Farewell to James Pearson, MNWR Fish Biologist

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of James Pearson

For the past six years James Pearson has been working to restore the lakes at Malheur Refuge, first as a graduate student, then as a Ph.D. candidate, and finally as the Fish Biologist for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Pearson will be leaving the Refuge to step into a new role as Fish Biologist with the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Lodi, California. 

“While I am excited to start the next part of my life, I am saddened because I will miss all my terrific coworkers, collaborators, and partners,” said Pearson. “Malheur Lake has been a significant part of my life over the last six years, and I will cherish all the fond memories that I have from our research together.”

Pearson helped to develop several habitat restoration models for Malheur, Harney and Mud Lakes, which together comprise one of the largest wetland systems in the Western U.S. One model looked at how non-native common carp impact ecosystem function in the lake. Another looked at how emergent and submergent vegetation help to reduce turbidity in the lakes and improve habitat for native species.

“My goal as the Fish Biologist at Malheur Refuge was to set up this lake restoration project for success in the future,” said Pearson. “And thanks to all of our partners and collaborators, I think that the Refuge has the building blocks in place to make meaningful progress in restoring these lakes.”

Pearson hails from California and said that this new position brings him “full-circle to what got me interested in fish biology in the first place: restoring habitat for Pacific salmon.”

All of us at Malheur Refuge thank Pearson for his enduring contributions to the lake restoration project. We will miss Pearson and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors!

YoYo Pond Prescribed Burn

Written by Ryan Curtis, Malheur NWR Fuels Technician/Photo by Kay Steele

In March 2021, Malheur Refuge staff conducted a prescribed burn at the Refuge’s 746-acre YoYo Pond Unit. The intent was to reduce decadent areas of vegetation that were not treated mechanically by cooperators in the fall. According to local knowledge this area has not been burned in at least 23 years.

The objective of these burns is to rejuvenate new growth and remove decadent overgrown areas, removing dead or dying vegetation. Implementation of prescribed fire takes a lot of coordination and prep work: Refuge staff spend fall and winter months mowing and cleaning containment lines to keep the fire within pre-determined boundaries.

Coordination with all Refuge staff, from biologists to substation managers, is essential for meeting these objectives. Weather parameters are also set within the burn plan to insure objectives are met and the fire can be implemented safely; these parameters are set to maintain desired flame length and fire intensity.

Some key objectives:

  • Remove at least 30% of dense vegetation along waterways and in lowlands.
  • Remove vegetation and release tied up nutrients, provide underwater waterfowl food (both plants and invertebrates).
  • Provide safe brood rearing habitat
  • Provide better access to water control structures that have become overgrown

During ignition and while smoke is present, there is signage for the public. The burn took place over a total of 2 days. The burn location is South of P-Lane and north of West canal where you will notice an early season burn scar and new growth through the summer months.

Lead Poisoning in Wildlife

Lead has the dubious distinction of being among the most useful—and most toxic—heavy metals found in our environment. A soft, ductile, corrosion-resistant metal, lead has been used by humans in myriad ways for thousands of years. From early on, humans understood the inimical effects of lead exposure. Many countries have long-standing laws limiting its use. Yet lead still factors heavily in certain applications, particularly in the manufacture of ammunition and fishing weights. These two sources account for a significant portion of wildlife-related lead poisonings in the United States.

Wildlife can be exposed to lead when lead-based ammunition and sinkers are left in the environment by hunters and anglers. Sometimes the exposure is direct: Sinkers are sometimes mistaken for food items and swallowed by diving birds; lead-based shot can find its way into the crops of ground-foraging birds. In other instances, the exposure is indirect, as with rifle hunting using lead-based bullets. The soft lead bullet shatters into tiny pieces upon impacting the target animal; these fragments embed themselves in the animals’ organs, which are often discarded as “gut piles” in the field by hunters. Scavengers are later poisoned as they feed on the gut piles. This problem is compounded when hunters or farmers shoot nuisance animals such as ground squirrels or gophers with lead ammunition and leave the entire carcasses in the field, dispersing even more lead fragments into the environment.

