Discovering the Moths of Malheur

Written by Dana Ross/Photos by Dana Ross

Sampling moths at a new site is always exciting.  The canvas is blank and every species documented is new for the checklist.  As the day wanes toward night and I turn on each blacklight trap, I wonder what will magically appear in the bottom of the bucket by morning.

On the first visit to Malheur in September 2012, I had no idea what I was getting into.  The 15 traps that I had placed throughout the various plant communities between the headquarters and the south end of the refuge generated a whopping 5,218 individual moths and over 100 species!  One of the biggest sample-processing challenges was separating several similar looking species of Euxoa noctuid moths.  I relied heavily on my mentor Paul Hammond’s keen ability to decipher subtle differences in wing patterns until I developed my own search image.

In contrast, this past chilly, wet April fellow lepidopterist Gary Pearson and I scattered 30 light traps throughout the refuge and were able to sample just 154 moths and 18 species for all traps combined. Surprisingly, the most abundant moth was the rarely collected Agrotis longicornis and 14 of those species collected were sampled for the first time.  Whereas the cool, wet weather appeared to have suppressed moth activity it did not keep us from making important discoveries.

County records are another way to evaluate the contributions of a moth study to larger scale species distributions.  As one who tracks such things for Oregon, I’ve been able to confidently claim that sampling the Malheur refuge has contributed at least 20 first time species occurrence records for Harney County.

Another essential aspect of a moth study is the acquisition of voucher material.  Vouchers are the physical pinned and labeled specimens which serve as evidence for one’s claims.  Whenever possible, at least one pinned specimen per species sampled is deposited into the Oregon State Arthropod Collection (OSAC) at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  A selection of Malheur moths are also displayed in the refuge headquarters natural history museum. Have you gone in and had a look? If not, please do!

Over 170 species of moths are now known from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge yet that is probably only one-half of the species that actually occur there.  In Part 3 of this story I will discuss what is left to be accomplished to obtain a more fully robust baseline of the present-day moth fauna of the refuge and where you can learn more about moths if you are so inclined.  So, y’all come back now, hear?

Do Birds Get Cold Feet?

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Flickr user sankax (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Birds, like all mammals and some fish, are homeotherms, meaning that they internally regulate their body temperature by burning calories to create and conserve heat. The challenge of maintaining a narrow, near-constant range of internal temperature during colder months is met by various means: some animals layer on heaps of energy-rich fat to metabolize in leaner times, others rely on thick, insulating coats or feathers; and some just eat continuously. (Humans, of course, avail themselves of each methodology.) Birds that spend their winters swimming, diving, and dabbling in cold water need to take particular care in keeping warm and dry, and thus many species sport a pillowy layer of down feathers overlaid by waterproof plumage. Their feet and beaks, bared to the elements, require warmth as surely as other parts of their bodies, but the route taken is a bit more circuitous (if you’ll pardon the anatomical pun).

In order to keep those exposed areas alive and warm, blood must flow freely to and from the extremities, nourishing tissues—and it must do so economically, with minimal loss of heat. Too much heat loss leads to hypothermia; too little blood flow invites frostbite and gangrene. The bird’s circulatory system achieves this balance by employing what’s called countercurrent, the side-by-side pairing of opposite flows—in this case, venous and arterial blood. Veins transport cool, oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart, while arteries furnish tissues with the warm, oxygenated stuff. In the beaks and feet of these cold-adapted birds, the veins and arteries are intertwined like a caduceus, so that arterial heat is transferred to venous chill and vice versa, ensuring a low, stable temperature in the extremities and minimizing the unavoidable loss of heat to the water. Of additional benefit is the fact that bird legs are mostly tendon, scales, and bone—the muscles are nestled close to the warm, feathered body and thus amply insulated. Mallards, for all their incessant dabbling on slushy ponds in the dead of winter, surrender a paltry five percent of their total body heat through their orange, webby feet.

