In early September 2020, a series of wildfires ignited throughout Oregon and the Northwest. Many of these fires were ignited by powerlines, downed by a sustained high wind event. These winds, as winds often do, gave these fires a tremendous amount of power. Causing the destruction of many small, rural towns in Oregon, and some not-so-rural towns in Jackson and Clackamas Counties. These fires created controversy, some unfounded and driven by partisan winds, some important, but difficult debate around the idea of why we’re seeing increasingly large, hot fires burning in Oregon’s forests and grasslands.
The question of why is complex, and complexity does not always make a compelling answer. This complexity can be summarized with three main thoughts. First, fire-scar data from Oregon’s forests show that large, stand-replacing fires are part of our forest history. After these fires, habitat is created for many bird species, particularly cavity nesting birds, grasses grew in abundance, and many shrubs and trees that prefer sunlight to thrive (for example huckleberries) could grow.
Second, colonization of the west led to a history of fire suppression. Settlers saw Native use of fire as destructive. A waste of resources. Native Nations were prohibited from practicing their cultures and ceremonies until into the 1970s. For fire dependent cultures, such as the Karuk of northern CA and the Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley this included ceremonial burning in their forests and oak woodlands. The cessation of Native forest management led to increased tree density, encroachment of pines into oak woodlands and meadows/grasslands, and increased shrub density. Western management of forests further increased stand density, removed snags from forests, and in many cases increased the amount of woody debris in forests.
Third, climate change is creating decreased snowpack, prolonged drought, and a problematic mix of increased shrub growth, followed by increased shrub death. The increasing amount of fuel in Oregon’s ecosystems has continued, exponentially, for decades. Because wind tends to dry things out, the high winds, very likely pre-dried already parched fuels for fires, creating an unstoppably fast spread.
When we consider these three things: historic fire regime, a shift in forest management from Native ceremonial burning to western fire suppression, and the effects of climate change on fuel accumulation in Oregon’s landscapes, we have a perfect storm. Now more than ever, we need to turn to the peoples that managed our ecosystems since time immemorial. We need to listen to Native voices and include them in land management decisions. One excellent example of this is the US Forest Service and the Karuk Nation’s partnership. The work the Karuk have done in restoring their culture, fighting for the Klamath, and working to restore their forests is truly inspiring.
We have suppressed our way into a tinderbox and the best way forward, the way to avoid fires that sear forest soils sterile and decimate Oregon’s rural communities, is by reintroducing fire to our fire-dependent ecosystems. This will take time and planning, and likely the thinning of forests pre-burn. Above all, it will take the inclusion of the peoples and Nations whose lands we live on, who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial.
My first visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was in 1986. I went out early one morning to do some exploring on my own and I saw a kit fox, an animal I had never encountered before. It was then and there that I knew I was in a magical place. Thus began my love of and for the Refuge. Over the years, I have continued to visit the refuge at least twice a year. Moving to Central Oregon from the Willamette Valley four years ago has made the trip even easier. Malheur provides me with a sense of peace and wonder. It heightens my senses. I become more observant. I stop and listen more carefully. I watch for small movements. I rejoice in the different textures and colors around me. I gaze in amazement at the variations of light during one single day. I gaze at the magnificent clouds above the wide-open spaces. I have favorite places that I visit every time; they feel like old friends I am dropping in on to see how they are doing. Malheur has helped me become a better photographer. I am able to look at places from a different perspective. I notice small things as well as the larger landscape. From the smallest birds flitting about in the trees to the hawks gracefully soaring in the skies above, there is movement everywhere. I’m always delighted to watch a coyote jump to the top of hay bales to survey the hunting grounds. By being quiet and still, mule deer will stop and watch me with curiosity.
I am always respectful of all inhabitants of the refuge; I never want to frighten or startle an animal or bird. I tread lightly and quietly. In return, I have been witness to so many wonderful scenes. I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit their home.
This year COVID curtailed my travels. I stayed home from mid-February until the week after Labor Day when I ventured over to Malheur from Sisters. It was wonderful to be back in this beautiful place that brings me so much joy. I felt like I could breathe more easily. For the first time in a while, I felt relaxed. I am partial to visiting during the haying season so that I can watch Northern Harriers and coyotes hunting the fields. On every visit I see something new.
I have visited many wildlife refuges all over the United States over the years. While all of them have something interesting about them, Malheur is one of a handful of places that draws me back again and again.
I believe that it is imperative to support the places that we love. We have to work together to protect these special lands. We can never take places like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for granted. It is a privilege to wander this beautiful land that we must never take for granted.
Adapted from a USFWS interview with Alexa Martinex (Hispanic Americans: A History of Serving our Nation)
Name: Melinda Alexa Martínez
Where you work and what you do: Wildlife Biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, located in Princeton, OR.
Something you wish to share about your culture, upbringing, important traditions; etc. Growing up from a Mexican background I always enjoyed the holidays and special celebrations since it was a time for everyone to get together, dance, play games and have some amazing food! Honestly, something about food to me is a way to express the heart of one’s culture and tie back an amazing story behind each dish.
