Malheur Refuge Reflections and Anticipations – 2022


Written by Jeff Mackay, Refuge Manager/Photo by Alan Nyiri

Hello Friends of Malheur Refuge.

Although we only just said goodbye to 2021 what seems like only a few weeks ago, we’ve already jumped into 2022 like popcorn in a hot skillet! Now that I have a moment to reflect on 2021, I feel rightly proud of the accomplishments of Refuge staff and Refuge partners and would like to share with you a few of the highlights.

At the beginning of 2021, four key Refuge staff positions remained vacant: Deputy Project Leader, Administrative Officer, Ecologist, and Maintenance Mechanic. A fifth position became vacant in August with the departure of Aquatic Health Biologist James Pearson to another position. I am thrilled to report that by the end of the year three positions had been filled and job offers had been made for the remaining two positions (both accepted!). We were fortunate to select Acting Administrative Officer Suzanne McConnell as the new Administrative Officer in July, meaning no disruption to the excellent support and service Suzanne provides to the Refuge, our partners, and our visitors. We filled the Maintenance Mechanic position with the arrival of Duane Sawyer in October. Duane will oversee operations and maintenance of our irrigation diversion and fish passage infrastructure in place on the Donner und Blitzen River. Also in October, we filled the Deputy Project Leader position with the arrival of Tara Wertz. Tara transferred from the Arapahoe National Wildlife Refuge Complex located near Walden, Colorado, where she has served as the Refuge Manager. Tara brings many years of research and Refuge management experience to benefit Malheur NWR that will be very useful, as she will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Refuge including wildlife inventory and monitoring, habitat management, infrastructure maintenance, and public use.

Earlier this year we finally filled the Supervisory Ecologist position and on the heels of that action filled the Aquatic Health Biologist position. Travis Miller accepted the position of Supervisory Ecologist. The position supervises the Refuge biological program and will focus on wetland and upland habitat evaluation and management. Travis has spent many years working in eastern Oregon and most recently has served as a Wildlife Biologist for the Burns District Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  His previous positions include working as a Range Management Specialist also with the Burns District BLM and as a Rangeland Scientist working for the U.S. Forest Service at the Great Basin Ecological Laboratory. Travis has extensive experience working in high desert ecosystems with partners on conservation and management programs.

Dominic Bachman was selected to fill the Aquatic Health Biologist position. You may recognize his name as most recently Dominic served as a valued partner working for the High Desert Partnership on the Malheur Lake restoration project. His previous positions include working as a Wildlife Biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Modoc and Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuges. Dominic has extensive experience working in the SONEC (Southern Oregon Northeast California) on conservation and management of high desert wetlands and with conservation partners throughout the western United States.  Dominic will oversee the aquatic health program with a focus on restoring hardstem bulrush in the Lake, evaluation of the use of an electrical barrier in the river (more on this topic below), and supporting lake restoration partners.  Finally, after over two years the biological program is once again fully staffed!

Working with several partners, Refuge staff began the slow transition from scientific research to piloting some on-the-ground restoration techniques in Malheur Lake. Research into the environmental variables driving the current poor conditions in Malheur Lake began nearly 10 years ago. In 2021, our partner at the U.S. Geological Survey, Casie Smith, lead efforts to study the effects of wind and sediment suppression in the Lake. Wind and sediment suspension are some of the main drivers of the undesirable turbid state in Malheur Lake waters. The turbid state of Malheur Lake prevents germination and growth of submergent aquatic plants which are important for helping maintain a clear water state and for providing foods for birds as well as habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrates that are also a vital food source for birds. Casie will continue to lead this research in 2022 focusing on sediment suppression trials using soil flocculants and monitoring water quality in the Donner und Blitzen River and Malheur Lake.

Graduate student Beth Boos from Louisiana State University began a new project in 2021 studying emergent plant growth in Malheur Lake. Or more specifically, the lack of emergent plant growth.  Beth is trying to understand the reasons hard-stem bulrush has not re-colonized Malheur Lake during the last 35 years following the extreme flood event in the mid-1980s. This unusual, prolonged flood event resulted in a near complete loss of hard-stem bulrush from much of Malheur Lake. Emergent plants such as hard-stem bulrush provide multiple ecosystem services in large lakes. In addition to providing shelter to birds and habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrates, emergent plants shield the lake from the effects of wind by blocking wind and suppressing waves. Wave energy is directly responsible for suspending sediments thereby causing undesirable turbid water quality conditions. Beth will return to the Refuge in 2022 and complete a second season of data collection.

Biological Technician Rebecca Pickle will continue tracking radio-implanted common carp and redband trout while assisting Casie, Beth, and Dominic. Carp will be tracked to better understand their use patterns in the lake and river. This information will allow Refuge staff and Partners to design effective carp removal projects in an effort to reduce spawning thereby helping to reduce impacts to marsh vegetation and water quality. Redband trout will be tracked to also to better understand their use of the river. With this information we will better understand the potential impacts from the use of an electrical barrier.  In an effort to prevent carp from spawning in the lower river when lake conditions are unsuitable, an electrical barrier will be deployed. The intent of the barrier is to not only block carp but to allow redband trout access upriver from the lake. This concept has been successfully utilized in the upper Great Lakes region to manage carp.

As we enter 2022, there is still hope for a return to near normal operations. For now, all operational programs (Malheur Lake restoration, wildlife inventory and monitoring, habitat management, fire management, law enforcement, and infrastructure and facility maintenance) will be conducted similar to levels executed in 2021. I am thrilled to announce that as of March 19, the Refuge Visitor Center is once again open for business! And speaking of visitors, don’t forget the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival is scheduled in April.

Wishing you all a safe and eventful spring!

Jeff Mackay, Refuge Manager

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