A Long-Awaited Return to Malheur

Written by Steven Kratka/Photos by Steven Kratka

I find it hard to believe that it has been eight years since I last visited Malheur. I used to be a regular visitor to this amazing place, coming at least once a year for 20 years straight, so it was with much excitement that I return to the place that meant so much to me. I wondered if things had changed, if I would find my experience lacking from those I had enjoyed in the past.

On the first day of my return to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I was greeted with the trumpeting call of Sandhill Cranes flying high overhead. A good omen, I thought, and I was not wrong. I spent a total of four days exploring the Refuge, looking into all its nooks and crannies. I was pleasantly surprised that this wonderful place had not changed at all and I fell into the familiar groove of slowly driving through the Refuge like I had done so many times in years past. The open vistas, the sound the wind makes as it whooshes through the sage, the calls of red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks in the distance all telling me that Malheur was as beautiful, serene and every bit the extraordinary place that it has always been.

I practically had the entire Refuge to myself. Must be the time of year. In the four days that I traveled its roads I encountered practically no other people except for very rare fellow visitors. I relished in my solitude.

I came to Malheur to photograph the wildlife and with that I was rewarded with encounter after encounter of photographing opportunities. Usually when I go on photo expeditions my goal is to end up with two or perhaps three fantastic photos that are suitable for framing and hanging in a gallery display.  This trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge resulted in well over a dozen images of that quality. The great horned owls are always my favorite and I was able to photograph four different ones this trip. One of my favorite photos is of a female great horned owl incubating eggs in the crotch of a tree. So camouflaged was her plumage that I actually passed within ten feet a dozen times before I spotted her. Of course the entire time I was under the watchful gaze of the male owl perched nearby. I also photographed the nesting red-tailed hawks at Refuge Headquarters and Northern Harriers throughout the Refuge. Both golden and bald eagles were nice enough to pose for my lens. Other favorite images were of the singing meadowlark, cedar waxwings and mountain bluebirds showing up in their finest colors. Mule deer, marmots and even the cute gophers also put in an appearance. Thousands of snow geese filled the sky on several occasions. My list of sightings goes on and on.

Throughout my four days here, I posted my photos on wildlife, birding and community Facebook pages in the Willamette Valley. I received thousands of likes and hundreds of comments about what a special and extraordinary place Malheur is. Many readers that have been to Malheur before say they plan to return soon and readers that have never been here before are excited to add this wonderful Refuge to their bucket list.

I leave Malheur knowing that I will return again soon to this special place. I think back to that omen of the Sandhill Cranes trumpeting on my first day back to the Refuge after so many years away. I’m not sure what they were really saying but I would like to think it was “Welcome back”.

Prescribed Fire at Malheur Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by Daniel Yturriondobeitia

In March this year, the Refuge conducted a prescribed burn along the Blitzen River’s West Canal. We use prescribed fires in order to meet a few different objectives. One is that when we treat some of these areas with a prescribed burn, we can reduce the “fine fuel loads” and keep a larger uncontrolled wildfire from occurring on the Refuge. Another is to stimulate plant growth by releasing stored carbon back to the soil in the form of charcoal and to enhance habitat.

Many landscapes across the west have evolved with fire and have grown into a symbiotic relationship with the destructive mechanism. With current fire management practices and climate change, we have seen a significant rise in mega fires recently. As annuals continue to grow, spread seed, and die, litter is accumulated year after year and forms mats of tinder across the landscape. If this litter is allowed to build up without anything to cut it back, a potential wildfire can move in and dominate the area. Given how dry this fuel typically is and how much wind we get here in the west, these fires can move rapidly and cause massive damage to sensitive areas and cultural resources. Burning this fuel load in a more “controlled” setting can act as a buffer should a fire break out on or near the Refuge boundary.

When thatch is allowed to accumulate excessively, it can shade the ground to the point where it becomes less productive than it would be normally. When natives are outcompeted or shaded out of their habitats, opportunistic species (weeds) are more easily able to take over a site. Shaded-out ground also take longer to thaw out in the spring which can delay sprouting and keep macroinvertebrates inactive in a site. When this happens, food resources for migrating birds are low early in the season which can be detrimental to the early migrators. Nesting species can also be negatively impacted. Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge used to complete surveys looking at the amount of thatch cover and the quantity of nesting birds. Lower levels of thatch provided nesting materials and cover for these birds. Once the threshold was reached and the layer of dead plant material got too deep, bird usage would drop drastically which would trigger treatment in these areas for the Refuge. After completion of treatment, bird usage would spike the next year.