We always had cooked certain dishes for different times of the year, which each dish had a special memory. Tamales were made during Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Biscochos (Mexican wedding cookies) were made during wedding celebrations and quinceñeras. Having a rosca de reyes pastry during the posadas around Christmas time and hoping when you cut through the pasty you don’t find the plastic baby Jesus or choke on it when you are eating. Champurrado (thick hot chocolate) was a drink we had during the winter too keep us warm during pecan harvest season. Capirotada (a type of bread pudding) was made during the time of lent. We always had menudo every Sunday with my grandma after church or my Dad’s soccer games. On my Mom’s side, who grew up more from ranching and farming background, we would have matanzas, where a pig is kill and every part of the pig is used for different dishes and shared with friends and family. These are just a few of many examples of how food and traditions are tied back to my Mexican heritage.
No longer living near the borderland of southern New Mexico, El Paso, TX and Cuidad Juárez, Mexico I am not heavily exposed to the Mexican culture. Nevertheless, making these dishes always reminds me of my roots, where I come from and whom I am. It is also nice to share some of these with my staff in FWS and share with them a piece of my culture.
How you found your way to FWS: During the time as an undergraduate at New Mexico State University I was involve in an organization called Natural Resources Career Tracks program in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation. This program helped me get involved with many different agencies and provided me opportunities to build my career within natural resources. Through this program and my involvement with other organizations; such as, the NMSU Wildlife Society, American Fisheries Society, Range Society, Ecology Club and the Chicano programs, all these programs provided volunteer and connection opportunities with USFWS. From banding duck at Bosque del Apache NWR, recapturing Mexican grey wolves, or doing restoration work for Chiricahua leopard frog. I was very inspired by the work being done throughout the service. FWS has definitely been the agency I wanted to be a part of and I am very blessed to have the position I am currently in.
How you became interested in the work you do: Throughout my life, I have always had a connection with natural resources. I grew up in an agricultural community and I expose to the outdoors and the different types of wildlife. I use to love jumping in the back of my grandpa’s pick up and go ride through the agricultural fields. While he would checked the fields and the crops I use to go out and play in the ditch and the irrigation canals to see what I can find. From jackrabbits, rattle snakes, kit foxes, coyotes, roadrunners, lizards, tortoises, owls, bats and many more. It was always nice to walk outside my back yard and explore around the Chihuahuan dessert.
As a family we would always be traveling during the summer to visit other family members throughout the US and Mexico. Travelling help open my eyes at a young age to see what other types of environments were out in the world other than my homeland. When we were not planning large road trips, I was fortunate to have my family take me to areas such as White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Lincoln National Forest, and the Gila National Forest. I was so in awe with these places and the people who got to work there. I just knew this is what I needed to do!
Personal reflection about your job: (i.e. what’s most rewarding, challenging, exciting, etc) The most rewarding part of my job is to watch the people enjoy themselves at the refuge. With the tragic occurrence that happened at Malheur NWR it is amazing to see how much this refuge really means to the public and to see and hear about their appreciation for the work done by refuge staff is very rewarding. During school group visits, I love when children tell me they want to be a biologist like me when they grow up and help protect habitat and wildlife. It just warms my heart. I honestly could not ask for any other reward.
I also enjoy being a part of the big picture in the work of conservation. Being able to work alongside partners and agencies to achieve the same mission is amazing!
Most exciting thing? Oh, where to begin? Every day can be exciting! One day I am flying in a fix-winged aircraft-counting waterfowl, trapping carp, doing outreach, becoming a drone pilot, and the next thing I know I am working during the night chasing ducks with an airboat for duck banding. I do have my slow days every now and then, but I enjoy my job very much.
I have only been with the service for a little under four years and I already have so many amazing memories. I can only imagine what the future holds for me as I continue my career within FWS.
Anything else you want to add: either personal or professional such as what you like to do in your leisure time, your favorite species to work with, interesting work experience, where you would like your career to lead you to, etc. My career is still at its beginning, but I am definitely excited to see where I can grow and learn from all the different programs FWS has to offer and the places to explore. I have met so many different people within the service and they are all so special and play such a big role in the mission of the service. It is all so inspiring! I could not ask for a better agency to call home and my family.
You know, when my family came to the states from Mexico, they would work any job to help supply for their family. My parents have sacrificed and worked hard for my sisters and myself to make sure we have an education and get the opportunity to follow our dreams. I am the first from both sides of my family to graduate from college and land my dream job, and I could not have that opportunity without them. To that, I am forever grateful to parent because I would not be in the position I am today if it was not for them. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for me, and I hope I am making them proud.
I also want to thank all the mentors I have whom all have played an important role in my life and have assisted me when times are hard. I hope someday to help inspire the new generation of Latinos who are striving a career within natural resources, just as my mentors have for me.
What does Hispanic Heritage month mean to me? For me, Hispanic Heritage month is a time for all Hispanic people to be able to look back, recognize and see all the amazing work and influence their ancestors had in the United States. This month allows me to appreciate what my family has sacrificed and worked so hard for, which allowed me to live my American dream. It is a great reminder that I may have been born in this country, but I will never forget where I came from and how my culture has helped me become the person I am today. I am a U.S. citizen by paper, but I am a Mexican by blood. These two combinations is what makes me unique just like everyone else in this country.