This physiological countercurrency was first discovered by Galen, the second-century Greek physician-surgeon-philosopher who called the convoluted networks of veins and arteries retia mirabilia, Latin for “miraculous nets”. It is a feat of natural engineering, remarkable in its efficiency, and since Galen’s time the countercurrent has been emulated and expanded upon by humans in a variety of industrial applications, including petroleum refining, nuclear waste processing, and the extraction of gold from nickel-cyanide slurry.

Profile of FOMR Director Janelle Wicks

Written by Debby De Carlo, FOMR Volunteer/Photos courtesy of Janelle Wicks

She wouldn’t see the ocean until she was 17, yet Janelle Wicks knew at age 11 she was going to study marine biology and dreamed of one day saving manatees. She didn’t lose sight of that goal and enrolled at Lock Haven University in north-central Pennsylvania. Though landlocked, the school had a marine biology program, and even better, was part of what was then the Wallops Island Marine Science Consortium (MSC) in coastal Virginia. There she lived, worked and took classes each summer of her undergraduate tenure. During those months, each class was 3 weeks and equated to a semester’s week worth of content each day. “I’d conduct field research, go out of research vessels and complete reports,” she remembered. “It was life-changing to have that kind of immersive educational experience,” she says of that first summer. “For the first time I excelled academically.” 

With Wicks still in college, her mother decided to move from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Janelle moved in with a friend when school was out of session. “Nothing was going to stop me,” she said. “I worked at Wendy’s, was president of the Gay-Straight Alliance and administrative assistant to the resident hall director and about to graduate. With two weeks remaining in college, her mentor and boss insisted she work on her resume and apply for jobs every day. It was only a week before the Education Program Director at the MSC called me up and asked, ‘Can you be here on the 6th?’ Graduation was on the 5th. 

“To go back to this place I loved and serve as the residential coordinator for summer programming was a dream start.” At the end of that summer, Wicks was hired to stay on at the MSC as a marine science educator, teaching middle and high school students, often working six days a week. “We’d have a 30-minute lecture and then go into the field. These were high-performing students. It wasn’t meant to be camp in the traditional sense.” 

“I always thought I’d be a scientist, but I became an educator and administrator. I was fortunate to always have strong female mentors who saw my potential and helped me achieve it.” After three years at that job, she was offered a job at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge where she led field crews monitoring piping plovers, American oystercatchers and colonial nesting birds. Eventually she moved west, landing a seasonal job with the US Forest Service in the Gold Beach Ranger District of southern coastal Oregon. “I told myself I’d go to grad school at OSU,” Wicks recalled. Instead, she found another good fit with the Corvallis Environmental Center’s Avery House Nature Center. 

It didn’t take long for her to transition from nature program coordinator to administrative director. She managed to take marketing, accounting and entrepreneurship at Linn-Benton Community College part time. Laura Peterson remembers working with Wicks there. “Janelle has this great way of observing how a person of any age is connecting with their environment, and then building on that spark of curiosity as she asks questions, educates, listens, and discusses. Her inviting and informative manner extend warmth and inclusiveness as she draws in others to share in her enthusiasm,” Peterson noted. “Working with Janelle was one of the best opportunities I have ever had both in a job and as a beginning naturalist. Janelle was always open to questions and explained things to me in a way I understood. She would often take those conversations deeper, and circle back to them in later discussions. I always felt like she had this wealth of information about ecosystems and relationships and interconnectedness, and our conversations and working together served to enrich how I thought about the world around me and how to engage others in connecting to it as well.” 

In the fall of 2015, Janelle recalls, “an old colleague from Chincoteague NWR called to let me know there was an opening for the Environmental Education Specialist at Klamath Basin Refuges.” By then, she’d been dating Teresa Wicks for well over a year. The two moved to Klamath where Teresa accepted a position as director of the Great Outdoor Alliance, an environmental education collaborative. Janelle quickly secured the position with the Klamath Basin Refuges. The two married in July of 2017, happy with their lives and jobs when Teresa was hired for her dream job: Eastern Oregon Field Biologist for Portland Audubon. They packed up their belongings, three dogs and a cat and moved to Burns in April 2018. Janelle was looking forward to being jobless. “I needed a break anyway,” Janelle noted. “It was nice to have one of us not working, to establish relationships in the community. Besides, I like to knit, cook and play with the dogs.” The two bought a house in Burns last summer, giving her the space to create a home. She met people in the community and got involved, yet still found some time to volunteer at the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where she met Jerry Moore, FOMR board member. 

