Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Janelle Wicks

Early this spring the Friends of Malheur NWR announced that we were committed to installing vent screens on all four of the vault toilets located on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These vault toilets are located at Buena Vista, Krumbo Dam, Krumbo Reservoir and P Ranch.

Vault toilets mitigate odors from the underground storage tank by venting air through a pipe in the roof. This pipe, while malodorous and uninviting to us, can look enticing to animals that nest, roost or otherwise utilize cavities in trees and rocks, such as birds and small mammals. When the animals enter the vent and tumble into the tank below, they’re often unable to escape and sometimes perish in the dark, damp, confined space.

Thankfully for wildlife, there is a tidy fix for this messy problem. The Teton Raptor Center, widely credited as being among the first groups to address this issue, teamed up with staff from the U.S. Forest Service to create screens that fit over the vent pipes, keeping wildlife out while maintaining proper air flow. In 2011 the Teton Raptor Center launched a public-awareness campaign called the Port-O-Potty Owl Project; they’ve since helped to distribute and install thousands of these screens on vault toilets on public lands. Friends of Malheur is currently looking to raise money to purchase these screens for the four vault toilets currently installed at Malheur Refuge.

Vault Toilet Screens by Peter Pearsall; Malheur Musings, March 2020

In the March issue of the Malheur Musings newsletter we called for support for this endeavor and several of you, our Friends, answered. Foremost in this response were several individual donations and one $200 contribution from the East Cascade Audubon Society, https://www.ecaudubon.org/. With these funds we purchased the screens, associated hardware and set about adding this project to our Spring Cleaning stewardship work party which was to take place mid-March.

With the impacts of Covid-19 forcing the closure of the Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store we also cancelled all volunteer activities. Governor Kate Brown’s Stay Home, Save Lives order combined with Non-essential travel restrictions, which remain in place still, required that we get creative about following through on projects without the helpful hands of our Friends volunteers.

Luckily for us, the Refuge shares a partner with the Friends in Portland Audubon. Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator and FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks set out to support one another in the time sensitive task of installing these four vault toilet screens. In addition to this, it was just about nesting season for American kestrels and Portland Audubon still had one more nest box to install.

We are grateful for the collaborative nature of partnership that exists withing the Refuge community here at Malheur. Without this we may have had to put off such an important task, not to mention miss out on an opportunity to see the views from atop a vault toilet.