Spring Water Management

Written by Debby De Carlo/ Photo by Peter Pearsall

Sandhill Cranes are passing through, white-face ibis, curlew and other waterbirds have arrived at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the refuge is ready for the breeding birds. Managing water for best uses at the Refuge looks straightforward in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan. But there are new or different variables every year, USFWS Wildlife Biologist Alexa Martinez explained. “We make our decision(s) based on the fields and ponds that have the highest priority for wildlife benefit and then to our haying program which also provides stubble habitat for other species of wildlife as well as hay for livestock. It may vary from year to year due to the amount of water we receive and how fast it comes down from the snowpack on the Steens. Usually the manager, biologist and maintenance crew get together to make a final decision by March 1, with a water plan for the year.”

One big challenge, said Maintenance Supervisor Ed Moulton, is moving the water from the southern end of the Refuge to the northern end. “We use canals, ditches and dams,” Moulton noted. “It’s very labor intensive. If it comes off the mountain gradually, that is good. When it comes off fast, that is not good, but we take it when we can get it.”

There are ponds, called impoundments, that hold the water when there is a good amount of precipitation in early spring. Last year was a good water year, with a good snowpack and plenty of precipitation in the spring, though the water did come off the mountain a little fast, creating a bit of a headache for water managers on the refuge. 

By moving surface water throughout the Refuge by way of canals, ditches and dams, and by using flood-irrigation to create wet meadow habitat, there is diverse wetland habitat for nesting birds and for the millions of birds stopping over to rest as they migrate to more northern nesting grounds. 

A benefit of spreading water across the desert landscape is the creation of wet meadows, or haying fields. Besides providing nesting habitat for meadow dependent species like Bobolinks, neighboring ranchers cut the hay in the fall, hay they can feed to their cattle. The resulting stubble provides forage for spring migrating birds as they fly north.

Throughout the Silvies Floodplain, and wetland habitat around the refuge, some area ranchers participate in the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, coordinating with conservation groups, land management agencies, and other stakeholders to maximize conservation benefits for wildlife and production benefits for agriculture. They primarily achieve these objectives through flood-irrigation, similar to the surface irrigation used by the Refuge According to Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator and biologist Dr. Teresa Wicks, flood irrigation is time consuming and labor intensive for these ranchers,” she said. Using wells for irrigation can be less labor intensive, but may not be sustainable in the desert. “As groundwater is pumped out of the ground for agriculture, the water table has been drawn down. As the groundwater table has been drawn down, surrounding wells and groundwater dependent ecosystems have potentially been affected. “Conversion from flood-irrigation, using surface water, to sprinkler irrigation, using groundwater would remove habitat for migrating waterfowl and waterbirds,” Dr. Wicks added. “Surface water is important. For example, in years where less water makes it to Harney Lake, the lake becomes more saline. Brine shrimp and alkali flies can’t survive in water that is too saline. So in particularly low water years, this important food source for migrating and breeding shorebirds may not be available.” “Water management for ecosystems, the economy, and society are why collaboration with all the partners in the region is so important and will continue to be if predictions of future widespread drought, and increased climatic variability in the West are accurate,” she added.

Looking east from 205 towards Malheur Lake in late February 2020.
Photo by Janelle Wicks

Due to high amounts of water entering the system throughout 2019 parts of the refuge and surrounding areas are seeing benefits with remnant surface water from the previous year. Mid-February saw the spread of surface water from the lake to the Narrows wayside, which had been long hoped for over the last few years. Now, geese, ducks, and even pronghorn are visiting this oasis and are visible from the pullout on 205. We can only imagine the sheer magnitude of similarly vibrant and thriving habitats across the Refuge’s 187,000 acres.

What’s the Deal with Biocrust?