When Peter Pearsall, executive director of FOMR, gave his notice late last summer it opened up a new door. “For this job to open was almost too perfect,” she said. “At this point, I have a strong sense where FOMR is and where it can go. We’ve gone from 550+ members to over 775 in a year. I want us to create more education opportunities, increase capital fundraising and develop lasting projects and programs.” “She’s everything we could want in an executive director,” board member Moore notes. “All of her previous experience has prepared her for this job.” Her entire staff is made up of volunteers. She’s expert at putting each person’s expertise to work, and patient with the vagaries of staff who are often retired. 

Malheur may not be the ocean, but it is a sea of sagebrush. As she walked into the Crane’s Nest Nature Center and Gift Shop recently after a night of rain, she took a breath of the sage-scented air. “I’ll never grow tired of that,” she said.

Grazing the Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Cattle have grazed the meadows at Malheur Refuge at varying intensities since its inception in 1908. What follows is a primer on current grazing practices at Malheur Refuge, presented in question-and-answer format.

1. How many cows are allowed on Malheur Refuge (not allotments, but total number of individual cows?)

There is no set number that is considered when treating the fields. The reason for this is due to the high variability in available water from year to year that directly impacts the plant growth in the wet meadows. It is because of this–and also that the vegetation is cut and rake-bunched–that we do not set a limit on the number of individual cattle. It is stated in the Refuge’s cooperative agreements that the cattle are to be removed from fields either by January 31st or when the rake-bunch is depleted, whichever happens first. Supplemental hay feeding (anything extra other than the rake bunch) is strictly prohibited on Refuge fields.

2. Is the fencing around the Refuge mainly for cows?

Yes. Even if we didn’t use the cattle as a means to remove hay from the Refuge, we are surrounded by Bureau of Land Management allotments and private land that all at some point in the year have cattle on them. The boundary fence works as a means to keep the neighboring cattle out. Since Oregon is an open-graze state, the neighbors are not legally obligated to fence their animals in; we have to fence any unwanted animals out. With that being said, we do follow guidelines for wildlife-friendly fencing.

3. When I see ranchers/farmers harvesting hay from the fields of the CPR, do they pay for that hay?

Yes. Even though the cooperators benefit from gaining additional hay outside of their base of operations, we charge for the privilege of using Refuge fields. It is important to note that we use our cooperators as a means of establishing short stubble habitat for spring migratory birds. When the vegetation is removed, the sunlight can reach the ground earlier in the season and thaw the ground out, allowing for earlier plant growth. This early plant growth/early warming gets the insect community active, which is one of the primary food sources for migratory birds. After we flood the meadows, it allows for easier access to food sources for ducks due to the stubble being short. Some time ago, we had an economist come out and assess what the cost should be, given the quality of the grasses on Refuge and the standard operating costs to remove the hay. That is how we came up with our pricing of $17.50 per ton (it typically costs about $60 a ton to cut, rake, and bale hay, plus another $12-15 a ton to remove and transport it, making the total cost between $89 and $92 a ton. Which is around market value for meadow hay.)

4. Are any crops/grasses raised on the Refuge just for cow grazing?

No. By USFWS policy, any secondary use on a Refuge needs to be put through a compatibility determination and is then looked at to determine beneficial use (that is, beneficial to wildlife). So, by policy we do not allow any commercial activities that do not benefit wildlife.