It is easy to drive along the Refuge and see the black, scorched earth and feel scorn for what you see. It is important to remember that here at the Refuge we don’t do prescribed burns as a means of getting the fire crews a practice run on the upcoming season. We burn to have a positive ecological impact on the areas in order to make a better home for all of our feathered friends that we anxiously await to come visit every year. Our water outlook is pretty good this year–should be a great one for our migratory birds. I hope everyone has a wonderful spring!

A Bird’s Eye View of Malheur Refuge

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

Malheur Refuge provides crucial staging and breeding habitat for waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway. The Refuge supports up to 66 percent of the total waterfowl population using the Pacific Flyway during migration. To monitor this incredible abundance of ducks, geese and swans as efficiently as possible, biologists rely on aerial surveys to get a bird’s eye view of the Refuge.

Monitoring wildlife on Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes is a challenging endeavor. The dynamic hydrological conditions in the Harney-Malheur Sub-basin can cause the lakes of Malheur Refuge to range in size from as little as 500 surface acres to as much as 172,000 surface acres, or 279 square miles. Due to the inaccessible and remote nature of waterfowl habitat on the Refuge, aerial surveys have been determined to be the most feasible and efficient method to effectively document waterfowl population size and distribution.

During spring migration, Malheur Refuge runs one aerial survey every two weeks, for a total of four flights from late March to early May. The purpose of this survey is to estimate migratory waterfowl population trends associated with habitat management practices on the Refuge. Currently Refuge staff have completed one of the four total flights.

On flight one, early migrant waterfowl were observed. The Harney-Malheur Sub-basin hosted large populations of Northern pintail moving through, along with American wigeon, Canada geese, snow geese, mallards, and swans.

At the end of March we’ll complete the second survey. During last year’s surveys, there was a distinct change in waterfowl densities just two weeks from the first flight. Instead of Northern pintail being the most dominant species seen, Northern shovelers rose to the top as the densest species in the basin. It’s amazing how in a couple of weeks the numbers of certain waterfowl species can change, as one pulse of the northward migration leaves the basin while another arrives to take its place.

Art Residency Program Celebrating Shorebirds with Youth Art

Written by Carey Goss, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Specialist/Photos courtesy of USFWS

Birds are a part of everyday lives, especially in an area where one can see large flocks of birds during spring migration. The Art Residency program at Malheur Refuge is unique in that it combines science and art to expand student’s understanding of bird species while building creative skills in conjunction with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.

This year’s program will focus on shorebird species. Students will be given a variety of shorebird photographs that are representative of migratory bird species seen in Harney County. Wildlife Refuge Specialist Carey Goss from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will teach students about bird migration, wildlife habitat, and shorebird characteristics.

Artist Liz Foster from Bend Art Center will present a creative art technique using watercolor and mixed media to capture and create individual art pieces of shorebirds. The artist will walk students through a variety of art techniques. After experimenting with a variety of art media and practicing these techniques, students will create of their painting by choosing a shorebird of their choice.

Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is the main sponsor to bring this program to Harney County.

This year’s program will:

  • Foster awareness of wildlife habitat and its importance for bird migrations
  • Learn about shorebird characteristics to spark curiosity about the natural world and encourage participation in the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival 
  • Encourage creative experimentation
  • Develop the skill of close observation for scientific and artistic purposes
  • Learn a variety of creative techniques using watercolor and mixed media
  • Provide a rich artistic and educational experience for rural students
  • Generate artwork for the festival’s student art exhibit in a way that is inclusive  

Helping our youth through art programs may be one of the most important steps we can take together. Art helps youth with the development of motor skills, language skills, social skills, decision-making, risk-taking, and inventiveness. Investing in youth art programs not only expose students to the benefit of the arts, but also help youth success in all school subjects and in life.

Three youth art canvas pieces will be available for auction to help support the art program in the local area. The proceeds will support the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to hire an artist and purchase art supplies to reach out to at least 600 students in a two-week period across all school districts in Harney County.

Auction starts Friday at the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival Art Show and concludes at Saturday night’s banquet.

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.