Basin and Range Topography

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

“The mountains form a ribbon of familiar landscape separating two vast spaces, blue haze above, a mosaic of cracked mud below. The desert almost seems to mirror the sky in size. It complements it and completes it.” -Stephen Trimble, “The Sagebrush Ocean” (1989)

Southeast of the Refuge lies the pancake-flat expanse of the Alvord Desert, an 84-square-mile former lakebed along the eastern escarpment of Steens Mountain. In much of the Great Basin, blocks of the Earth’s crust that fractured along fault lines have gradually tilted under their own weight, creating sloped mountain ranges that generally trend north-to-south. Steens Mountain is a striking example of this fault-block phenomenon: 50 miles long from north to south, its gentle western slope rising to 9,734 feet and dropping abruptly into the basin of the Alvord, more than 5,000 feet below.

Basin and range topography—those hundreds of north-south-trailing mountain ranges separated by broad, flat basins—owes its almost orderly appearance to the tectonic peregrinations of the Pacific Plate. Extending from approximately San Francisco to Tokyo and from Anchorage almost to New Zealand, the Pacific Plate is on a leisurely course headed due northwest, three inches a year, and the North American continent seems reluctant to let it go. As the Pacific Plate shears up and away from the continent, enormous cracks called normal faults split western North America’s crust into roughly parallel blocks, which tilt as one crustal edge slips beneath the other. An upwelling of magma beneath the stretched-thin crust helped to spread these blocks apart, giving rise to the Great Basin’s mounded convexity, in which the highest elevations lie at the basin’s center.

The ascending edges of these crustal blocks, now thrust up from the plain, become subject to an eternity of weathering processes: wind, rain, snow and ice. All the eroded sediment flows down into the gaps between faults, creating wide basins adjoining ranges. In days of yore these basins were filled with water, but few such lakes remain. Most are now dry, barren, leveled by millennia of alluvial deposits. These basins are some of the flattest areas on earth.

Introducing Brett Dean, Refuge Law Enforcement

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of Sage Brown @SageBrown

Editor’s note: Please welcome Brett Dean, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s new Law Enforcement Officer! What follows is an interview with Brett that has been edited for clarity and length.

Peter Pearsall: Brett, tell us about where you’re from and how you came to Malheur Refuge.

Brett Dean: I was born in Georgia, raised in Florida. A couple of years after graduating high school, I hired on with the Florida Dept of Corrections; worked at Florida State prisons for six years.

From there I went on to become a military police officer with the Army Reserve for 12 years. Went to Irag in 2008, mobilized from 2008-2009. Afghanistan was 2014-15. Cuba was 2015-16.

I started out in law enforcement but what I really wanted was to be a game warden. Life kept taking me in different directions, though. Met my wife, had kids, all that stuff. I kept getting deployed. I applied for a position with the Department of Defense Marine Corps Police Department and worked there for about a year.

I eventually heard about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Refuge Law Enforcement from some federal officer friends of mine. I discovered the Conservation Law Enforcement Program with USFWS and enrolled in it. My wife and I talked about it—we hadn’t been to many places in the U.S. besides Florida and Georgia, so we rolled the dice when searching for an assignment and put down that we were willing to go anywhere in the US. When the assignment came, I was told I was going to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma but was reassigned to Malheur Refuge. So that’s how I ended up out here. We wanted to see something different, see places we’ve never been.

PP: Describe a typical day on the job for you.

BD: Myself and John Megan (the other Malheur Law Enforcement Officer) are involved in a lot of patrols. The two of us cover Malheur, Hart and Sheldon—about a million acres total. From my house to Sheldon is a couple-hour drive. We put about 30,000 miles a year on our trucks just trying to keep the Refuges covered.

With the hunt seasons we spend a lot of time gone; just about every weekend John and I are staying in the bunkhouse at Hart or Sheldon during the hunt season so we can keep the coverage going. It’s definitely a challenge—every Refuge is different, from Malheur to Hart to Sheldon. Right now, I’m very familiar with Malheur Refuge, getting a grasp of Hart Refuge, but still getting to know Sheldon at this point.

Plus I’ve been assisting during the holidays at Deer Flat in Boise. I’ve done two details there so far, for Memorial Day and July 4th.