There is almost no bodily function of the vertebrate animal that isn’t adversely affected by lead. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, sometimes resulting in death. For vertebrates, lead is most acutely toxic when inadvertently consumed; stomach acids dissolve the lead, allowing it to enter the bloodstream and affect organs.

A fragment of lead no bigger than a grain of rice is enough to kill an eagle. The bird pictured above is a dead sub-adult golden eagle discovered in Harney County by FOMR Board member Rick Vetter. The eagle, found in an alfalfa field where nuisance ground squirrels are often targeted by farmers, was very thin; extreme lethargy in lead-poisoned animals can negatively impact their ability to find food. Vetter suspects the eagle died from lead poisoning but hasn’t confirmed it.

It’s unknown how many raptors and other wildlife fall victim to these lead-infused ground squirrel carcasses in Harney County, but this eagle is surely not alone. Other species known to scavenge ground squirrel carcasses in Harney County include bald eagles, Swainson’s hawks and ferruginous hawks. Lead’s long-term persistence in the environment means that exposure to lead-based ammunition and tackle will continue to be a conservation issue for many decades to come.

Restoring the Cellar at Sodhouse Ranch

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by USFWS

Located along the south shore of Malheur Lake on the Refuge, Sodhouse Ranch is the northern terminus of what had been one of the largest cattle ranches in the U.S. during the late 1800’s: the French-Glenn Livestock Company, owned by Dr. Hugh Glenn of California and managed by John William “Peter” French.

According to Refuge documents, French purchased the property from a rancher named A. H. Robie in 1877. French continued as part owner and primary manager of the ranch for the Company until his death in 1897. It continued to be owned and operated by various entities within the French-Glenn Livestock Company until it was sold to Henry L. Corbett and the Blitzen Valley Land Company in 1907. In 1916, the Blitzen Valley Land Corporation was reorganized as the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company when Louis Swift of the Swift Packing Company purchased 46% of the company’s stocks. The Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company later sold the Sodhouse Ranch to the federal government in 1935.

Sodhouse Ranch was listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1979. NRHP states that Sodhouse Ranch is “one of the finest examples of an Eastern Oregon Ranch remaining in the state.” The stone cellar (pictured) at the site was built in 1900. According to the NRHP, the cellar at Sodhouse Ranch is an excellent example of an early 1900s stone cellar and worthy of restoration.

Currently Malheur Refuge staff is in the early stages of restoring this historic stone cellar. The Refuge has selected a contractor “possessing exceptional skills and experience with early 20th century building techniques and materials as well as traditional construction, stone masonry techniques, and carpentry techniques” to lead the restoration, according to the project’s Scope of Work, provided by the Refuge.

Karla Mingus, USFWS Zone Archaeologist, expects restoration work to begin on the cellar’s SE and NE corners later this summer after the nesting birds have vacated the area.

Keep Your Feeders Clean!

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of Townsend’s warbler on suet feeder by Dan Streiffert

As the pandemic forces us to spend more time inside our homes, backyard birdwatching is becoming increasingly popular. By many measures, birdwatching itself hasn’t enjoyed this sort of widespread interest in decades. Backyard bird feeders are a source of joy to many of us, and they can provide essential calories to birds during times of need. But bird feeders can also be a source of disease if not properly maintained.

Feeding wild birds is not a black-and-white issue; as with most things, there are pros and cons to consider. One of the major cons is the potential for disease transmission. In the wild, birds rarely congregate closely around food sources as they do with feeders. This crowding puts birds in close proximity with one another. When birds inevitably excrete waste in or around bird feeders, bacteria such as Salmonella can spread between individuals.

Salmonellosis, a disease transmitted by bacteria in the genus Salmonella, often afflicts bird species that visit feeders, including finches, redpolls and siskins. Infected birds may appear weak or lethargic, with swollen eyes and fluffed-up feathers.

As a rule, feeders should be disinfected twice a month, even if no signs of disease are present. If birds suspected of carrying Salmonellosis are spotted near your feeders, take them down immediately. Wash the feeders and wait for a week or so before setting them back out. The birds will thank you for it!