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!

George M. Benson: Refuge Protector

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of George Benson courtesy of USFWS

Refuge Headquarters is often the first stop for visitors to Malheur Refuge, and for good reason: The Visitor Center and Nature Store are located here, and wildlife-watching opportunities abound on the surrounding property. Many Headquarters visitors also make their way to the small museum, which houses interpretive exhibits and nearly 200 mounted specimens of birds, mammals and other wildlife. Astute visitors will notice a plaque dedicating the museum to an influential figure in the Refuge’s history: George Benson.

George M. Benson served as a game warden under the Bureau of Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees management of National Wildlife Refuges, among much else) in Harney County, beginning in 1918. Preferring the title of “refuge protector,” Benson enforced hunting and trapping laws at what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

Benson also banded many waterfowl at Malheur Refuge, including swans, canvasbacks, redheads, mallards, and pintails. He often enlisted the help of local children for his banding projects; their collective efforts helped the Bureau of Biological Survey determine bird population trends on Malheur and Harney lakes. Benson’s love of birds eventually introduced him to taxidermy, and many of his well-preserved specimens are on display in the Refuge Headquarters.

In 1921 Benson discovered the remains of several bison along the eastern shore of Malheur Lake. Scientists across the country were intrigued by his find, and subsequent excavation at the site revealed an entire herd of bison that had become mired in mud, likely while attempting to drink from the receding lake.

With his wife, Ethel, Benson eventually moved into an old ranch house that once stood in a cottonwood grove south of the lakes. The small stone building that remains in the shade of these cottonwoods was first a well house in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was planting willows and excavating what would eventually become Benson Pond. The building then served as a hunter check station in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Benson Pond today, look for resident great horned owls beneath the giant willows along the dike. In spring and summer, the trees around the first bridge are a good spot to study up to six swallow species as they alternately perch and feed nearby. In summer, search the exposed branches for roosting common nighthawks, which perch parallel to the branches. The pond itself is a good place to see swans. During spring and fall migrations, tundra swans use the Refuge as a refueling stop, and resident trumpeter swans typically nest here, protected by the tall cattails and tules.

The George M. Benson Memorial Museum at Headquarters, dedicated in 1953 to Benson for his many years of service to the Refuge, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.

Plight of the Monarch

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

We Americans consider very few insect species “iconic”—that is, cherished, beloved, recognized by millions across the country. We much prefer to lavish attention on furrier, floofier, more familiar creatures. But if any insect were to merit such status, that insect would surely be the monarch butterfly.

Measuring up to four inches from wing to wing, ostentatiously flitting about on warm sunny days, the monarch (Danaus plexippus plexippus) begs to be noticed. Its striking coloration—an aposematic palette of orange, black and white—signals to potential predators that it is toxic, owing to chemical compounds acquired from its only host plant, milkweed.

Monarch butterflies depend on milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) for survival—their larvae develop by eating the leaves and flowers of these plants and nothing else. Most monarch populations are migratory; in North America, the species is divided into two major groups: Eastern monarchs, which migrate from wintering grounds in Mexico to breed in states east of the Rocky Mountains; and Western monarchs, which breed west of the Rockies and winter in coastal California.

But across the country, monarchs are struggling. While both North American populations have been declining for decades, the Western monarch is now on the verge of disappearing altogether. Only 2,000 monarchs were counted on their California wintering grounds in November 2020—just last year, 30,000 were tallied there. Decades ago, there were millions.

Western monarchs utilize milkweeds in desert habitats, including those at Malheur Refuge. In 2014 the Refuge was identified as a priority Western monarch breeding area by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Pacific Regional Office. Monarchs in the Harney Basin use showy milkweed (A. speciosa), a widespread and often abundant species, nectaring on its flowers and laying eggs on the plant itself. Surveys during that period turned up small numbers of monarchs using milkweed on the Refuge, but today there are likely even fewer to be found.

It is thought that habitat loss and heavy pesticide use are behind the widespread decline of monarchs, along with populations of many other native pollinators. Also implicated are the deleterious effects of climate change. Despite these dire circumstances, earlier this month the monarch butterfly was denied federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that came six years after USFWS was petitioned to list it. In the decision, USFWS acknowledged that the species warrants protection—but with conservation funding stretched thin, other, higher-priority species would take precedence.

Less than 1% of the entire Western population remains. If this iconic species can disappear from the American West in a matter of decades, what hope is there for the many other invertebrate species around that world that receive little to no conservation concern?

New Toilets at Malheur Refuge

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Ed Moulton, Refuge Maintenance Supervisor

The unsung heroes at Malheur Refuge are its maintenance staff. These hardworking Refuge employees ensure that roads are kept in good shape; signs, gates, kiosks and other structures are functioning properly; Refuge water levels are controlled to enhance habitat for wildlife—and much, much more. Another of these duties is the maintenance of public-use infrastructure such as toilets.

Thanks to maintenance staff, new vault toilets were recently installed at Malheur Refuge, replacing ones that were more than 20 years old. According to Ed Moulton, Maintenance Supervisor at Malheur Refuge, these new toilets are a prefabricated one piece concrete vault. The new toilets are more ADA friendly, have a larger tank capacity, and require much less annual maintenance.

The toilets cost just over $17,000 each, including delivery and installation. The contractor for this project used a four-person ground crew to excavate the pits and install the toilets. The contractor also brought in a crane and an operator to lift the buildings off the trailer and set them in the holes. The operator used a mini-excavator to excavate and grade the area. 

All four of the vault toilets outside of Refuge Headquarters were replaced: one at Buena Vista Overlook, two at Krumbo Reservoir and one at P-Ranch. The toilets are maintained/stocked twice a week, depending on visitation.