PP: Tell us a bit of what you do outside of work. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

BD: So, I’m a country boy. I grew up in the woods, on a hay farm. I grew up riding horses. I like wakeboarding, hunting and fishing. I missed the deadline to get my tags this year, but hopefully next year I can get set up to do some hunting in Harney County. This is a different style of hunting than what I’m used to back home: you sit in a deer stand and you put out a corn pile and you rarely take a shot with a bow over 20 yards. Out here they shoot anywhere between 40-60-yards on a bow.

I spend lots of time with my wife and kids. My wife has been a strong supporter of my career and she’s helped me get here. She put up with all the deployments and being gone and raising the kids by herself when I was gone. And it all eventually got me here.

It’s been an eye-opening experience, especially coming from the South. We don’t have a whole lot of fields. I get out here and I’m like, “Where’s the trees?”

But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is my dream job. It’s an opportunity to live and work in a part of the country I’ve never been to. To be able to get into conservation law enforcement—I always wanted to be a game warden, like I said. I’d almost given up on that until I found out about USFWS.

Officer Brett Dean chatting with the Tribal Stewards about his job and the path he took to achieve his career goals.

Mudflats and Shorebirds

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

As summer reaches its peak in the Harney Basin, the enormous shallow expanses of Malheur, Harney and Mud lakes begin their annual contraction. By late July most of the snow on Steens Mountain and the southern Blue Mountains has melted, slowing the freshwater input to these terminal lakes. High temperatures and strong winds conspire to hasten evaporative losses from the surface; as the lakes shrink, hundreds of acres of mudflats are exposed. What looks like a barren expanse of goopy muck is in fact critical habitat for migrating shorebirds.

The saturated, fine-grained sediment of a mudflat is rich in tasty invertebrates: crustaceans, worms and mollusks by the acre. While most shorebird species probe the flats for these macroinvertebrates, it turns out that some—including dunlin and Western sandpiper—actually make their meals out of the mud itself. For them, it’s not what’s in the mud that matters most; it’s what’s on the mud.

On mudflats around the world, a veneer of single-celled algae (diatoms, to be more specific) and bacteria known as biofilm coats the surface of the mud. This photosynthesizing matrix of microbes, bound together by a mucous-like carbohydrate, provides the foundation of all life in the mudflat. The diatoms oxygenate the shallows and sequester carbohydrates and fatty acids. These energy-rich algae are then consumed by zooplankton and everything on up—including Western sandpipers and dunlin. The tongues of these shorebirds even sport keratinous bristles to help lap up the diatomaceous goo.

A study conducted in the Fraser River Delta of British Columbia found that biofilm comprises almost 60 percent of the diets of dunlin and Western sandpipers wintering there. But the Fraser River mudflats are no sure thing: Areas where biofilm is most concentrated are being considered as sites for new shipping terminals—a change that may pose serious risks to migrating shorebirds. This loss of intertidal mudflats to development or sea level rise is occurring across the globe; a study published in the journal Nature in early 2019 found that the extent of mudflats in some countries declined by as much as 16 percent from 1984 to 2016.

The loss of mudflats is but one of many challenges facing shorebirds today. Due to a range of factors, from habitat loss or degradation at wintering and breeding grounds, to delayed prey abundance as a result of climate change, shorebird populations across North America have declined by an average of 70% since 1973. Species that breed in the Arctic, such as the aforementioned sandpipers, are among the hardest hit.

Carp Derby 2019

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by FOMR

It was a cool clear Malheur morning as vehicles began to roll into the Refuge parking lot around 6:30 AM. Two and three at a time, the vehicles would pull in and unload a couple of adults, a handful of youth and a good bit of gear which sometimes included boxes of donuts and lots of coffee. It was finally the day of the Annual Carp Derby and everyone was excited for the possibility of landing the biggest catch of the day or at least enjoying the idea of it. 

Seventy-five people came out to participate this year, a marked increase from approximately 40 in 2018. Attendance broke down to Adults – 38, 14-17 yrs. – 8, 10-13 yrs. – 18 and 3-9 yrs. – 11. The Derby is set up with largest fish caught in each age group, and a Grand Prize for the largest (heaviest) catch of the day. Boomer’s Place Restaurant and Fly Shop in Hines, OR provided the generous prize, including nearly $300 in fly fishing gear. The age category prizes included a suite of fishing gear purchased at Sportsman’s Warehouse and Confluence Fly Shop in Bend, given at a discount for our event. REI in Bend along with Safeway in Burns, Subway in Burns and McDonald’s in Hines, donated free prizes for our anglers of all ages. 

