Severe Drought Conditions on Malheur NWR

Written by Carey Goss/ Photos from FWS Archives & Dominic Bachman

Water level fluctuations are characteristics of closed basins, and even today level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year. The largest watercourse influencing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge lands is the Blitzen River.  

The Blitzen River drains the southern portion of the Donner und Blitzen sub-basin and receives most of its volume from Steens Mountain snowmelt. By the time the Blitzen River enters Malheur Lake the water has been captured to an area of 760 square miles. It is joined by a number of tributaries (Mud, Bridge, Krumbo, and McCoy Creeks) as it continues downstream. The importance of the river’s discharge as it enters the Blitzen Valley is to maintain Refuge wetland habitats for wildlife that depend on wet meadows and ponds.  

The water delivery system of the Refuge is complex and a summary of how this system works is difficult to describe. However, the Refuge is legally mandated to conserve and protect migratory birds and other wildlife to achieve its establishing purposes. Addressing water is key to meeting this obligation, and full attention is given under management direction.  

This year, the Refuge is experiencing an ongoing drought condition in the region and well below average snowpack on Steens Mountain. The Refuge is required to maintain a minimum flow of 25 cubic feet per second (CFS), a unit of measurement referring to the volume and speed of water flow, in the Blitzen River and 5 CFS in the East Canal per conditions of water rights for fish and wildlife habitat. 

Left: Technicians collect data at a survey point that had been up to 2 ft under water in early May.

In mid-July, the Blitzen River was approximately 33 CFS and the flows continued to decrease. These conditions forced the Refuge to reduce and/or terminate flows to all wetland habitats in the Blitzen Valley, but the highest priority ponds for wildlife species. The consequence of these actions is that some ponds may become dry throughout the summer including Malheur Lake. 

The cyclical trends of drought and flood in the Great Basin is not infrequent and yet fish and wildlife persist due to their resilience and ability to adapt to such conditions. This became apparent when Malheur Lake dried up in the 1930s.  

Beginning in 1982, Malheur Lake began to rise as greater than normal precipitation occurs in the Harney Basin. By 1985, the lake level exceeded 4,102 feet, a rise of over 7.5 feet in just three years, and Malheur Lake reached 124,440 surface acres. The reverse is also common for Malheur Lake. Malheur Lake last went completely dry in 1934, and it reached its next lowest levels in 1961 and 1992, when the lake was reduced to 500 surface acres with a depth of 2 inches. Currently, Malheur Lake is under 21,000 surface acres.  

The Refuge is committed to care for, conserve, and enhance the health of Malheur Lake and the Blitzen Valley, as well as the Double-O unit, that are all part of this landscape. The Great Basin has endured many severe droughts throughout the years and Refuge management is looking forward to future streamflow and water potential. 

Ducks Unlimited Updating National Wetlands Inventory on Malheur NWR

Written by Pavlina Slezak, GIS Intern, Ducks Unlimited Inc.

In late June, members of the Ducks Unlimited GIS (Geographic Information Systems) team visited Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the first phase of three wetland mapping projects to occur in southeast Oregon.

Ducks Unlimited has been contracted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to update the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) for a large portion of southeast Oregon.  The NWI is a publicly available dataset classifying and mapping wetlands and waterbodies throughout the United States. It is a valuable resource for conservation planning and natural resource management, providing information on wetland flooding frequency, land cover type, vegetation composition, and water connectivity. Under the NWI definition, wetlands are highly variable in appearance and can include features such as rivers, dry washes, marshes, lakes, and agricultural ditches.

For Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that focuses on wetland and waterfowl conservation, the NWI can help identify high-quality waterfowl habitat for protection or restoration. As an area that provides essential breeding and migration habitat for thousands of waterfowl each year, the Refuge and surrounding wetlands are of particular interest to Ducks Unlimited.

