Back to the Roots

Written by Beth Boos, LSU Graduate Student/ Photos by Beth Boos

Hello again, everyone! For the last eight months I have been studying emergent vegetation on Malheur Lake, and it has been an exciting and challenging road. It’s hard to believe how fast time has flown since I started my position back in January with LSU and the USGS Fish & Wildlife Cooperative Unit. We are only in year one of a two-year study, and it has been a constantly evolving journey to try and work towards restoring emergent vegetation on the lake.

I have been working with the refuge to research potential limitations to vegetation establishment and restoration options for emergent vegetation. We initially took an interest in seed bank viability and composition throughout the lake. A greenhouse experiment was set up to allow germination of soil samples from the lake. We also wanted to test the use of exclosures (made of hog wire & hardware cloth) to reduce potential herbivory and wind-wave action. Sheet panels were used to block predominant wind at some of the sites.

We had some exciting preliminary results in the greenhouse portion of the study, where we brought back over 50 soil samples. There was an average of over 7 germinants per sample (bulrush & cattail), and 94% of samples produced perennial emergent vegetation. Some annual species were also seen, including goosefoot and false pimpernel. This is really promising in confirming that there is a viable seedbank at least on the periphery of the lake. Burns High School played an important role in allowing me to use their greenhouse for this portion of the experiment, and I am so grateful to them for their help and support.

The exclosures that we set up to test reductions in herbivory and wind-wave action had highly variable results. We are interested to see how another growing season will affect vegetation survival and expansion. The extreme drought in Harney County has influenced important environmental factors for germination and establishment, including soil moisture. We will continue to evaluate how these factors influence germination and establishment in this dynamic system.

Thanks to Friends of Malheur’s generosity, we had four trail cameras positioned out on the lake to capture both potential herbivory and water dynamics on the lake. Although a lot of pictures were windswept hardstem bulrush, we were able to get a better picture of the wildlife on the lake. Deer, coyotes, and several bird species were seen with the help of these cameras, and we even had a few deer jump into one of our exclosures– that’s at least a three foot jump! There was not an observed presence of waterfowl on our cameras, although we do know that there were geese on the lake at least in late August to September. However, these were not seen in the locations where we had cameras. The geese seemed to prefer to graze near the mouth of the Blitzen River at the edge of the water line.

The cameras also caught some cool water dynamics on the lake. We can see how quickly water can be pushed from a section of the lake from wind action. The pictures below are all from the same day as water is pushed to the north side of the lake, returns midday, and then retreats again. This can give us some problems if we leave the boats in the wrong place, but it really helps us visualize the level of change we can see on the lake even on a daily basis.

We are really excited for year two of the study. Soil moisture (including drought effects) likely played an important role in both the germination and failure of establishment of many young bulrush plants. Environmental conditions in a natural environment are never replicable, so next year we will have the opportunity to assess the lake under new conditions and stressors and broaden our knowledge on the system with the hopes of restoration for the future.

My Experience at Malheur NWR

By Rebecca Pickle, MNWR Restoration Technician

I moved to Harney County in the winter of 2019. It was not my first pick but considering my husband got a permanent job in Hines, I followed. My first job in Harney County was for the Agricultural Research Station working on seed coatings to prolong germination after the first frost that normally rolls through in the spring. While the research was interesting, my passion has never really been plants and I looked forward to seasonal work doing aquatics around the area. My breakthrough was a call from Dr. James Pearson about work on Malheur Lake and its tributaries as a seasonal technician.

            The work entailed a lot of scientific water quality testing that I thought was out of my league coming from a land management background. The majority of my previous work was on stream assessments. With this job and it’s supervisors, I was able to grow my understanding of how a shallow lake functions and acquire a base of how the tributaries contribute to the nutrient accumulation in the lake. One of the factors surrounding Malheur Lake degradation is Common Carp which I’ll admit I had no working background in when I first started this position. My position entailed working with all stages of the Common Carp life cycle, when and where they spawn, where the new young of the year reside, how far upstream the adult carp travel along the Donner und Blitzen, etc. I should have known I’d be doing a vast amount of work on the carp but failed to look into what my boss’s Ph.D thesis was. It was my mistake, his gain.

            I’ll admit carp are tough, resilient creatures that will make for many years of job security, but I also love the work of figuring out James’ model and how to remove a certain percentage of carp a year to lead to lake and river restoration. These job experiences and the scenery of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ultimately lead me to come back for a second season. Little did I know, James would have several projects lined up to keep me on my toes from March until November of 2021.

