Species Spotlight: Mountain Whitefish

By Rebecca Pickle/ Photo by Joseph Tomelleri

A fish that is a tubular, silvery, flash in the river “torpedo” is known as the mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni). The mountain whitefish calls Malheur National Wildlife Refuge home here in Harney County, Oregon. They are also found in many other states including Utah, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Most mountain whitefish on the refuge hangout in the waters of the Blitzen River where the snowmelt from the Steens Mountain Range keep the water cool and crystal clear.

Referred to some anglers as a garbage fish (they don’t actually taste bad and taste especially good smoked), it is only misunderstood as competing for food with its family of trout and salmon. Some suggest that the mountain whitefish actually have different eating habits and only compete when food is limited. They tend to eat larval stages of bottom-dwelling insects including mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, and midges.

Although the mountain whitefish is not as well-known on the Malheur as the common carp or the redband trout, it is one of the few native fish in the Blitzen Valley. The mountain whitefish plays a key role in maintaining a healthy watershed. So next time you find yourself around the P-Ranch area be on the lookout for these fish.

Water Celebration

Written by Peter Pearsall/ Photos by Erika Fitzpatrick

On June 26 the Oregon Legislature passed a landmark $530 million “Water Package” that includes funding for drinking water, wastewater, and groundwater infrastructure projects across the state, including Harney County. On August 27, the Willamette Partnership and State Representative Mark Owens hosted an in-person “Water Celebration” in Harney County, taking guests on a tour to see groundwater management in action at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and on Rep. Owens’ farm. The event drew more than 50 people and served as an Eastern Oregon component of an earlier, virtual celebration hosted by the Willamette Partnership.

“This [Water Package] comes from the collective effort of legislators across the state to secure what some are saying is historic funding for water management, resources and infrastructure in Oregon,” Rep. Owens said. “Water isn’t a partisan issue, and a big reason why this effort succeeded is because it had bipartisan support.”

The August 27 tour visited Malheur Refuge Headquarters, where Project Leader Jeff Mackay spoke to the group about how groundwater is managed across the Refuge to support ecosystem function and wildlife needs. The group then reconvened at Rep. Owens’ farm in Crane, just north of the Refuge.

“In the Harney Basin there is a big emphasis on how we creatively and collaboratively manage our water, which is a dwindling resource that is currently overallocated,” Rep. Owens said. “The Water Package has several provisions that deal directly with some of those issues we face here; we’re looking forward to building relationships with some of the newer partners of this effort to conserve and manage water across the state.”

Celebratory Success at Barnes Springs

Photos by Stewardship Volunteers Jon Brown, Dale Derouin, and Cindy Zalunardo

To celebrate Public Lands Day, 14 stalwart volunteers met for a 3 day work party, which because they were so incredible, was finished in 2.  

The Barnes Spring Homestead area with its warm spring and old orchard is a prime birding location. Unfortunately, it was full of old barbed wire, some on leaning posts, some in coils and snarly piles, buried under grass or grown over with old growth sage and juniper. This debris has been creating serious problems for wildlife and human visitors but was no match for our crew! Without a whimper, this team filled a large flatbed trailer with barbed wire and old lumber left over from an attempt to roof a small sod building. In the evening, they enjoyed camping out under an almost full moon listening to the sounds of owls and coyotes.

On your next visit there, give a little shout-out to these wonderful volunteers, and remember, you could be one!

– Alice Elshoff, FOMR Board Member and Stewardship Projects Leader

Volunteers were enthusiastic about coming together at Barnes Springs Homestead but also to share with their friends and family. Long time Friends Member and Volunteer, Cindy Zalunardo, happens to know a descendent of the former residents who had this to share:

Have fun at my childhood homestead…..wish I could be there too.I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood on the ranch in Frenchglen…. My best memories are right thereon the place…raising animals, haying the fields, gathering cattle on the Steens….swimming in the warm springs.Life was good…..😊💖🐮🐴🐕🐱🌻

– Cyndie Barnes, daugher of Jiggs Barnes

Our team took great pride in the work they accomplished which included the installation of an Area Closed/No Swimming sign at the warm spring on site. Despite numerous websites and hot/warm spring regional guide books that may say otherwise, swimming has never been a permitted activity on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but it has never been offically posted at this site. Now that this sign is installed and some natural barriers have been arranged we hope to perserve this natural wonder for generations of wildlife who may depend on it and people who wish to view it.

This was our first time working on the refuge in many years, and it felt like a homecoming.  We even saw a sign describing some of our previous work trying to revegetate the Blitzen.  The team assembled was a pleasure to work with, with everyone playing the role of worker and leader as we worked through our project. We were especially fortunate to have Alice Ellshoff as our group leader, with her long history and depth of knowledge about the refuge.  We’ll be happy to return another time for another worthwhile project.

– Dale and Lois Deruoin

If you are interested in participating in a conservation work party in 2022, please follow us on FB @MalheurFriends or check back monthly in the Malheur Musings eNewsletter!

If you are looking for something a little sooner, our partners the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Natural Resources department and Portland Audubon are hosting TWO restoration work parties on Burns Paiute Tribal Land THIS MONTH! See the October issue of Malheur Musings or Email Twicks@audubonportland.org for more information.

