Thriving Collaborative Efforts Support Conservation In the Harney Basin

Written by Chad Karges, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Project Leader/Photo by High Desert Partnership

While winter is bringing much needed moisture to Harney Basin, staff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, members of Friends of Malheur Refuge, and many other partners are busy preparing for spring and the much anticipated bird migration. Malheur Refuge and adjacent private lands play a critical role as a breeding and spring staging area for migratory birds at an intercontinental scale. Because of the importance of the natural resources on Refuge and private lands, it is equally important that all stakeholders find ways to complement each other’s efforts. During the last 15 years, the Refuge has engaged in a variety of different collaborative efforts including invasive carp management; enhancement of flood irrigation on private lands benefiting migratory birds; developing job readiness for kids K through 12; suppression, prevention, and restoration of mega-fires on Bureau of Land Management and private lands; enhancing entrepreneurial economic opportunities in the local community; forest treatments to create a healthy fire tolerant forest on U.S. Forest Service and private lands; addressing water quantity/quality issues throughout the Harney Basin; and last but not least, the development and implementation of the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation plan. The vast majority of these collaborative efforts are supported/managed by an organization called the High Desert Partnership which the Refuge is also engaged in.

These collaboratives are operating within a landscape of approximately 7 million acres and at the community scale. It is actually the efforts within the realm of community that have the greatest influence on practicality and durability of conservation efforts. Through the various collaboratives, community has been defined as any interested stakeholder no matter where you may live or what organization you are part of. When community is viewed this way, it allows people with a diversity of values and ideas to resolve complex problems. It also creates opportunities to link what are traditionally viewed as social or economic issues with the ecological systems both wildlife and people depend on. This approach of integrating social, economic, and ecological factors into outcomes helps to move problem-solving away from advocating for your values/ideas to seeking solutions in a more collaborative holistic approach.

Because of this collaborative approach, the Refuge and diverse stakeholders have had the opportunity to influence and interact with both traditional and nontraditional partners within a more comprehensive community. The diverse collaboratives are comprised of well over 200 participants, and growing. This diversity is reflected by engagement encompassing the Refuge Friends group, Portland Audubon, private ranchers, Burns Paiute Tribe, County Government, National Policy Consensus Center, The Wetlands Conservancy, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, local youth, Oregon Cattleman’s Association, Intermountain West Joint Venture, Natural Resource Conservation Service, local law enforcement, Ducks Unlimited, Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Ford Family Foundation, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Business Oregon, local school systems, U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Geological Services, Oregon State University, and many more.

This diversity has created a social environment unique in the rural West where occupations and government shutdowns are reduced to temporary pauses having no meaningful effect on long-term efforts. Through understanding, persistence, and development of trust, diversity becomes our strength in addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow within a landscape where we all play an important role.

Weed-Control Prioritization at Malheur Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by High Desert Partnership

After an initial setback due to the furlough, Refuge staff and partners were able to participate in our Weed Prioritization Workshop February 12-13. The workshop was held at the High Desert Partnership office and put on by Region 1’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) team. Jess Wenick, who became one of the regional I&M biologists after leaving Malheur as the habitat ecologist, came back to lead the workshop. In attendance from the Refuge were biology staff, maintenance, and our deputy project leader. Also in attendance were weed experts from Oregon Department of Agriculture, Harney County Cooperative Weed Management Area, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, local landowners, and owners of Ecosystems Management, Inc. (a private chemical sprayer who works on the Refuge).

The first day of the meeting we tasked the experts in the room to go over Malheur Refuge’s extensive weed list so we could discern 1) how far away from the Refuge the weed was known to exist and 2) how invasive it would be if it made to the Refuge. This information was plugged into a computational model that created a score based on whether or not we could prevent, eradicate, or suppress the weed. The model then ranked out where our highest priorities should lie with our treatments. I won’t give the entire list here but our top five priorities (for the weeds on Refuge only) came out as follows: Salt cedar, Perennial pepperweed, Russian olive, and then Mediterranean sage, Medusahead rye, and Russian knapweed tied for fourth on the list.

On the second day of the meeting, the expert panel departed and it was down to just Refuge staff and members of Ecosystems Management, Inc. Day one focused on what to prioritize and day two focused on where. We broke down the Refuge to the management units (there are twelve) and then broke that down to habitat type. We then looked at each habitat and graded the current condition, resistance to weeds, and proximity to other activities on the Refuge. This was all plugged into the model to produce scores that tell us what the model expects to be our highest priority areas. The top five areas the model said deserve our highest attention were as follows: P-Ranch wetland, Krumbo meadow, P-Ranch meadow, Double O wetland, and BV meadow.

At this time the model results are only in draft form. I look forward to receiving the full package from the I&M team once completed. The idea here is that we can take this information and ensure that we are allocating our resources in the most intelligent way possible. One thing to keep in mind though is even armed with this information, we are allowed to use our best judgement. For example, the highest priority weed is currently only found in an area that ranked 20th in the area model. Since that weed has a high chance for eradication, we will be working diligently to eradicate that particular species regardless of how low the area ranked. Overall the workshop was a huge success, it was great to catch up with Jess, and I look forward to putting this new information on the ground this spring.

The First Butterflies of Spring

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Spring is slow to arrive to Malheur Refuge. Frost clings to the ground well into April most years; the austere high-desert vegetation stubbornly refuses to show signs of life until even later. But the subtle lengthening of days doesn’t go wholly unheralded. Resident birds begin warming up their vocal repertoires, migratory ducks and geese arrive to still-frozen waterways, and hibernating squirrels and other mammals rouse from their dens, all anticipating the change in seasons.