            My second season at Malheur was different since I was employed through High Desert Partnership. It was weird considering it was my first position in quite a few years that I was not a government employee. Other than that all was right with work on Malheur. We have three major projects that are ongoing on the lake. First thing I worked on was a mesocosm project that studied the different influences of lake turbidity and how to lower lake turbidity using aluminum sulfate. After that I helped with an emergent vegetation (EV) project that Beth Boos a LSU graduate student is working on in processing why bulrush and cattails are not encroaching on the lake. The last project was a carp mobile tracking study to exploit their aggregations for future carp removals. (Photos of each below)

I was around for every install which led to the joke that I was a hog panel expert considering both the mesocosms and the EV projects had modified versions of hog panels and there were several exclosures to be made. The other installation was the carp tracking stations that went up along the Donner und Blitzen. This took a few months to get everything situated for data collection which we started in April/May. We also couldn’t predict that 2021 would be a drought year which cut the first two projects short. The mesocosms dried up by the end of June. We could still collect EV data but most soil moisture was dry. The lake got to low levels that a handful of the tagged carp got trapped on the lake and as the lake shrank in size they died. A majority of the tagged carp seeked refugia along the Donner und Blitzen.

            As all of this data was being gathered, James moved on to fulfill other fisheries dreams. This was close to my original season end date but the refuge made plans to extend my season. Huge shoutout to the Friends of Malheur for extending my season to make sure all of the project’s initial years data collection finished smoothly. Without my extension, we wouldn’t have been able to collect data needed to solidify refuge needs for future restoration efforts on the emergent vegetation study and the carp telemetry on the Blitzen. I also believe there needed to be a face for the aquatics realm in meetings and on refuge that wouldn’t have been possible without my extension. My hope is that next year we can gather more data on these three projects without the hindrance of a drought to further our understanding of turbidity, EV, and carp.

Understanding the Underdogs

By Alexa Martinez, MNWR Wildlife Biologist

When visitors are asked ‘what is the first species that comes to mind when you think of a refuge system?’ it’s not a shocker to hear birds, fish, mammals and reptile species. But sometimes what is forgot are the species no one pays attention too or are aware of, such as insects, micro invertebrates, mussels, and certain plant species. It’s our job as refuge staff, especially in the biology department, to be aware and understand what is going on in the ecosystem, including those that don’t have the spotlight.

Even though these underdogs are not always highlighted, doesn’t mean they are forgotten. Recently at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, staff from Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Xerces Society connected together to help have a better understanding of a certain species…freshwater mussels. Particularly, Western Ridge mussels.

Malheur NWR is known to have all three native species of fresh water mussels: Western Ridge, Western Pearlshell, and floater spp. Mussel survey have been conducted in the past at Malheur NWR, but never consistently monitored. Our goal was to have an updated general understanding where mussel colonies were located, their conditions, numbers, and where different species were located. We predominantly tried to target Western Ridge since this species is being petitioned to become enlisted.

Snorkel and visual scoping surveys were conducted around 8-10 locations (mostly road crossings or dam sites) along the Blitzen River. The Blizen River was chosen since it had been surveyed in the early 2000’s (Al Smith), mid 2015 (Linda Beck and Al Smith) and again in 2018 (Emilie Blevins). Sections of the river are known to have the preferred habitat where mussels can be found as well as the adequate water flow. All three species (Western Ridged, Western Pearlshell and floater spp.) were observed throughout the surveys. We also found high densities of the western ridged mussel in many locations. Of the surveyed locations, five were identified to have high potential to be good long term monitoring site locations. This is super important for the refuge to know incase populations begin to deplete and staff can go back to these locations for future monitoring. Because, we found few historic records of floater shells being found in the lake, we decide to survey around the mouth of the Blitzen and a few potential lake site but did not locate any live mussels or shells.

Overall, we noticed most of our Western Ridge colonies were located within the Buena Vista Unit and near by the refuge headquarters area. While Western Pearlshell were found near the south end of the refuge in our P-Ranch Unit. Floaters were found sporadically throughout the Blitzen River but higher concentrations were noticed in the south end of the refuge. We hope with this information we can have an update our baseline data and increase our knowledge of how these colonies are doing in the future.

Malheur & Me: A Home Away From Home

Written by Glenda Sutherland/Photos by Don Sutherland

The full Harvest Moon rose bright orange over the southeastern Oregon desert just after the last pink glow of the setting sun disappeared. Don and I stood outside our little camper and watched the moon sail slowly higher into the black night sky, listening to the evening chorus of the coyotes float across the sagebrush. The pair of Great Horned Owls, who live in the trees surrounding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, called comfortably back and forth to each other like an old married couple discussing their day.

As the breeze turned chilly we followed their example, returning to our trailer for supper and sharing stories of the birds and people each of us had met during another day of volunteering with the Friends of Malheur. We have loved visiting Malheur NWR several times each year since we moved to Oregon fifteen years ago and Don has been a bird guide for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. So we were looking forward to working as volunteers for a whole month in June 2020. Unfortunately, we were disappointed when the COVID19 pandemic put a halt to those plans.