Malheur & Me: Seeking Refuge

Written by Dan Piquette/ Photos by Dan Piquette

I‘ve been to the Malheur Refuge four times now, three in this last calendar year. I’m smitten. On my most recent visit in late July, I was returning to my Monmouth, Oregon home from Colorado where I sat with my mother, Yvonne, as she passed away. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor her life than by enjoying my own at the refuge.

Due to a dry year and being late in the season, I was advised by fellow birders that there “might not be much to see.” What a sad thought. While I appreciate the abundance of an early season and a wet year, the resident species and the vast landscape alone are worth the visit. Besides, it’s not just about the wildlife and the land. 

Under the shade of a Cottonwood at the Historic P Ranch, I spent some dedicated time in reflection, thinking about life and death and what’s important. During migration, the Malheur provides birds a respite from the hardships of life on the move. The refuge offers protected space for rest and nourishment required to regain strength for the journey. Without this sanctuary, they will perish. I came to realize that our winged friends are not the only ones who require refuge.

Having spent fourteen hours driving, I needed time for rest and to take on nourishment essential for my own journey home. Nourishment goes beyond the food we eat. While rest and food are important, it’s also vital to take pleasure in the simple things—a blade of grass, a leaf, a warbler melody, a soaring falcon. We can’t flourish if all we do is keep busy, push ourselves, and strive to achieve. We need a break from the deleterious stressors of modern life. More often than not, we need a break from ourselves.  

As I savored seeing Western Kingbirds for the first time ever at the Pete French Round Barn; as Lark Sparrows gripped barbed wires; as Bobolinks in the “Alley” made themselves visible (another lifer); as resident Sandhill Cranes foraged for food in the not so wetlands; as a Willow Flycatcher perched on a swaying branch; as the toasty July air brushed across my face; as I listened to Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, American Robins, Mourning Doves, and Eastern Kingbirds; as American Coots and Cinnamon Teals shuffled through the shallow waters; as swallows swooped; as Black-billed Magpies taunted and evaded my camera’s lens; as tall grasses danced in the dry, warm wind; as seven White-faced Ibis flew overhead and eventually vanished into a sea of cattails; as a Northern Harrier flew feet above the ground; as critters observed me with an attentive discernment, one thing became very clear: the cacophony of thoughts that usually hijack my life, was silent.

Imagine if we could bring this same level of undistracted attention to all our interactions.

Not only can the Malheur help to ease our busy mind, but the refuge is also healing owing to its diversity. Research has shown time and again that people are happiest when they live amongst a variety of species. Though we may be able to stay alive, we can’t thrive in uniformity.

I founded the Mindful Birder Photography project with the hopes that my pictures will inspire people to get outside and take refuge in the beauty that surrounds us. I’m confident that as we become more aware of the positive effects diversity and open space have upon us, we will put more effort into protecting and expanding these life-preserving refuges. On my Mindful Birder website, I created a “Malheur and Me” gallery featuring pictures taken in or immediately around the Malheur to honor this precious space. Enjoy.

Thank You, Friends of the Malheur, for recognizing and protecting our shared environment.

With Bows of Appreciation,
Dan Piquette

NOTE: Dan’s Minful Birder Photography Project can also be found and followed on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/MindfulBirder
Thank you, Dan, for sharing your insights and connection to Malheur NWR with the world through this wonderful article and your Mindful Birder Project.

Species Spotlight: Western Ridge Mussels

Written by Alexa Martinez/ Photo by pnwmussels.org

Western ridged mussels (Gonidea angulate) are one of three native freshwater mussels that can be found in the Blitzen waters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Not only are they one of the few native mussels found on the refuge, but Malheur NWR holds one of the oldest western ridge mussel colonies!

These mussels may not be flashy to look at or are cute and cuddly like a teady bear but are super cool in their own special way. In general, freshwater mussels are mollusks that produce a bivalved shell. The two valves are mirror images of each other and are connected by an elastic-like ligament along the dorsal hinge (mulluskconservation.org). A specific feature on western ridged mussels are their very distinctive ridge on its shell which gives it it’s name. They also have very strong age lines on the outer portion of their shell. Very much like aging tree rings, you can age a mussel by counting the rings on the outer shell.

Like all mussels, western ridge mussels are extremely important to the environment and the ecosystem. They are long lived species and are sensitive to environmental change which makes them great indicators for long-term degradation, or recovery, of aquatic ecosystems (molluskconservation.org). Mussels contribute to clean water, health fisheries, aquatic food webs and biodiversity, and functioning ecosystems. They are definitely a super species to help enhance riverbed habitat.

As cool as these mussels are, they are also going through a rough patch in their time. Historically this species would range from California all the way to British Columbia, Canada, as well as portions of Idaho. Research indicates that the species has experienced a significant reduction in range from the historic distribution (43%; Blevins et al. 2017a), with the southern extent of the species’ range in California having contracted northward approximately 475 miles as compared to the historic range. Live western ridged mussels were not detected at 46% of the 87 sites where it historically occurred and that have been recently revisited (xerces.org).

We are very lucky to have this species still existing in our rivers at Malheur NWR and we hope we can help and maintain our populations for future generations to enjoy!