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.

My First Visit to Malheur NWR

Written by Chris A Rusnak/ Photos by Chris A Rusnak

As a self taught photographer I’ve always been addicted to landscape photography. Wanting to do more wildlife, I recently purchased my first telephoto lens. After a year of occasionally shooting wildlife with my telephoto lens I began to notice the intimate world of our feathered friends. This was a game changer to me. So began my affection and addiction to the world of birds.

My brother Richard was thrilled because he’s been trying to get me into birding for many years and for the 100th time he invited me to join him at MNWR. I had the pleasure of experiencing this wonderful park with my brother Richard who I consider an amateur ornithologist and as my personal bird spotter. Richard has been studying birds for nearly 40 years.

Fast forward 2 years from the time I got my telephoto lens to the day my brother invited me to join him at MNWR for the May migration. I didn’t know what to expect until I started to do my research and was amazed to learn that MNWR was a stopover like an international airport for migrating birds to rest, fuelup and carry on to their next destination. This would be an amazing opportunity to capture some great photos and add to my (pretty small) bird list I started less than a year ago.

I can’t identify any specific moments during my visit at MNWR that jump out at me because everyday was a wonderful experience. Meeting so many other birders in one place was a great experience because everyone was willing to share their knowledge. What an amazing time to spend with my brother and family exploring the outdoors and learning all about birds, which are some of earth’s most precious creatures.

From small birds to large birds, fast birds to slow birds and colorful birds to mundane birds I couldn’t get enough birding while exploring all corners of MNWR. After 5 days of non-stop bird counting, bird watching, recording, walking, photographing and enjoying the scenery Richard and I totaled 116 different species and 76 of those birds were “lifers” for me. What an amazing first-time visit as a “fledgling” to my new found passion. You can certainly count on me returning to MNWR again. 

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Malheur Beyond Spring; A volunteer’s perspective

By Debby DeCarlo/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Volunteering at the Refuge is always a treat. I see plenty during the last two weeks of May and first week of June. But after that, the migratory visitors, both avian and human, diminish. I convince new visitors there is still plenty to see. And with nothing else to compare their experience to,  first-timers are already impressed. “There are so many Yellow-headed Blackbirds,” they exclaim. One person noted she’d seen the Great-horned Owl. Another asked,  “Are those American White Pelicans out there?” They are indeed, I tell her. 

I start to notice the pairs of birds coming to the bird bath we set up thanks to the generosity of Alan Contreras, President of the Friends board. The Bullock’s Oriole pair make frequent visits to the bird bath as well as the humming bird feeders. Yellow Warblers, at least 2 pairs, dart in as well. At least one nest is close enough to see through my binoculars. They’re followed by a pair of Flickers. The mosquitoes I complain about are providing food to nesting birds, as well as to bats. The California Quail family makes a swing by the Nature Center & Store at least once a day. Their young, so tiny at first, are almost full-grown. There are fewer young than there were to begin with, but I’m gratified so many survived. I am able to observe the Ferruginous Hawk nest on Highway 205 as the young progressed from being white, fluffy youngsters to being fully fledged adult-sized birds. 

The vast number of Sandhill Cranes move on by mid-May, but a many nest here. I am lucky enough to see a young Crane, called a colt, with its parents. And the Bobolinks are busy with young just north of the P Ranch and near the school in Diamond.

There are other differences. Normally, I see jackrabbits. This year, it’s mostly cottontails. This quiet time, with fewer visitors and birds, frees me up to fold t-shirts we’d run out of during the busy weeks when I’d first arrived. Three boxes arrived today. Still, there’s time to check out Marshall Pond, half-dried up, but with enough water to attract three Great Egrets and one Snowy Egret, the one with the golden slippers. There’s a chorus line of Long-billed Dowitchers, with two neat rows of Forster’s Terns in front of them.

Now when new visitors arrive, I can tell them with conviction there is still plenty to see.