When Janelle Wicks, Director of the Friends of Malheur, contacted us this year about spending the month of September helping in the Crane’s Nest Gift Shop we eagerly accepted the opportunity. I have to admit that I did wonder about how well my aging brain would do with learning the new skills needed. As a retired medical professional, I had never worked in a retail setting. But I know that learning new things can help keep one’s brain young and after all, if I did mess up it wouldn’t kill anybody! I needn’t have worried. Janelle is a patient teacher and quickly had both of us feeling comfortable with operating the store on our own.

One of the perks of this job was getting to camp in the lovely little private volunteer’s RV park at the headquarters and meeting our neighbors there, all of them eager to do what they could to make Malheur NWR the awesome place that it is. The younger folk work on the more physically demanding outdoor projects, while there are plenty of less strenuous jobs for us seniors to do. I especially enjoyed chatting with people from all over the country who visited the Nature Store. We even had one couple from the Netherlands!

Don is an avid bird watcher and photographer, so he had a great time scouting for less common and rare birds, then helping visitors to find them.The month flew by faster than we expected and now we are home, looking ahead to next year. Will we do this again? You bet!

Please enjoy this gallery of Don’s images taken during September 2021 while he
and wife Glenda lived and volunteered at Malheur NWR.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Increases Public Access to Hunting

Written by Carey Goss, Malheur NWR Operations Specialist

Continuing the Department of the Interior’s efforts to increase recreational access on public lands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced new or expanded hunting and sport fishing opportunities for game species across 2.1 million acres at 90 National Wildlife Refuges and on the lands of one National Fish Hatchery.

“We are committed to ensuring Americans of all backgrounds have access to hunting and fishing and other recreational activities on our public lands,” said Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams. “Hunters and anglers are some of our most ardent conservationists and they play an important role in ensuring the future of diverse and healthy wildlife populations. Our lands have also provided a much-needed outlet to thousands during the pandemic and we hope these additional opportunities will provide a further connection with nature, recreation and enjoyment.”

Increasing access to public lands and waters is a central component of the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to conservation, including the efforts to conserve 30% of U.S lands and waters by 2030. This new rule opened or expanded more than 900 opportunities for hunting or sport fishing. The expansion is the largest in recent history.

The effort in this new rule revised refuge hunting and fishing regulations so that they more closely match state regulations where the refuge is located. The rule revisions also ensured whenever refuge regulations depart from state regulations, for safety or conservation compatibility reasons, these extra regulations are consistent across all refuges in the given state. The Service worked closely with the states in preparing the new rule.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge new and expanded hunting opportunities are:

Migratory and Upland Game Birds

The Refuge expanded hunting on 40,895 acres that are currently open to hunting by extending the hunting seasons for migratory and upland game birds on the Buena Vista and South Malheur Lake Units to align with State of Oregon seasons. The expanded season will start for migratory and upland game birds in the Buena Vista Unit. The South Malheur Lake Unit is closed this year to waterfowl hunting due to drought conditions to protect habitat for waterfowl and other waterbirds on the lake. Upland game bird hunting is not permitted in South Malheur Lake Unit.

For the upcoming 2021-2022 hunting season, huntable species on the Buena Vista Unit are coot, dark geese, dove, duck, light geese, partridge, pheasant, quail, and snipe. Huntable species on the North Malheur Lake Unit are partridge, pheasant, quail. State of Oregon seasons and limits apply. Use and possession of nontoxic shot is required.

Mule Deer

Starting in the 2022-2023 hunting season, the Refuge will open 36,244 acres in the Buena Vista Unit to mule deer hunting through a lottery application system. The number of permits issued annually will be determined in consultation with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, but will not exceed four tags. Applicants must possess a 169A Controlled 100 Series Buck Deer Tag for the Steens Mountain Wildlife Management Unit issued by the State of Oregon. Permit holders are restricted to the use of short-range weapons (archery, shotgun, and muzzle-loader). The use of rifles is prohibited. The season will start on the opening day of the 169A Controlled 100 Series Buck Deer Tag for the Steens Mountain Wildlife Management Unit and will close the Friday before the opening day of the State of Oregon statewide rooster pheasant hunt. This tag is not an addition to the 169A Controlled 100 Series Buck Deer Tag for the Steens Mountain Wildlife Management Unit. Hunters may only harvest one animal.

Hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities contributed more than $156 billion in economic activity in communities across the United States in 2016, according to the Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, published every five years. More than 101 million Americans — 40 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older — pursue wildlife-related recreation, including hunting and fishing.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge manages hunting programs to ensure sustainable wildlife populations while also offering other wildlife-dependent recreation on public lands. The Refuge asks all hunters to follow regulations, and to recreate safely and ethically.

Please contact the Refuge for more information about hunting opportunities at 541-493-2612