With spring well under way and bird migration in full swing, Malheur Refuge would normally be heading into its busiest time of the year. During the COVID-19 health crisis, however, stay-at-home orders and nationwide closures of public spaces have kept most visitors indoors. As restrictions on travel and outdoor recreation are slowly scaled back, more people are keen to get out of their homes and enjoy the springtime scenery and wildlife.
Malheur Refuge has remained open to the public but the majority of its visitor-use facilities, such as the Refuge Visitor Center, Museum, Nature Center & Store and restrooms at Headquarters, were closed out of concern for public safety, says Brett Dean, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Law Enforcement Officer.
Dean is seeing more and more visitors on the Refuge as spring arrives to Harney Basin. He says that while it may seem as though staff are absent from the Refuge (as was the case during the last government shutdown), essential employees are very much hard at work through this crisis, ensuring that Refuge habitats are maintained, wildlife are monitored, and public safety is attended to.
“We’re out there patrolling, making sure folks are following the rules, writing citations if necessary,” Dean says. While there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in recreation violations, Dean says that one perennial issue is Refuge visitors trespassing into areas closed to the public. “We see a lot of people trying to get past those signs to get closer to birds and other wildlife for photos. We understand the urge, but those signs are there to protect wildlife and we ask that visitors respect that.”
Another recent issue was visitors camping on the Refuge, which is strictly prohibited. Dean suspects that since most parks and campgrounds have been closed during the health crisis (including Page Springs Campground, a BLM site just outside of the Refuge), visitors wanting to camp in the area decided to try staying on the Refuge.
Outside of those violations, Dean says that the majority of visitors respect the Refuge and practice responsible recreation: obeying signs and closures, packing out trash, and being respectful to wildlife and other visitors.
“Refuges are great places to experience nature and get away from home, especially in these current times, and we want to support that,” Dean says. “We just ask that visitors follow the rules. And most people do.”
Written by Peter Pearsall/Photos by Peter Pearsall
The abundance of luxuriant spring growth at Malheur Refuge means plenty of food for resident lagomorphs, the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) and Nuttall’s cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii). While both species live year-round at the Refuge, it’s in spring that young are born and sightings of these long-eared mammals become more common.
Rabbits and jackrabbits (also known as hares) belong to the mammalian order Lagomorpha, a classification that sets them apart from other groups of small mammals such as rodents and shrews. Despite the general commonalities between rabbits and hares, there are several distinct differences.
Rabbits tend to prefer semi-wooded areas with plenty of cover; hares frequent wide open spaces. While both rabbits and hares sport long ears and long hind legs, hares tend to be larger, with longer ears and limbs. Hares are also faster, which benefits them in the open habitats that they prefer: hares usually sprint away from predators, while rabbits dart to the nearest hiding place.
Baby rabbits, known as kittens or bunnies, are blind and naked at birth, fully dependent on their mother. Baby hares, called leverets, are born with fur and open eyes, ready to move around within hours of birth.
Hares and rabbits also differ in their dietary preferences. Both rabbits and hares are herbivores but hares tend to feed on woodier material, while rabbits prefer tender leaves and shoots.
This spring and summer, keep an eye out for black-tailed jackrabbits and Nuttall’s cottontails at Malheur Refuge, particularly the young of the year!
Written by Peter Pearsall/ Photo by Dan Streiffert
For the first time in 40 years, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival has been canceled out of concerns relating to the novel coronavirus. This festival, held annually in April in Harney County, coincides with the spring migration of birds passing through Harney Basin along the Pacific Flyway.
More than 300 bird species use Malheur Refuge and the greater Harney Basin every year, making the region a birder’s paradise. Spring migration is particularly exciting, with new bird species arriving by the week and hundreds of birders arriving to see them. Since its start in 1981, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival celebrates this annual phenomenon with guided tours, workshops, and activities for all ages.
In the early 1990s the bird festival shifted its focus from self-guided tours to organized tours led by area bird experts. It was at this time that the Refuge, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service took on a more active role in the festival. Organization of the festival was still directed by volunteers, but the tours were led by agency personnel in agency vehicles.
As the festival outgrew the capacity of the dedicated group of volunteer organizers, the Bird Festival Committee began exploring other options for oversight. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce was approached about hosting the event. The Chamber Board of Directors decided to take on the Bird Festival as one of their sponsored events.
The Chamber of Commerce receives a portion of the revenue from the festival to offset expenses they accrue during the planning and implementation of the festival. A portion of the profits is available locally as grants for wildlife interpretation, educational projects and other community projects associated with the festival.
The festival was formerly known as the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival, honoring the first on-site manager of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. John Scharff began his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He initially arrived at the refuge as the assistant manager in 1935 and was promoted to refuge manager in 1937.
When John Scharff was promoted to refuge manager, he oversaw not only the management of the refuge’s vast natural resources, but also a rotating crew of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees at three camps, who undertook a number of major projects in the Blitzen Valley alongside Scharff and his staff. These projects included the construction of reservoirs, staff buildings, water-control structures, and the museum at refuge headquarters; the reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the refuge; and initiating the ongoing struggle to control non-native carp in Harney Basin.
John and his wife Florence lived on the refuge at refuge headquarters until John retired. John served as Refuge Manager for more than 34 years until he retired at age 70. Scharff maintains the longest tenure for an on-site manager in the Refuge System and he was awarded the Department of lnterior’s Distinguished Service Award in 1971.
Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of Ed Sparks
Ed Sparks, Wildlife Habitat Biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, is moving on to a new position! Ed’s duties at Malheur were many—including conducting aquatic vegetation surveys, working with grazing permittees, developing protocol for integrated pest management, and much else—and he will be missed by all.
Ed accepted the Supervisory Wildlife Refuge Specialist position at Havasu National Wildlife Refuge along the Lower Colorado River in Arizona/California.
“I was floored to be offered the position,” says Ed. “I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity to develop new skills and participate in habitat-management decisions on a Refuge-wide scale.”
In his new role at Havasu NWR, Ed will oversee biological staff, direct Wilderness monitoring on the Refuge, and manage the vehicle fleet, among other duties. He is particularly excited about the prospect of spending more time in the field.
Some of Ed’s favorite experiences working at Malheur NWR involved being in the field. He particularly enjoyed submerged aquatic vegetation surveys, which often involved working out of a canoe while identifying aquatic plants.
“It was a very Zen-like process that I really enjoyed: sitting in a canoe with a pile of plants in your lap, keying them out,” he says.
Also memorable for Ed was assisting with duck banding endeavors, helping to pilot airboats alongside staff from Malheur NWR and Oregon Department of Wildlife, both at Malheur’s Boca Lake and at Summer Lake Wildlife Area.
Ed says he will miss working with the outstanding Malheur NWR staff and partners but is excited about moving forward. We at FOMR wish him the best of luck!