Written by Linh Nguyen/ Photos by Teresa Wicks

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is known for its oases of wetlands, wet meadows, and homestead era stands of cottonwoods, elms, and other tall trees. One of the important, though often less focused-on habitats is the Sagebrush Steppe, covering 14,000 to 15,000 acres and shrubs are its main vegetative plants. It can be found around the fringe of the Blitzen Valley, at higher elevations, at several locations in the Double-O Unit, and along the south side of Harney Lake. This is the home for obligate shrub-steppe species like Greater sage-grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, and sage thrasher. This habitat also supports other animals like sagebrush lizards and mule deer. 

In arid landscapes like the uplands of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, perennial plants are interspaced with a biological soil crusts called biocrust. This refers to the community of lichens, mosses, cyanobacteria, and fungi that live on the soil surface, work together to increase soil stability, water holding capacity, nutrient availability, elemental cycling, and seedling establishment of grasses and shrubs (Coe et al.). Lea Condon, a PhD graduate from Oregon State University, conduct her thesis on the effect of biocrust on the spread of cheatgrass, and she concluded her dissertation saying that management of biocrust “not only increase site resistance to cheatgrass but it will add to the conservation of ecosystem functions related to nutrient cycling, hydrologic cycling and soil erosion.” 

In addition, restoring biocrust might help the restoration of native plants, and the maintenance of hydrologic and nutrient cycles. Condon confirms that perennial vegetation and lichens will help resist cheatgrass and moss will promote the growth of both lichens and perennial herbaceous vegetation. The moss component of biocrust improves many functions related to Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus cycling and storage in semiarid and arid environments like the Sagebrush Steppe (Delgado-Baquerizo et al.). Delgado-Baquerizo et al. also state that the maintenance of biocrusts is important in mitigating the negative effects of climate change on high deserts. Soil respiration is heavily temperature sensitive, and the biocrust community can drive the warming effect in drylands (García-Palacios et al.). However, with the increasing effects of climate change on precipitation patterns, mosses are especially affected and decline fast, which in turn reduce crust structure and function. This can have implications for hydrology, soil stability, and nutrient cycling in dryland systems (Coe et al.). 

In conclusion, the Sagebrush Steppe is now being endangered by non-native plants, which can affect the survival of the obligate shrub-steppe species. The growth of cheatgrass can be minimized by the management of the biocrust community, mostly lichens and mosses. The moss component of the biocrust can be successfully restored without irrigation, while the lichen component is more sensitive to disturbance (Condon). Biocrust, in addition to perennial plants, restoration and conservation, is an effective method to prevent the spread of cheatgrass and other non-native noxious plants throughout the Sagebrush Steppe.


  • Coe, Kirsten K. et al. “Precipitation-Driven Carbon Balance Controls Survivorship of Desert Biocrust Mosses”. Ecology, vol 93, no. 7, 2012, pp. 1626-1636.
  • Condon, Lea A. Biological Soil Crusts of the Great Basin: An Examination of Their Distribution, Recovery From Disturbance and Restoration. : Oregon State University.
  • Delgado-Baquerizo, Manuel et al. “Biocrust-Forming Mosses Mitigate the Negative Impacts of Increasing Aridity on Ecosystem Multifunctionality in Drylands”. New Phytologist, vol 209, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1540-1552.
  • García-Palacios, Pablo et al. “Pathways Regulating Decreased Soil Respiration with Warming in a Biocrust-Dominated Dryland”. Global Change Biology, vol 24, no. 10, 2018, pp. 4645-4656. 

Wildflowers of Spring


Sere hills blaze with light:
nothing so beautiful and
numinous as spring

Limpid desert breeze
suffused with heady bouquet
of floral perfume

Here today and gone
tomorrow, a fleeting treat
for all our senses

The first week of May is National Wildflower Week, celebrating native blooms across the country. Enjoy this photo gallery of Great Basin wildflowers taken during previous years by Peter Pearsall!

Refuge Operations Update

Written by Jeff MackayPhotos by Alan Nyiri

Coronavirus, Covid-19, pandemic, CDC, at-risk, social distancing, quarantine…  These words and many others that we have likely never used in our daily communications and are now common currency. They shadow us as we navigate the path of our current reality.  

