necessary office tasks. It is fair to say that Janelle is an utter delight to work for, as her great organizational, supervisory and teaching skills are enhanced by her unending kindness and positivity. Meeting other volunteers from far away in Oregon and all over the country, who stay for weeks and months at the newly renovated RV site located at the headquarters, has also been immensely enriching. Being a small part of this amazing team of dedicated volunteers has been as awe-inspiring as the natural environment we are helping protect and preserve.