The Friends of the Refuge has been heavily involved in this event every year for a over decade and is the principle organizer. We are grateful to have the support and engagement of Refuge staff along with Audubon Society of Portland whose Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, Teresa Wicks, managed the Educational Activities area. Staff and interns from the Bureau of Land Management, Burns Interagency Fire Prevention, National Wild Turkey Federation and the High Desert Partnership also contributed, directing activities or lending support wherever it was needed throughout the day. 

Activities included a kiddie pool model of Malheur Lake, water quality testing, scoping carp scales and otolith bones, making buttons and fish printing t-shirts! Smokey the Bear paid us a visit and even did some fishing of his own. We were also fortunate to borrow the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Angling Education Trailer. This allowed us to lend out rods and tackle to visitors who may not have had their own. There was so much to do that Refuge Wildlife Biologist running a drone demonstration was a bonus. With so much fun to be had, some of us even forgot about the fishing!

But how could we neglect that for the first time in the history of this event, every single participant walked away without catching a single fish! Prizes could not be distributed by pounds caught, so instead we drew age category raffles and a final Grand Prize raffle for all participants involved. It was shocking that with our highest attendance on record not a single fish was caught. Refuge Fisheries Biologist, James Pearson, explained that with the combination of high water in Malheur Lake and cooler water temperatures the carp are not moving from the Lake into the Blitzen River in the high numbers we have come to expect. James also described the Refuge’s efforts to remove carp biomass from the system which includes fish traps at critical tributaries and routine electrofishing. These efforts had had some positive impact on removing large carp, but he pointed out that this year’s young fish (currently 2-6 inches) will be big before we know it. This means that we can all expect there to be a lot of fish to catch at next year’s Carp Derby!

Activities included a kiddie pool model of Malheur Lake, water quality testing, scoping carp scales and otolith bones, making buttons and fish printing t-shirts! Smokey the Bear paid us a visit and even did some fishing of his own. We were also fortunate to borrow the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Angling Education Trailer. This allowed us to lend out rods and tackle to visitors who may not have had their own. There was so much to do that Refuge Wildlife Biologist running a drone demonstration was a bonus. With so much fun to be had, some of us even forgot about the fishing!

But how could we neglect that for the first time in the history of this event, every single participant walked away without catching a single fish! Prizes could not be distributed by pounds caught, so instead we drew age category raffles and a final Grand Prize raffle for all participants involved. It was shocking that with our highest attendance on record not a single fish was caught. Refuge Fisheries Biologist, James Pearson, explained that with the combination of high water in Malheur Lake and cooler water temperatures the carp are not moving from the Lake into the Blitzen River in the high numbers we have come to expect. James also described the Refuge’s efforts to remove carp biomass from the system which includes fish traps at critical tributaries and routine electrofishing. These efforts had had some positive impact on removing large carp, but he pointed out that this year’s young fish (currently 2-6 inches) will be big before we know it. This means that we can all expect there to be a lot of fish to catch at next year’s Carp Derby!

Brown-headed Cowbirds

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Something about this scene doesn’t quite match up. The fledgling bird, at left, is already larger than its “parent” the sparrow, and its bill shape and overall build are slightly different. That’s because the fledgling is a brown-headed cowbird, a relative of blackbirds and orioles that relies on other species to raise its young.

Native to much of North America, Brown-headed Cowbirds are adapted to life in open country: grasslands, prairies and agricultural areas. They typically associate with herds of herbivorous quadrupeds, following them through the seasons and eating the insects and seeds exposed by their foraging. Centuries ago, these quadrupeds would have likely been bison; today, cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic stock fill the niche.

Cowbirds take to this itinerant lifestyle so completely, they won’t let even reproduction keep them tied down to one spot. Instead of building a nest, female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species, a behavior known as brood parasitism. More than 220 bird species are known to be parasitized by cowbirds in this manner.

All of the incubation and chick-rearing is performed by the host parents. Some species are better than others at spotting the “dupes” in their nest and ejecting them; others suffer significant chick mortality as the aggressive cowbird chick—often growing much larger than the host chicks and even the host parents—crowds the nest and receives the lion’s share of food. Song sparrows, as it turns out, are particularly susceptible to cowbird parasitism.

While a few other North American bird species occasionally engage in brood parasitism—ruddy ducks, redheads and yellow-billed cuckoos, for instance—these birds usually target members of their own species, and are capable of raising young on their own. In North America, only the brown-headed and bronzed cowbirds are considered obligate brood parasites, meaning they do not make nests of their own and rely entirely on brood parasitism.