With below-freezing temperatures occurring regularly at night, one doesn’t expect to see many poikilothermic, or “cold-blooded”, creatures out and about. But one resident poikilotherm that stirs to life on warmer days in early spring is, improbably, a butterfly: the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), a widespread species found across North America and Eurasia, is usually the first butterfly seen at Malheur Refuge each spring.

Seeing a butterfly on the wing when the landscape is still icy and winter-browned can be startling. Across their range, chocolate-brown mourning cloaks are often the first butterflies to emerge each year, fluttering across snow-drifted fields and through leafless forests at a time when very few invertebrates are active. Unlike most temperate insect species that overwinter as larvae or pupae and emerge as adults in spring, mourning cloaks emerge in summer and spend the bulk of their 10-month lives as adults during the coldest period of the year. So how do these delicate insects survive below-freezing temperatures at night? And what are they eating during the day, when flowers are but a distant memory of seasons past?

To address the first question, mourning cloaks engage in “cryo-preservation”—that is, they allow themselves to literally freeze solid. Like other freeze-tolerant organisms such as certain frogs, turtles and insects, mourning cloaks will concentrate the sugar alcohol glycerol in their hemolymph (analogous to blood in vertebrates) to serve as an antifreeze. The glycerol helps to slow down and isolate the formation of ice crystals in the butterfly’s hemolymph-filled body, preventing lethal damage to organs and tissue. This adaptation allows the butterfly to spend the colder months of winter nestled in leaf litter or tree cavities, as frozen as its surroundings and hidden from predators. With the arrival of longer days and warming sunlight, the butterfly thaws out each morning to begin its search for food and mates.

This brings up the second question: What do mourning cloaks eat when the ground is still frozen? While the majority of butterflies require flower nectar of some sort for food, mourning cloaks are adept at sipping tree sap, which also thaws during sunny winter days and provides a crucial source of sugar in a nectar-barren landscape. Trees damaged by winter weather can often be found oozing sap as the weather warms. In Harney County, juniper trees sporting “wells” drilled by red-naped sapsuckers are another reliable source of sap. Mourning cloaks may also find fermented fruit left over from the previous summer.

Finding fully fledged butterflies at winter’s end might seem like an anomaly to us homeotherms, but in the case of mourning cloaks, it’s simply an aspect of their unique life history.

Winter Swan Surveys at Malheur Refuge

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo by Peter Pearsall

During the months of January and February, trumpeter and tundra swans begin their migration north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few locations in Eastern Oregon that provides an area for migrating swans to rest; a small population of trumpeter swans remains here year-round. Once a week, a biologist will go out to areas where swans are known to be present, thanks to previous collected data. This survey gives us an idea of the number of swans utilizing the Refuge as a checkpoint during their migration. This includes areas located on the south end of the Refuge, such as Krumbo Reservoir, Benson Pond, Dredger Pond and Boca Lake.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts a winter swan survey once a year to count migration of wintering swans throughout the state of Oregon. This year’s survey was conducted in early February 2019. Over the month of February there has been a total of 1,037 swans seen on the Refuge. Three of those swans were seen with green collars and marked as Θ64, Θ76, and 2@1. All three swans are Malheur resident swans, so it’s great to see them return after their winter vacation. Θ64 is our resident female trumpeter swan at Benson Pond. She was born at Benson Pond in 2009, collared later that summer, and became the breeding female at Benson in 2014.

At Malheur Refuge all staff, volunteers, and visitors are encouraged to report sightings of both trumpeter and tundra swans on the Refuge. Please let us know if you see swans during your Refuge visit!

Scrub Jays and Range Expansion

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Kay Steele

We marvel at birds for a wide variety of reasons: colorful plumage, melodious songs, intriguing behavior, canny adaptations, and so on. But perhaps most salient among those reasons is birds’ ability to transport themselves across the landscape. Many birds awe us with their seasonal migrations, which may span continents and oceans and challenge our notions of what’s possible in terms of navigation, endurance and site fidelity. When we pay attention to where birds go and why they travel, we often learn things about the wider world. Birds are harbingers of change—in season, climate, habitat suitability—and we can track those changes through their peregrinations, near and far.

As natural landscapes give way to human development, many native bird species lose prime habitat or shift their ranges elsewhere (if they can). Some birds, however, seem able to take advantage of the changes and instead ­expand their normal range. Consider the relatively recent arrival of California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) in southeast Oregon. While common west of the Cascades in Oregon and Sierra Nevada in California, this crestless, gray-and-blue jay was formerly scarce east of the mountains. Prior to 1990, California scrub jays were recorded just a handful of times in southeast Oregon. Today they are increasingly numerous here and in other places once outside their historic range; records indicate that these jays have been colonizing areas north and east of their range for the past 40 years.

California scrub jays aren’t considered a migratory species. When local populations of these birds reach a carrying capacity of sorts, the jays will often disperse en masse, particularly in fall. It’s likely during these periods of dispersal that scrub jays have expanded their range in recent decades. Like other native bird species such as grackles, blackbirds, ravens and crows, California scrub jays have adapted to living alongside human development—taking advantage of feeders, dumpsters and other human-made food sources—and this probably aids in their range expansion. As dispersing birds radiate out to seek less-crowded digs, with a bit of luck they might happen upon an area of concentrated food sources, such as a town or outpost. (They may also deliberately seek such places out.) If the jays can successfully compete with local birds for food and avoid mortality by predators or inclement weather, they could establish a new population.

In Harney County, birders began reporting California scrub jays in the towns of Burns and Hines around 2001. That year, the Christmas Bird Count turned up exactly one jay. Since then, CBCs in Burns/Hines have noted an overall increase in jays, with 16 seen in 2016, 40 in 2017, and an all-time high of 54 in 2018. Many residents in Burns and Hines set out feed for wild birds; the scrub jays apparently find this to their liking and have settled in for the long haul.