What’s the Deal with Biocrust?

Written by Linh Nguyen/ Photos by Teresa Wicks

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is known for its oases of wetlands, wet meadows, and homestead era stands of cottonwoods, elms, and other tall trees. One of the important, though often less focused-on habitats is the Sagebrush Steppe, covering 14,000 to 15,000 acres and shrubs are its main vegetative plants. It can be found around the fringe of the Blitzen Valley, at higher elevations, at several locations in the Double-O Unit, and along the south side of Harney Lake. This is the home for obligate shrub-steppe species like Greater sage-grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, and sage thrasher. This habitat also supports other animals like sagebrush lizards and mule deer. 

In arid landscapes like the uplands of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, perennial plants are interspaced with a biological soil crusts called biocrust. This refers to the community of lichens, mosses, cyanobacteria, and fungi that live on the soil surface, work together to increase soil stability, water holding capacity, nutrient availability, elemental cycling, and seedling establishment of grasses and shrubs (Coe et al.). Lea Condon, a PhD graduate from Oregon State University, conduct her thesis on the effect of biocrust on the spread of cheatgrass, and she concluded her dissertation saying that management of biocrust “not only increase site resistance to cheatgrass but it will add to the conservation of ecosystem functions related to nutrient cycling, hydrologic cycling and soil erosion.” 

In addition, restoring biocrust might help the restoration of native plants, and the maintenance of hydrologic and nutrient cycles. Condon confirms that perennial vegetation and lichens will help resist cheatgrass and moss will promote the growth of both lichens and perennial herbaceous vegetation. The moss component of biocrust improves many functions related to Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus cycling and storage in semiarid and arid environments like the Sagebrush Steppe (Delgado-Baquerizo et al.). Delgado-Baquerizo et al. also state that the maintenance of biocrusts is important in mitigating the negative effects of climate change on high deserts. Soil respiration is heavily temperature sensitive, and the biocrust community can drive the warming effect in drylands (García-Palacios et al.). However, with the increasing effects of climate change on precipitation patterns, mosses are especially affected and decline fast, which in turn reduce crust structure and function. This can have implications for hydrology, soil stability, and nutrient cycling in dryland systems (Coe et al.). 

In conclusion, the Sagebrush Steppe is now being endangered by non-native plants, which can affect the survival of the obligate shrub-steppe species. The growth of cheatgrass can be minimized by the management of the biocrust community, mostly lichens and mosses. The moss component of the biocrust can be successfully restored without irrigation, while the lichen component is more sensitive to disturbance (Condon). Biocrust, in addition to perennial plants, restoration and conservation, is an effective method to prevent the spread of cheatgrass and other non-native noxious plants throughout the Sagebrush Steppe.


  • Coe, Kirsten K. et al. “Precipitation-Driven Carbon Balance Controls Survivorship of Desert Biocrust Mosses”. Ecology, vol 93, no. 7, 2012, pp. 1626-1636.
  • Condon, Lea A. Biological Soil Crusts of the Great Basin: An Examination of Their Distribution, Recovery From Disturbance and Restoration. : Oregon State University.
  • Delgado-Baquerizo, Manuel et al. “Biocrust-Forming Mosses Mitigate the Negative Impacts of Increasing Aridity on Ecosystem Multifunctionality in Drylands”. New Phytologist, vol 209, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1540-1552.
  • García-Palacios, Pablo et al. “Pathways Regulating Decreased Soil Respiration with Warming in a Biocrust-Dominated Dryland”. Global Change Biology, vol 24, no. 10, 2018, pp. 4645-4656. 

Refuge Operations Update

Written by Jeff MackayPhotos by Alan Nyiri

Coronavirus, Covid-19, pandemic, CDC, at-risk, social distancing, quarantine…  These words and many others that we have likely never used in our daily communications and are now common currency. They shadow us as we navigate the path of our current reality.  