Most of the work to update the NWI is performed digitally, using aerial imagery to delineate waterbodies and wetland habitats, but visiting the project areas allows Duck Unlimited to verify the accuracy of wetland classifications and answer questions that cannot be gleaned from imagery alone. Observing whether an area is flooded or saturated during site visits gives us a better understanding of its typical flooding duration. Plant species can also be indicative of water regime, and vegetation surveys are an important component of fieldwork. We mostly performed rapid surveys from the car to maximize site visitation, occasionally stopping to take more detailed notes and admire the diversity of birds on the Refuge!   We visited 1,003 sites on the Refuge, including wetlands in and around the Double O Unit, Harney Lake, the Refuge Headquarters, and Frenchglen. We also verified 554 additional sites throughout the project area, which includes the Steens Mountains, other BLM lands, and Summer Lake Wildlife Area.  We observed 71 bird species during our time on the refuge and 101 species throughout the entire project area.  Ducks Unlimited has 2 additional project areas in southeast Oregon that will be mapped and field-verified into 2023.

What Happened to All the Ground Squirrels?

Written by Linda Craig/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Visitors to the Refuge during March through July couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of scurrying, little mammals that crowd under the bird feeders at Headquarters.  These six-inch, grey-brown rodents are Beldings Ground Squirrels. 

Beldings Ground Squirrels are one of thirteen species in the genus, Urocitellus.  Most members of the genus live in western North America.  They are related to chipmunks and marmots and are part of the subfamily of squirrels which usually lives on the ground rather than in trees. 

Our Urocitellus, beldingi, is found throughout eastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and central California and Nevada, generally in lower elevation areas of grasslands and sagebrush.

Although the “sage rats,” a local, dismissive name for them, are cute little critters, the many burrows they dig throughout the Headquarters lawns and the damage they do to the roots of trees and shrubs can be a problem.  Because they relish the easy food that is available under our bird feeders, their numbers in the spring can be a little overwhelming.

Now, in late July, the ground squirrels are suddenly missing!  We are no longer greeted each time we step outside the Nature Center to their squeaky trills that make up the Beldings’ family communications. 

The ground squirrels haven’t moved on; they have just moved underground.  Beldings, and other similar species in the genus who also live where summer temperatures are high, deal with the heat and the drying vegetation by going into estivation or early hibernation when the days get hot, and the grass gets brown.  Their underground period lasts for eight to nine months. 

It is understandable, then, that they feed so voraciously in the spring and early summer that their body weight more than doubles.  They do not store food in their underground burrows, so what they eat when they are above ground must last more than half of the year. 

We won’t expect to see them again until the ground begins to thaw in February or March.  Then, there will be a flurry of activity as the adult males fight fiercely for the right to mate.  Only the strongest males will succeed.  Females will establish their own burrow and have just one litter of three to eight.  The young, called pups or kits, are born blind and won’t emerge from the burrow until they are about two months old. Thus, the cycle begins again, and the scurrying little rodents will be a major part of the Malheur experience for another season.

Farewell to James Pearson, MNWR Fish Biologist

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of James Pearson

For the past six years James Pearson has been working to restore the lakes at Malheur Refuge, first as a graduate student, then as a Ph.D. candidate, and finally as the Fish Biologist for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Pearson will be leaving the Refuge to step into a new role as Fish Biologist with the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Lodi, California. 

“While I am excited to start the next part of my life, I am saddened because I will miss all my terrific coworkers, collaborators, and partners,” said Pearson. “Malheur Lake has been a significant part of my life over the last six years, and I will cherish all the fond memories that I have from our research together.”

Pearson helped to develop several habitat restoration models for Malheur, Harney and Mud Lakes, which together comprise one of the largest wetland systems in the Western U.S. One model looked at how non-native common carp impact ecosystem function in the lake. Another looked at how emergent and submergent vegetation help to reduce turbidity in the lakes and improve habitat for native species.

“My goal as the Fish Biologist at Malheur Refuge was to set up this lake restoration project for success in the future,” said Pearson. “And thanks to all of our partners and collaborators, I think that the Refuge has the building blocks in place to make meaningful progress in restoring these lakes.”

Pearson hails from California and said that this new position brings him “full-circle to what got me interested in fish biology in the first place: restoring habitat for Pacific salmon.”

All of us at Malheur Refuge thank Pearson for his enduring contributions to the lake restoration project. We will miss Pearson and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors!