Gifts from Malheur

Submissions from James Pearsall, Teresa Wicks, and Dominic Bachman
Cover Photo by Teresa Wicks

James Pearson, Fisheries Biologist for Malheur NWR: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge gave me many gifts in 2020, but none compare to the gift of sharing the Refuge with my family. This summer my wife (Kelsey), our new baby girl, and I were able to live on the refuge during the field season. When the mosquitos were not too thick, we would go out in the evenings exploring. Experiencing the wildlife this summer from our front porch was an amazing experience, and sharing that experience with my family was a true gift!  


Teresa Wicks, Eastern Oregon Program Coordinator & Biologist for Portland Audubon: 2020 was a weird year for everyone. From physical distancing to not seeing our families, to canceled field seasons for many biologists, it felt like we were running up an escalator headed down. This made all of the moments working in the field, supporting conservation and science at Malheur feel even more precious and meaningful. Because of this, I’d say the gift that Malheur gave me is an endless cycle of dazzling sunrises, surprise Wilson’s phalarope and bobolink nest sightings, a glimpse at a recently hatched crane colt and a recently hatched American kestrel chick. In short, Malheur gifted me moments of awe/wonder, hope, and some quiet sanity in a year full of unpredictability and isolation from my family. 


Dominic Bachman, Aquatic Health Coordinator for High Desert Partnership: The lake and the refuge were good to us this year. We got a ton of field work and scientific data collected despite 2020 trying to derail us at every opportunity! This March was my first time on the lake during daylight and it was amazing, so much water and birds! We were able to remove 10K lbs of carp, get all the projects we started completed, and had a heck of a time doing it. The biggest gift the lake gave our crew this summer was focus…..we are working on improving the habitat the lake provides despite craziness going on in the rest of the world!


It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.

Rachel Carson, The Exceeding Beauty of the Earth

What gifts have you received from Nature in 2020?

Vast lake is very still. Large box made of poles and canvas is constructed in the middle of the lake. A biologist stands next to it in knee deep water.

Carp Suppression & Collaborative Lake Restoration

Written by James Pearson/Photo by James Pearson

The Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) is the eighth most prevalent nonnative invader in the world, often reaching high levels of abundance (>1000 kg/ha) due to their ability to tolerate a range of aquatic conditions. Once a population of Common carp (hereafter “carp”) becomes established, their mode of feeding can degrade aquatic ecosystems. For instance, carp use a benthic foraging technique that uproots aquatic vegetation while simultaneously increasing turbidity in the water column, which diminishes light penetration. In turn, this can further inhibit growth of aquatic vegetation. The bioturbation of the aquatic environment by carp has been hypothesized to be one of the major drivers that has led to the currently degraded (turbid) state in Malheur Lake.  

Control of carp can be extremely difficult, however, due to their high capacity for population growth and expansion, survival in habitat refugia, and ability to modify their environment to their own advantage. Carp populations exhibit compensatory density dependence, in which demographic rates (i.e. mortality and recruitment) shift in response to variations in the population’s overall density. Thus, even if carp are removed in large numbers, the species can rebound quickly.  

In the past, biologists with the MNWR have undertaken large-scale carp rotenone (pisicide) treatments, removing a total of 2.5 million carp. Effectiveness monitoring conducted in the years following the rotenone treatments determined that submergent vegetation and waterfowl production rebounded, however this apparent success was short lived, with the aquatic ecosystem of Malheur Lake quickly returning to the turbid state. While rotenone treatments have been successful at quickly reducing the carp population and promoting short term improvements in the aquatic health of Malheur Lake (e.g., increases in submergent vegetation and waterfowl production), rotenone treatments have failed to suppress carp over the long term, and recovery of carp is hypothesized to be the reason for the quick rebound in the turbid state. For this reason, researchers at MNWR have been working to better understand how to suppress the carp population long-term, such that the benefits of carp control can be maintained in perpetuity.  

Large die offs were the result of rotenone treatment for mass removal of common carp from the Blitzen Valley and Malheur Lake system. MNWR Archival Photograph

In an effort to better understand carp management, a carp population model (CarpMOD) was constructed for Malheur Lake, and simulations suggest that removal strategies that target multiple life stages (Adult and Juvenile) may be able to reduce the carp biomass below the desired threshold if the cumulative mortality is maintained at approximately 40%. Furthermore, the modeling also demonstrated that lake area fluctuations (function of annual snow pack) strongly controls the carp population dynamics due to increased density dependent natural mortality and decreased juvenile recruitment. Therefore, these model results suggest that future management actions can be more effective if plans are implemented to more strongly compound the mortality already imposed by the environment via lake fluctuations.  

This summer, the MNWR collaborated with our partners at the High Desert Partnership and the US Forest Service to conduct a large scale carp removal effort, targeting carp in the lower Blitzen River in September (hypothesized refugia habitat). After 7 days of collaborative removal efforts targeting the lower Blitzen River via boat electroshocking, we were able to remove roughly 9,004 lbs. (1,722 individuals) of carp. While the collaborative carp removal was very successful, we also operated the Sodhouse fish trap on the Blitzen River throughout the summer, and we were able to remove 1,225 lbs (545 individuals) of carp. Therefore, our overall carp removal total for the 2020 field season was 10,229 lbs. (2,267 individuals) of carp.  

