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.

Senescence

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The verdant meadows, marshes and upland areas of Malheur Refuge, so vibrant in spring and summer, change swiftly to a palette of umber, straw and gray-green in fall. This is the harbinger of winter: sun giving way to clouds, greens giving way to browns, and the nights waxing long, dark and cold. It is an inexorable shift; as the planet turns, so the leaves.

Our northerly latitude provides us with discrete transitions from season to season, where marked differences in day length and temperature dictate the cadence of life. The move from fall to winter represents the declension of daylight—a time when plants and animals must adapt to changes wrought by the sun’s ebbing rays. Nowhere is this change more apparent than in the foliage of our deciduous trees.

Like all green plants, trees are predominately autotrophic, meaning that they make, or “synthesize” food for themselves via photosynthesis. Inside the cells of every leaf are disk-shaped structures called chloroplasts, which contain the pigments necessary to turn solar energy into chemical energy. Photosynthesis—the process by which plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide to sugars within their chloroplasts—relies almost entirely on chlorophyll, the green, light-absorbing pigment that gives most leaves their color. During a tree’s growing season chlorophyll is the dominant pigment, working literally all day to capture sunlight while the getting’s good.

But chlorophyll is a frangible compound, inclined to close up shop and dissolve when there’s little light. After the autumnal equinox, the photoperiod—or length of day—shortens by almost two minutes per diem until December 22 or so, when night reigns for nearly 14 hours at its peak. More influential than extremes of temperature or precipitation, this decrease in daylight is the tree’s signal to power down its chloroplasts and hole up for winter. Cells begin producing sugars and amino acids in lieu of chlorophyll, to act as antifreeze agents. Nutrients are drawn from the leaves down into the branches and roots for storage. The tree is undergoing “plant senescence”, a gradual paring down of its metabolic processes in preparation for months of cold, dark dormancy.

First and foremost is the matter of the leaves. Deciduous trees carry leaves that are fair-weather fans: thinly clad, built for maximum light absorption and therefore extremely useful in sunny months. Come autumn, however, the leaves become a liability, siphoning precious fluids through their veins and finding less and less photosynthetic work to do. Frail and unarmored, they are at the mercy of the wind and cold. Chlorophyll breaks down completely by this point, exposing the gaudy carotenoid, anthocyanin, and xanthophyll pigments hidden beneath. (These compounds, responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and oranges so fancied in fall foliage, act as a sort of sub-dermal sunscreen for the leaf during periods of growth, protecting it from harmful solar rays.) Seeking to cut its losses, the tree forms a layer of cells at the petiole, or base, of each leaf, clogging its veins. Soft parenchymal cells adhere to the leaf side of each stem, while waxy, impermeable suberized cells stick to the tree side. This cellular cork, called the abscission layer, is built upon until the desiccated leaf hangs by a mere wisp of tissue, poised to tear free and drift down on the breeze.

Thus denuded, the tree bides its time through the too-short days and frigid nights, living sparingly on its sugar stores until spring. We marvel at the variegated exuberance of fall—the brilliant reds and lambent yellows of a globe-girdling conflagration—but it is simply a wardrobe change between seasons, as the raiment of the sun is cast off and the spartan coat of winter shrugged on in its stead.

Humongous Fungus of Southeast Oregon

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

What is the largest living organism on the planet? A number of candidates spring to mind, such as the 100-foot long, 190-ton blue whale, or the 350-foot tall coastal redwood tree, both giants in their own right. Surprisingly, another candidate is a honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) growing in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest! This superlative organism, known as the “Humongous Fungus”, covers an area of 2,385 acres or 3.7 square miles—roughly the size of Burns, Oregon!

Honey mushrooms parasitize conifer trees by tapping into their roots and siphoning off water and sugars, eventually killing their hosts. In fact, the Humongous Fungus of Oregon was discovered by scientists investigating the cause of a massive die-off of trees in the area.

The familiar stalk and cap of a mushroom is but a small visible part—the fruiting body or “sporocarp”—of a vast fungal network of connected cells known as mycelium. The Humongous Fungus is considered a single organism because all the cells in its 2,385-acre network share the same DNA and communicate with one another, sharing resources via the mycelium.

Fungi are consummate decomposers, decontextualizers, virtuosic maestros of soil remediation. They liaise with plants underground, symbiotically exchanging those fundamental currencies of life: water, carbohydrates, protection from attack. In some cases—such as with the honey mushroom—the symbiosis is parasitic rather than commensal or mutualistic.

Akin to a universal solvent, fungi liberate nutrients that others find impossible to extract and digest on their own. They sequester toxins in their flesh and synthesize potent chemical compounds de novo in a sort of mycological alchemy. Fungi achieve these inimitable feats, among much, much else—and they get it done with absolutely zero fanfare. Theirs is a dirty job, lowly and thankless, but it is an indispensable service nonetheless.