As a result of the Covid-19 virus current Refuge operations look much different in response to a paramount need to provide for the health and safety of Refuge employees and conservation partners as well as their families and other Harney County residents.  The Refuge remains open, however, as most of you know operations in the Refuge Visitor Center and the Cranes Nest Nature Center were suspended by mid-March.  

The next related action was an evaluation of Refuge programs to determine those that were mission critical and a determination of an appropriate level of staffing needed to accomplish the programs.  This action was necessary to further reduce risk of individual exposure to the virus and to prevent its potential transmission among staff and into the local communities.  Mission critical operations at this time include law enforcement, water infrastructure management, fire management, and administrative support functions.  Employees with primary duties under these programs are reporting to the Refuge on a staggered schedule designed to achieve social distancing while other Refuge employees are teleworking from home.

Employees on telework schedules are able to execute many of their duties assuring minimal disruption to Refuge operations with the exception of biological surveys.  Certain types of field work presents a challenge with regard to achieving risk reduction.  As we learn effective techniques for risk reduction, re-evaluation of other Refuge programs with regard to mission critical operations will be conducted to ensure essential Refuge operations are not omitted.

In other news, I am humbled to share with you that I have been selected to be the next Project Leader for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  I have been serving as the Acting Project Leader since Chad Karges retired in August 2019 and look forward to serving officially in this new role and continuing working alongside a truly dedicated team of Refuge employees and conservation partners.

All of us at the Refuge understand you have been impacted by the current situation but thank you sincerely for responsibly observing the Governor’s order to limit travel.  I do hope you are taking advantage of virtually visiting the Refuge and Harney County as an alternative way of staying connected to the places in the Harney Basin I know you love.  We look forward to seeing you again once the situation improves.

AIR Program Goes the Distance

Written by Carey GossPhotos by Carey Goss

The annual Art-in-Resident (AIR) Program for Harney County youth may have been cut short this year and the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival cancelled, but artwork of migratory birds will be posted to exhibit.

In March, some students throughout Harney County had the opportunity to learn about a variety of migratory birds and created unique pieces of art using clay, tissue paper, paint and colored pencils through the AIR Program.

The Friends of Malheur NWR are proud to sponsor the AIR Program which is a dynamic arts and science curriculum designed to teach youth about migratory birds, their habitat needs, and to learn a new creative art technique. Ultimately, the program encourages students in kindergarten through 8th grade to observe, understand, and share what they have learned about migratory bird conservation through art. 

Classrooms are visited by Refuge Wildlife Specialist, Carey Goss who teaches the students about migratory birds and their habitat needs and wildlife conservation. Students are given a variety of bird photographs that are representative of migratory bird species seen in Harney County. Local artist Marsallai Quick presented creative art techniques with local youth to build a lifelong appreciation for art. Quick walked students through a variety of art techniques so youth can capture and create individual art pieces of migratory birds.

“I really enjoyed going to the little outlying towns!” Quick said, “The kids were so fun and eager to learn about migratory birds along with the art projects. I love seeing how the kids made their own clay versions of birds, after we taught them some techniques.”

Normally, the AIR Program serves over 600 students in kindergarten through 8th grade. More than 30 students were reached this year and with full satisfaction. “Children never cease to amaze me with their eagerness and joy when learning something new,” Quick emphasizes.

Even though the artwork will not be displayed during the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, art will still be exhibited by posting artwork digitally on the Friends of Malheur Facebook and website gallery.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge would like to thank the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (FOMR) for sponsoring the AIR Program and the Harney County schools for participating in the program and encouraging students to learn more about migratory birds and their habitat needs, and to experience a new creative art technique.

Sod House Fire

Written by Debby DeCarlo
Photos by Sonya Spaziani, Debby DeCarlo and Jim Daniel

In late winter and early spring private land owners and public land managers in the Harney Basin use controlled burns for various reasons, including the removal of excess fuels, release nutrients to the soil, and stimulate plant growth. Generally, these burns are to remove dangerous fuels that could cause larger problems in the event of an unexpected fire, or to clear out irrigation ditches. Precautions are taken to anticipate and avoid red flag conditions (fire positive environmental conditions) such as low relative humidity or increasing winds. Sometimes conditions can take a turn and a controlled burn will move in unexpected ways. This is what happened on March 5 when a rancher and neighbor between Refuge Headquarters and Malheur Field Station set fire to his land on the south side of Sod House Lane. 