5. Why are cows allowed onto to the Refuge in the first place?

Cattle are used as a tool for hay to achieve our habitat objectives. We work with small- to medium-sized ranches that typically don’t have a large bank account to work with. This is why cattle are used to remove the hay in some cases. We do not have a “standing grazing” operation on the Refuge and that means that everything is mechanically treated prior to cattle being brought in. So basically, we have a haying program where the hay is either removed by bales or by cattle. The same economic analysis cited earlier also found that there are approximately 2.5 AUM’s (“animal unit months”) per ton of hay. That gives us a cost of $7 per AUM ($17.50 / 2.5 = $7) that we charge the cooperators for use of that field. This becomes a more economical option for some of our cooperators since the hay is not being baled and removed by a truck, but the Refuge is still getting the same amount per ton for the residue removal of that field. 

Our haying season is pushed back a little over a month from what ranchers would typically do on their private grounds. We do this to minimize impacts to wildlife and the plant community. The primary nesting season dates set by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are March 1 – July 15 and we do not allow any field operations until August 10. The quality of the hay is considered less than optimal (most would cut their flood irrigated meadows around July 1 for peak protein) but this puts us safely out of nesting season. The cattle are not allowed on until after September 1. This allows the cool season grasses and forbs to store nutrients in their roots to survive the winter. This dormant season usage has been found to be the least impactful, hence why we restrict usage to fall and winter.

As far as the amount brought in annually, it varies with the weather. Suffice it to say that grazing brings in somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 a year (rough estimate). Every dollar generated goes back into the Refuge. We use that money to help keep up our boundary fence; to treat weeds; and a good chunk also goes to our partners to get professionals out to monitor Refuge fields to ensure that we are achieving management goals. Given budget cuts at the national level, none of these goals would be accomplished given our current spending limits. 

Marshall Pond Work Party

Written by Alice Elshoff, FOMR Vice President; Photos by FOMR

On Friday, Oct. 25, twelve amazing and stalwart Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (FOMR) volunteers gathered to get acquainted and prepare to tackle a Saturday full of projects. Since opening the Cranes Nest Nature Center & Store at its new location in the spring of 2018, FOMR has taken over stewardship of the entire Marshall Trail and Pond Observation area, including the viewing blind and the now-paved ADA-accessible loop trail. This trail encircles the location of where the late Refuge biologist Dave Marshall’s residence once stood.

Past volunteer efforts in this area have included the planting of many native and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. It is one of many goals that we increase the presence of vegetation that would support the needs of migratory and breeding birds that visit Refuge Headquarters. In addition to planting, there is an ongoing effort to protect and irrigate in the hopes of increasing the chances of survival. Over the summer the Tribal Stewards crew removed old wooded exclosures from around many trees and shrubs while beginning the process of constructing new wires structures. This weekend we finished the job by weeding, mulching and fencing the remaining 11 plants.

Meanwhile, an additional contingency of our work crew set to the task of planting willows behind the existing willow wall. This wall is meant to reduce disturbance to wildlife utilizing Marshall Pond, but is currently in a state of disrepair. The long term solution to this is to grow willow tall and dense enough to create a living wall. Eventually the existing structure will be removed. The living wall will screen the pond from the adjacent Marshall Trail while providing nesting and resting habitat for a variety of birds. 

Our team also transplanted clumps of beautiful native Great Basin Rye to the trail area. This bunch grass is expected to out-compete the existing non-natives that occupy the space. It will take repeated transplant efforts, but we expect that our annual fall work parties will chip away at this year after year.

Finally, a third team of volunteers set about installing new plant identification placards throughout Refuge headquarters. Earlier in the year residential volunteer John Roth, botanist and retired science teacher, set about identifying as many unique trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers as he could find! It was quite the task, but he came up with an extensive list from which 60+ placards were ordered. Following the census, volunteers Jeff and Liz Jones of Bend worked at placing numbered garden stakes and producing a GPS map that correspond with John’s list. Placing these ID placards was the final piece of this project that John began in June. A huge thank you is owed to everyone who was a part of this process. We see projects like this one as vital to the transformation of the outdoor space at Headquarters feeling more interactive and informative to visitors.

With so many people coming together from across the state to join us for this work party we are moved by the generosity and good nature of our Friends and Members. We look forward to spring when we can see the results of our hard work and come together again for our next work party!