While collectively the MNWR aquatic health program had a very successful 2020, we are only at the beginning of a long term journey to restore the currently degraded state of Malheur Lake. On the ground research and modeling efforts have helped us understand that the current turbid state of Malheur Lake is being maintained by strong positive reinforcing feedback loops (i.e. bioturbation via carp and wind sediment resuspension), which are pulling the lake towards the turbid state. In order to shift Malheur Lake back to the historically clear state, a transformative effort is necessary, incorporating a combination of carp and wind-wave suppression, and restoration of emergent/submergent vegetation. To better understand the major mechanisms driving and maintaining the current turbid state, the MNWR has initiated three major collaborative research projects (emergent vegetation expansion and transplantation, mesocosm water quality enhancement, and carp radio telemetry), over the next two field seasons (2021-2022). Finally, it is our hope that the outputs from these collaborative research projects will help us identify the combination of restoration actions necessary to not only flip Malheur Lake, but also maintain the clear state in perpetuity for the ecological benefit of fish and wildlife species that utilize the MWNR.  

Scharff’s Blue Spruce

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Isabelle Fleuraud, Jon Brown, and John Scharff

On the morning of October 8th, just one week after beginning their work on a full tree inventory and risk assessment, Jon Brown and Karen Tillou, discovered that the infamous John Scharff Blue Spruce at Refuge Headquarters was experiencing a trauma.

A crack had formed between codominant stems of the main trunk. Both stems were leaning outward and presenting imminent failure of at least one. Despite the unfortunate circumstances for this particular tree, it was the perfect opportunity for us to come together as a coalition and consider the options under the outline of our predetermined factors to consider:

  1. Risk to life and property – Moderately used public space where birders linger. Positioned directly adjacent to a historic Civilian Conservation Corps building which currently functions at the Refuge’s Administrative Offices.
  2. Ecological Value – This tree has a long record of being a nesting location for a variety of species, most notably great-horned owls. The dense branching provides great cover for many migratory songbird species.
  3. Historical Value – This blue spruce was planted in 1966 by then Refuge Manager John Scharff. His intentions were to grow it as an outdoor Christmas tree that could be strung with lights every year. It is a well-known and appreciated tree to many long-time visitors.

The challenge? Minimize the risk to life and property while maintaining as much of the tree’s integrity as possible to hold on to the ecological and historical value. With everyone present and able to discuss these factors and develop the appropriate response plan it became obvious that if a tree was going to fail – this was perfect tree to do so and at the perfect time!

The first thing that needed to happen was to stabilize the tree’s failing stems so that they would not fall before someone could be contracted to treat the tree. Jon installed a 5/8″ rope in the tree canopy to provide some temporary support and reduce the pressure on the damaged stems. In November, Jon will return with another arborist to remove the failing stem and provide care for the remaining stems. The hope is for the tree to remain largely intact with a new opening in the crown. This opening may in and of itself create additional habitat benefits for nesting birds such as our beloved great-horned owls.

Sodhouse Ranch. Historic building in the distance framed by very large old cottonwood trees. Old split raid fence in the foreground.

Tree Management Planning

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photo by Alan Nyiri

When you are duck banding through the night with 20 other people you hardly know but have a lot in common with, sleep-deprived conversation tend go here, there, and everywhere in a delirious attempt to stay awake until the sun comes up. These conversations often don’t go anywhere, lost to the sunrise and sleepy morning. In August 2019, Portland Audubon’s Teresa Wicks and volunteers Jon Brown and Karen Tillou did not know that their midnight musings would become the actuality that they are today.

Teresa had just completed a season of living at and working out of P Ranch to conduct the Refuge’s breeding bird surveys. Jon and Karen are long time Malheur admirers and visitors turned volunteers for both Portland Audubon and Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They are also arborists. The conversation went from queries about the P Ranch Orchard to concerns about the remaining lifespan of the cottonwood stands which support the heron rookery at Sodhouse Ranch. What about stand replacements at Headquarters? How are the trees managed on the Refuge? Is there a way to get involved and help?

It was obvious to everyone that this was more than casual banter but had true substance and consequence. In January 2020, these midnight musings took the form of a Tree Management Meeting between Refuge Staff, Friends of Malheur NWR Leadership and Project Committee, Portland Audubon, and of course Jon and Karen.

We all learned the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) mandates a Tree Management Plan, which was yet to be developed. The conversation started there. What would the plan look like? What trees/areas would be addressed? What factors would be considered when determining an action on any individual tree or stand? In the span of 4 hours we determined the areas of interest (from north to south):

  • Headquarters
  • Sodhouse Ranch
  • Buena Vista
  • Witzel Homestead
  • Benson Pond
  • P Ranch & Orchard
  • Barnes Springs

These areas needed to be inventoried and then assessed for risk to life and property in addition to ecological and historical values. The inventory should include age classes, stem diameters, crown height, etc. This inventory and risk assessment information should be documented in comprehensive maps with an accompanying report. All of this and more must be done before we can develop the Tree Management Plan from which we can begin to develop management actions.