As a result of the Covid-19 virus current Refuge operations look much different in response to a paramount need to provide for the health and safety of Refuge employees and conservation partners as well as their families and other Harney County residents.  The Refuge remains open, however, as most of you know operations in the Refuge Visitor Center and the Cranes Nest Nature Center were suspended by mid-March.  

The next related action was an evaluation of Refuge programs to determine those that were mission critical and a determination of an appropriate level of staffing needed to accomplish the programs.  This action was necessary to further reduce risk of individual exposure to the virus and to prevent its potential transmission among staff and into the local communities.  Mission critical operations at this time include law enforcement, water infrastructure management, fire management, and administrative support functions.  Employees with primary duties under these programs are reporting to the Refuge on a staggered schedule designed to achieve social distancing while other Refuge employees are teleworking from home.

Employees on telework schedules are able to execute many of their duties assuring minimal disruption to Refuge operations with the exception of biological surveys.  Certain types of field work presents a challenge with regard to achieving risk reduction.  As we learn effective techniques for risk reduction, re-evaluation of other Refuge programs with regard to mission critical operations will be conducted to ensure essential Refuge operations are not omitted.

In other news, I am humbled to share with you that I have been selected to be the next Project Leader for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  I have been serving as the Acting Project Leader since Chad Karges retired in August 2019 and look forward to serving officially in this new role and continuing working alongside a truly dedicated team of Refuge employees and conservation partners.

All of us at the Refuge understand you have been impacted by the current situation but thank you sincerely for responsibly observing the Governor’s order to limit travel.  I do hope you are taking advantage of virtually visiting the Refuge and Harney County as an alternative way of staying connected to the places in the Harney Basin I know you love.  We look forward to seeing you again once the situation improves.

Harney County Migratory Bird Festival

Written by Peter PearsallPhoto by Dan Streiffert

For the first time in 40 years, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival has been canceled out of concerns relating to the novel coronavirus. This festival, held annually in April in Harney County, coincides with the spring migration of birds passing through Harney Basin along the Pacific Flyway.

More than 300 bird species use Malheur Refuge and the greater Harney Basin every year, making the region a birder’s paradise. Spring migration is particularly exciting, with new bird species arriving by the week and hundreds of birders arriving to see them. Since its start in 1981, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival celebrates this annual phenomenon with guided tours, workshops, and activities for all ages.

In the early 1990s the bird festival shifted its focus from self-guided tours to organized tours led by area bird experts. It was at this time that the Refuge, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service took on a more active role in the festival. Organization of the festival was still directed by volunteers, but the tours were led by agency personnel in agency vehicles.

As the festival outgrew the capacity of the dedicated group of volunteer organizers, the Bird Festival Committee began exploring other options for oversight. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce was approached about hosting the event. The Chamber Board of Directors decided to take on the Bird Festival as one of their sponsored events.

The Chamber of Commerce receives a portion of the revenue from the festival to offset expenses they accrue during the planning and implementation of the festival. A portion of the profits is available locally as grants for wildlife interpretation, educational projects and other community projects associated with the festival.

The festival was formerly known as the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival, honoring the first on-site manager of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. John Scharff began his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He initially arrived at the refuge as the assistant manager in 1935 and was promoted to refuge manager in 1937.

When John Scharff was promoted to refuge manager, he oversaw not only the management of the refuge’s vast natural resources, but also a rotating crew of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees at three camps, who undertook a number of major projects in the Blitzen Valley alongside Scharff and his staff. These projects included the construction of reservoirs, staff buildings, water-control structures, and the museum at refuge headquarters; the reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the refuge; and initiating the ongoing struggle to control non-native carp in Harney Basin.

John and his wife Florence lived on the refuge at refuge headquarters until John retired. John served as Refuge Manager for more than 34 years until he retired at age 70. Scharff maintains the longest tenure for an on-site manager in the Refuge System and he was awarded the Department of lnterior’s Distinguished Service Award in 1971.