I had volunteered at the Duck Hospital last year for a couple of days so I was eager to help out again. At first I helped with the many loads of laundry that are needed each day. Fran McDermott had been doing the laundry 7 days a week for the past few weeks so I took on two days and later Polly Strahan picked up another day to give her some much needed relief. It is an easy job but smelly and time consuming. It is a lot like washing dirty diapers when my kids were small. Each time I delivered laundry the cupboard was almost bare and many times I was greeted with “Laundry, we are so glad you are here!” With 50-100 birds coming in each day, they go through a lot of towels and sheets.
After some paperwork on COVID19 protocol, I started helping at the hospital. The day I started they had treated 633 birds. I helped release two white-fronted ibis and one black-necked stilt in the morning. In the afternoon I released more birds, mostly mallards, teals and gadwall. Some fly out of the boxes as soon as they are opened and others walk out timidly but soon swim off. There is always at least one that decides they would rather stay in the box where they feel safe. With a little coaxing they eventually walk out and investigate their surroundings. I have helped to release many birds but one was especially memorable. A black-necked stilt that was so happy to be in the water, he took a bath for a good ten minutes enjoying the coolness and freedom. This is what it is all about!
The day usually starts with cleaning the smaller intake pens inside the hospital. These hold on average four birds. All the mats are cleaned, new keel lifts and neck rolls added and some include food dishes. Keel lifts are rolled washcloths that are put under the bird’s breast bone to keep them upright and relieve stress from their keel. The neck rolls are larger rolled towels used for Stage 3 patients that are not able to hold their heads up or sometimes even move. Avian Botulism paralyzes the birds. Stage 2 birds are able to move their legs and head a bit but are still very sick. One section is called Tiny Town for the smaller birds that come in and need a little extra care.
The second day the birds are moved to larger pens and pools. There are shelters outside and inside for the ducks to recuperate in depending on what stage they are in. All are covered with tarps or sheets to keep them safe and from getting scared. Inside are water, food and ponds in the larger areas. They have duck weed, grains and meal worms to eat but don’t always take advantage of that as they are not feeling well and in a strange place. All of these get checked multiple times during the day and cleaned each time they are emptied.
There are always dishes to do, syringes and tubes and food dishes. The syringes are used to give antibiotics, nutrients and vitamins to the birds. The water we have to use comes from the Refuge and was a bit green but that is what the birds live in so with a little soap, we clean the items that had been used so far that day. There is also a large water tank that is used for water bowls and syringes.
Each afternoon the Refuge staff, along with Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association, deliver more birds to the hospital. Each bird goes through an intake. They are covered with a tea towel so they won’t be scared as the interns determine the stage of illness, band their legs and record them in the database. They are then given fluids and nutrients before being put into the pens according to stages and species. The smaller and weaker birds are put into an ICU area or incubators depending on their condition. These are handled by January Bill and Marie Travers, Co-Directors of Bird Ally X which manages the facility and operations.
On August 26th the number of birds treated was up to 1,895 so by the time you are reading this it will easily be over 2,000. This has been a hard year with 90 degree temperatures since mid-June keeping the water temperatures warm even at night. It is estimated that over 30,000 birds will die this year which some staff say has not happened in 20 years. Hopefully the temperatures will start to cool soon, especially at night, to stop the botulism from spreading. Warm days and nights, little to no water deliveries to the Refuge and large numbers of waterfowl crowded into small spaces coupled with the fact that most waterfowl are molting and cannot fly during that time, this year has been the perfect storm for Avian Botulism. This is not a new disease, it has been happening for over 100 years since the Refuge was established and records have been kept.
Bird Ally X will be here until the last bird is treated and released. This is their third year treating birds. In 2018 they treated 454 and in 2019 it was 233 birds so 2020 has been a hard job. They are there seven days a week for 10 – 12 hours a day until all the birds have been checked in and are settled for the night. It is amazing to see how the staff, interns and volunteers all do their jobs with care and efficiency. Of the birds that are treated, over 80% are released. In the past they just picked up the dead birds from the lake and disposed of them, none were treated so we are lucky to have such dedicated people like January and Marie to take this on.
Written by Brianna Goehring/Photos by Brianna Goehring
High Desert Partnership’s 2020 monitoring crew spent quality time on the Refuge this summer collecting vegetation trend monitoring data across many study sites. This work is a partnership between the Refuge, local ranchers, Oregon State University-Eastern Oregon Research Center, the Wetlands Conservancy, and others.
The crew of five recent Burns High-school graduates learned quickly that each day out could be an adventure. No one ever knew if the access to the day’s plot would be a casual stroll through knee-high sedges, or an expedition navigating through 10-ft tall cattails. Among other monitoring-related activities, the crew clipped meadow vegetation from hundreds of sample plots. These samples are are now being weighed and sorted to get estimates of the amount of vegetation that grew this year.
Stay tuned for a longer article about these efforts in the October issues of our Malheur Musings eNewsletter.