Written by Jeff Mackay, MNWR Refuge Manager/Project Leader
Photo by Alan Nyiri

A Reflection on 2020

As we put a bow on 2020, Refuge personnel are more than ready to dive into 2021 but let’s first re-revisit the outgoing year.  As most of you know, in May I was promoted to the Project Leader position.  We also filled two fire-fighter positions and the Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator position. This position serves as the resident sub-station manager for the Buena Vista unit.  At year’s end, four key positions remain vacant: Deputy Project Leader, Administrative Officer, Ecologist, and Maintenance Mechanic.  The Deputy Project Leader position became vacant in May upon my promotion.  The Administrative Officer position has been vacant since April 2019 and Administrative Assistant Suzanne McConnell continues to serve in the position skillfully accomplishing the full suite of administrative duties.  The Ecologist position became vacant in April upon the transfer of Wildlife Biologist Edward Sparks to a National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  The maintenance position became vacant with the promotion of Kenneth Berry to the Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator position.  This position oversees maintenance and operation of the fish passage infrastructure on the Donner und Blitzen River and the East Canal, both home to redband trout.  During the past year Refuge personnel have stepped-up taking on additional duties and our partners continue to work with us to accomplish our highest priority tasks.

Due to the age of most infrastructure on the Refuge, periodic repair is essential to preserve continuity of operations.  Examples of some of the major projects accomplished in 2020 include painting of wood surfaces on facilities at Refuge Headquarters, installation of ductless heating and cooling systems in two quarters and one office building, replacement of 30 miles of boundary fence, replacement of the support structure and deck on the East Canal – Bridge Creek bridge, repair of Page Springs diversion structure on the Donner und Blitzen River, and repair of a few canals and levees supporting water management.   Much of these repairs won’t be noticed by visitors, however, installation of four new vault toilets In November replacing the old outhouses should catch visitor’s attention in 2021.  Another visible feature at Headquarters is the loss of two trees.  The weakened top section of the John Sharff spruce tree was lost in a wind event in November.  The storm also toppled one of the dead spruce trees on the south edge of the lawn.  Fortunately, Refuge staff and partners had initiated development of a tree management plan in 2020 to begin the task of assuring the perpetuation of trees and shrubs at locations including Headquarters, Sodhouse Ranch, Benson Pond, and P Ranch.  The planning effort involved a professional arborist enabling us to tap his expertise in our response to the tree damage.

Most planned field work with our U.S. Geological Survey partners associated with restoration of Malheur Lake was postponed to reduce the risk of disease exposure to personnel.  Biologist James Pearson along with seasonal Biologist Rebecca Pickle and partners from the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative scaled back larger planned work to evaluate various actions designed to reduce sediment resuspension, protect growth of bulrush, and monitor water quality in Malheur Lake and the Donner und Blitzen River.  Biologist Pearson has shared information on his work in a previous newsletter and this issue.

Many of the wildlife inventory and monitoring surveys were completed thanks to our Portland Audubon science partners.  Aerial waterfowl surveys were cancelled due to the confined space in the small aircraft used to conduct the surveys.   A new survey of colonial nesting waterbirds (pelicans, terns, grebes, ibis, egrets, herons, cormorants) on Malheur Lake using an Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle (UAV or “drone”) was cancelled in 2020 after use of drones was prohibited.

Substation managers completed irrigation of meadows and maintained water in ponds providing important wildlife habitat for migrating and nesting birds.  Additionally, maintenance staff maintained Refuge roads allowing visitor access throughout the public use areas.  Refuge haying and rake-bunch-grazing partners completed their operations in hay meadows.  These partners provide a valuable service as the Refuge does not have the staffing and equipment to complete this important habitat management task.

With a fully staffed work-force, Refuge fire personnel were prepared to respond to two fires on the Refuge and ably assisted partners in the Burns Interagency Fire Zone with suppression of several wildland fires throughout Oregon and the western United States.  Although assigned to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, fire personnel are considered national resources and can be assigned to incidents across the nation.

While the difficult decision was made to close the Refuge Visitor Center and the George Benson Museum as well as the Cranes Nest Nature Store (operated by the Friends of Malheur Refuge) to provide for employee and visitor safety, the Refuge auto tour route and hiking trails remained open.  Additionally, and unfortunately, all environmental education programs were cancelled on the Refuge in 2020.  Despite state-wide travel restrictions, visitation on the Refuge increased as many visitors sought respite from the new urban challenges.

Looking Forward

As we enter 2021, there is hope for a return to normal operations eventually.  For now, all operational programs (Malheur Lake restoration, Inventory and Monitoring, Habitat Management, Fire Management, Law Enforcement, and infrastructure and facility maintenance) will be conducted similar to levels executed in 2020.  It is anticipated that a few vacant positions will be filled during the year.  The last 15 miles of boundary fence will be replaced.  Repairs will be completed to several water diversion and fish passage infrastructure on the Donner und Blitzen River and on the East Canal.  A more permanent repair of the East Canal – Bridge Creek Bridge using new thermoplastic technology will be completed.  Replacement of the Knox Spring flume is a priority in 2021.  Upgrades to one of the Refuge quarters will be completed and an old dilapidated equipment storage shed will be replaced.  We also look forward eagerly to working with our dedicated partners continuing delivery of conservation successes in the Harney Basin.

We look forward to sharing 2021 with you and hope that you will have an opportunity to visit Malheur Refuge keeping your health and our local community’s health in mind.  Plan to spend some time safely at the Refuge Headquarters followed by traveling the Refuge automobile tour route.  Several trails await to share the rewards of quietly traversing native habitats.  Braving the hungry mosquitoes in early summer will reward anglers fishing the Donner und Blitzen River.  While we may not yet be able to open the Refuge Visitor Center or the George Benson Museum in 2021, Refuge staff remain available by phone and email to answer your questions.

Wishing you and your family a Safe and Happy New Year!