Fire Operations Manager Danny Yturriondobeitia got the call at 2:13 p.m. that the fire had jumped Sod House Lane and was spreading toward the north. “I called our dispatch center and they immediately called fire personnel from the Refuge, BLM and Forest Service from Immigrant Creek and Lakeview.” In all, about 25 or 30 fire personnel responded. As photos show, the fire came close to Marshall Pond as it moved north and east. The grasses are dry at this time of year, and while nowhere near as hot as a forest fire.Yturriondobeitia noted, it could do plenty of damage to archeological sites and neighboring ranches.

The fire didn’t have the heat of a crown fire found in forests with mature trees, but fire can remain in the peat of the marsh. In fact, hot spots like that continued to burn into the night. By morning, though, the fire was out, the crew members were given bagged breakfasts before heading back out to ‘mop up’ the site. A pump was placed near the road, pumping water from the Blitzen River into an area of peat where Yturriondobeitia and other personnel knew fire could start again. By the time they were finished, the Sod House Fire including backburn efforts covered just under 1k acres. 

Luckily, it was early enough in the season that Sandhill cranes and other birds were not yet nesting in that area. There were animals, though, happy to hightail it out of there. “As we were driving out,” said Yturriondobeitia, “rabbits, deer and a skunk raced behind the truck.” The rancher who started the controlled burn was able to get his livestock moved. New grass will grow on the burned land, and thanks to Yturriondobietia and his crew, damage was minimal.

In fact, this area west of Refuge Headquarters which covers the space between Malheur Lake, Sodhouse Lane and the Blitzen River was included in the Refuge’s long term Prescribed Burn Plan. While unexpected, we are grateful to the Burns Interagency Fire crew and their partners for their swift response and hard work. 

Pacific Flyway Wingbee

Written by Alexa Martinez/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Each year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conduct the Migratory Bird Parts Collection Survey, often referred to as the Wing Survey or Wingbee. This survey is used to obtain detailed information about the harvest of migratory game birds including species, age, and sex composition. The wingbee is part of the Parts Collection Survey where cooperators classify the bird parts (wings and tails) voluntarily submitted by hunters. The annual wingbee in each flyway is fully dependent on the cooperation of participants from government agencies, universities, and other organizations.

This year I had the opportunity to attend the Pacific Flyway Wingbee, conducted at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery southeast of Anderson, CA. I had no idea what I was expecting from this event. All I knew was I was going to be looking at wings for a whole week. The wingbee was more than just looking at wings. It was a great learning opportunity for biologists, technicians, law enforcement officers, and others to learn about different characteristic found on waterfowl species.

I felt confident going into the wingbee with the waterfowl skills I currently have, but the first day I was there, I definitely knew there was going to be some improvement. I have participated in duck banding at Bosque Del Apache NWR in NM, Summer Lake Wildlife Area, and Malheur NWR and I never really realized the finer details each waterfowl species may have. During duck banding you are constantly processing through ducks because more are always on their way. At the wingbee you do not have that sense of rush, you can take your time to really look at different parts of a ducks wing. Throughout the week, I witnessed my waterfowl identification improving each day. It was amazing to feel my self-confidence grow in a such an applicable skillset.

The event was so interesting to me. I was able to meet with different people throughout the whole Pacific Flyway, including areas in Alaska. The beauty about the wingbee was not only the educational side of it, but seeing everyone come together to help with this collection survey. Being able to spend time with some really amazing and passionate people reminded me of why I got into this field in the first place. I am not sure how to thank Migratory Birds and my supervisor for letting me part take in this incredible opportunity. I hope I have this opportunity opened to me again in the future!