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.