We were all in agreement and with the Refuge’s full support, Jon and Karen went home to develop a proposal for conducting this inventory and assessment. Then… COVID. Jon and I spoke several times throughout the spring and were concerned that this project would have to be put off until 2021, thus further delaying the ability to develop a Tree Management Plan. Fortunately, Jon and Karen were able to quarantine and, under strict health and safety protocols, come to Malheur for the month of October to begin the work.

While they were here, I got to hear things from them like, ‘I’ve never spent 8 hrs at Benson Pond before. Today I met EVERY tree!’ or ‘There is something about visiting these trees at each location that makes me feel more intimately connected to the Refuge than I ever have.’ They spent the entire month conducting the inventory, gathering historical and biological information, and of course dealing with the unexpected.

(See Scharff’s Blue Spruce for that story)

There is much work to be done, across the Refuge, but we are off to a great start with some truly great people. In the weeks and months to come you can look forward to more articles, videos, and social media updates about John Scharff’s blue spruce, the Tree Management Plan, and eventually volunteer work parties to carry out some priority management actions in support of maintaining healthy tree stands at Malheur NWR.


Intern collecting vegetation samples in wide open field of sedges and grass well over 4 feet tall.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Written by Ryan Robles/ Photos by Ryan Robles & Brianna Goehring

“Oh, the places you’ll go,”(Dr. Suess, 1990). This quote often crosses my mind when I look back on my journey through the field of natural resources and conservation. Just last year I was the Refuge’s Vegetation Inventory and Monitoring Intern, where I got the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a myriad of projects.

These projects ranged from studying aquatic vegetation, to bird impoundment surveys. Overall, the experience was one I will never forget and it solidified my interest in pursuing a science related career involving conservation. Once I went back to school in the fall, my search for the next step arose. Later in the year I heard about the monitoring projects the High Desert Partnership (HDP) was going to be working on in the coming summer, some of these projects taking place on the Refuge. Having piqued my interest I quickly applied and soon got an interview. Thanks to my past experience working in the field and the courses I was taking at Burns High School, I was hired along with four other local graduates. But as this year’s challenges arose early in the spring I wasn’t sure if there would be a chance to return to working in the field.

Thankfully, HDP was able to continue working despite the issues at hand and pretty soon the field season began. After a short introduction to the job, we began our first major project in the Pueblo Mountains.

This remote mountain range in southern Oregon holds some extremely valuable sagebrush steppe habitat. The project revolved around a newly created firebreak along one of the roads that goes through this pristine area. Since the area is prone to wildfire, the firebreak serves as a way to
ensure habitat remains for the wildlife living in the area. Our job was to monitor what the vegetative response to the firebreak was. We did this by gathering data such as plant composition, shrub density, and various other procedures at ten predetermined plots over the course of two weeks.

After finishing this set of work, we quickly shifted gears into our next project that would take place near Warm Springs Reservoir. This project was led by the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station and we assisted them in the colossal task of collecting data. This project dealt with fuel composition and how susceptible each type of fuel class is to wildfire.

There were 16 different fuel classifications that were determined by a variety of factors revolving around the types of vegetation present such as grasses, forbs, shrubs, and in what quantity these were in. For every fuel class we needed to gather data on 10 predetermined plots. Each plot involved clipping, plant composition, and picture taking. However I was only able to work on this project for a couple of weeks because soon the crew split up to work on both this project as well as on the refuge.

While some of the crew remained working with the research station on fuel class and eventually joined the rest of us at the refuge. The remainder of the crew including myself became involved with working on the refuge vegetation monitoring project. The refuge has a vast array of wet meadows that serve as wonderful habitat for wildlife. In order to keep tabs on the health of these meadows, a series of exclosures have been put up to ensure some small pieces of the land remain untouched by any treatments that the area undergoes. Our monitoring protocol had us record data inside and outside of these exclosures so that we could compare the data and see if the treatments are doing their job.

The protocol involved having us complete tasks such as clipping, plant composition, and pictures. Each day brought on new challenges, one day we could walk from the road to the plot in the matter of a minute, while the next could have us traversing a quarter of a mile through bulrush and cattails that were ten feet tall.

Overall, returning to the refuge was a delightful experience, having a solid standing on the layout of the refuge in addition to having experience with the vegetation enabled me to have the opportunity to practice skills I had already learned, while also building on new ones. Skills such as plant identification, navigating to plots, and working independently will all come in handy in the future. While I had only briefly dealt with wet meadow vegetation last year, and focused more on aquatic vegetation, coming back and being able to apply what I already knew as well as learning about another aspect of natural resources, such as wet meadows and sagebrush steppe was a very fruitful experience. With this I know the work I have been able to take part in these past few years will help me achieve my goals of working in the field of science and conservation.

As I now go on into my freshman year at the University of Idaho to study wildlife biology, I know these experiences have influenced me heavily and will continue to benefit me for years to come.