Great Basin, Great Dark Skies

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Tara Lemezis, Portland Audubon

and suddenly I saw
the heavens
Unfastened
and open,
Planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
Riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
Void,
likeness, image of
Mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.”

-Excerpt from “Poetry” by Pablo Neruda

This excerpt by Neruda so accurately captures the feeling of looking at night skies from within the Great Basin. Layers upon layers of stars, dancing across the sky and through space. Astral calendars and maps, guiding humans and wildlife since time immemorial.

Unfortunately, light pollution is drowning out our access to dark skies and nocturnal nature (Fig. 1). Images of the U.S show that most of the eastern U.S. experiences some amount of light pollution. Moving west through the central U.S., the points of light become smaller, giving the appearance of largely “unfettered” dark skies. However, when you look at images of light pollution measuring the quality of night sky, we find that little of the U.S. experiences “truly dark” skies (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Lights of the United States. This image shows the concentration of lights on the U.S. landscape.
Figure 2. Dark Sky quality across the United States. The Bortle Scale measures skies from “truly dark” (black or dark gray areas) to “inner city” (pale gray areas). 

The Great Basin happens to be one of these areas, and we here in Harney County are lucky enough to be almost in the center of a large patch of truly dark sky (though if you look closely, you can see the effects of artificial light in Burns). Efforts to protect these dark skies are underway. One such effort is a partnership between Portland Audubon and the Burns District BLM to obtain Dark Sky Wilderness designation for the Steens Mountain Wilderness, under the International Dark Sky Association. Though this designation isn’t a legislative one, and thus lacks “teeth,” it is still an important part of recognizing the importance of dark skies and public lands for wildlife and human health.

Dark sky features, such as stars and the Milky Way, are important navigational tools for migrating birds and other wildlife. Additionally, nocturnal species developed specific circadian rhythms (patterns of light/dark) that dictate sleep, mating, flowering, migration, and other stages of diverse life cycles. When light pollution disrupts these patterns, there can be serious consequences. For example, today, lights from large cities represent the brightest point on island horizons, causing baby sea turtles to travel toward cities and away from the ocean upon hatching. In humans, prolonged exposure to artificial light has been linked to sleep disorders, obesity, and heart disease by the American Medical Association. 

What can you do to support dark skies? Changing light bulbs to “warm light” LED bulbs is a great start. These LED bulbs don’t include light in the blue spectrum and are therefore better for humans, wildlife, and mitigating light pollution. Another important step you can take is turning off unnecessary nighttime lighting, including but not limited to porch lights and other outdoor lighting. You can also support Lights Out programs in your area. For more information about what you can do to support human and wildlife health, follow the link to Portland Audubon’s Light’s Out page

Image of the Bortle Scale and Dark Sky Quality. Burns, OR is in the “green” column, while the Steens are in the far right “black” column. What do your dark skies look like?

A New Look for Malheur

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

On your next visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, you can expect to be welcomed with new interpretation and directional signs.

For the past several years, the Refuge has been working diligently on improving an integrated set of orientation features for visitors to easily find accurate, timely and appropriate information and feel welcomed. We want our visitors to not only be aware of their options for safely pursuing self-guided activities, but to feel welcomed. This effort consists primarily of new trailhead and interpretive signs aimed at providing enhanced wildlife observation, photography opportunities and interpretive opportunities while connecting visitors with historic and natural resources. 

At the beginning of your trip to Malheur, stop at the Narrows Pullout along Highway 205. New interpretive panels have been installed and the information therein will serve as a gateway for your experience at the Refuge. We suggest visiting Refuge headquarters afterwards, which will be a good starting point for your visit. The Visitor Center, Nature Center & Store, along with the George Benson Natural History Museum, are located at the Refuge headquarters. Knowledgeable volunteers and staff will be available to provide information and answer any questions. Headquarters also has new interpretive panels at the Malheur Lake Overlook and Marshall Pond Trail. 

As you begin to explore the Refuge, you will notice new welcome and orientation panels at all entrance points. Each entrance will have the basic information for visitors to be aware of their options for self-guided activities with a little story of what you may experience in that section of the Refuge. 

Whether you travel along Hwy 205 or the Blitzen Valley Auto Tour route you will find yourself at the Buena Vista Overlook. This is a must-stop after experiencing the landscape and solitude of the northern half of the Refuge. The interpretive panels have been updated and you will find one of our new trailhead signs at the base and the top of the overlook. These new trailhead signs are located at each of our trailheads. 

If you haven’t visited Krumbo Reservoir, south of Buena Vista Overlook, we suggest you do. The reservoir may be off the beaten path, but provides an opportunity to view some seasonal ponds and one of the deepest water sources on the Refuge. You will be welcomed with trailhead signs along the way to the reservoir and at the reservoir and beautiful viewing areas. 

Once you have made it to the southern tip of the Refuge, please stop at the historic P Ranch. At the parking area, you will be welcomed with new interpretive panels, trailhead signs and sitting areas. A portion of the P Ranch area is also one of the locations where angling is permitted including Krumbo Reservoir and East Canal. East Canal is another stop we encourage visitors to check out.

East Canal is located near Page Springs Campground and provides visitors an option to walk the route or drive. At the entrance of East Canal, there will be information to help guide you. 

Now that your trip is close to being over, don’t forget to stop at the Frenchglen Wayside across from the Frenchglen Hotel. New interpretive panels will highlight areas near the Refuge that you can explore and an entrance to the Barnes Springs Footpath. If you happen to visit in the late summer or fall, please make a stop at the historic Sod House Ranch (open August 15 – October 15). Sod House Ranch provides an opportunity to take a step back into time. If volunteers are not available to provide a guided tour, you will have new interpretive panels to share the story of the past. 

Malheur is a wonderful place for visitors and with the new interpretation and directional signs we hope you leave the Refuge with a memorable experience that fosters a connection between yourself and nature, and with an appreciation of the Refuge’s unique resources. 

A Volunteer’s Appreciation

Written by Isabelle Fleuraud, FOMR Volunteer/Photo courtesy of Isabelle Fleuraud

Five and a half years ago, my family unexpectedly moved to Harney County from Tucson, AZ. A year before that, my husband took his new post here, and so I accompanied him on the long drive from Southern Arizona to South East Oregon. And because, as a naturalist and aspiring geologist, he always seeks the most winding and least traveled path, I first discovered Harney County via the full 133 miles of OR Hwy 205 – known in part as the High Desert Discovery Scenic Byway – from Denio, NV to Burns, OR. Along the way, on that late September day, we stopped at the historic Frenchglen hotel for a picnic, from where I first discovered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; that day, we traveled the full length of Malheur Refuge and also stopped at the headquarters and at the Narrows. Over the next few years, we made many visits to the Malheur Refuge, exploring how the vast landscape, wetland vegetation and abundant wildlife magically change with the seasons. In 2016, we helped with the post-Malheur Occupation cleanup and were introduced to, and began supporting the Friends of Malheur, and at last, this spring, I decided to start volunteering here under the guidance of the Friends’ remarkable executive director, Janelle Wicks.

Once a week, as I get up early and make the 36 mile drive to Refuge Headquarters, encountering at most a handful of cars between the old Hines Lumber Mill ruins at the edge of town and the CCC-built headquarters, it’s as if I moved to another world for the day. And the drive home always takes me an extra 20 minutes as I can never resist the temptation to stop along the way to observe and attempt to photograph the late afternoon light flooding the extraordinary landscape.

In late spring and early summer, after I was trained to use the cash register system, I worked mostly in the lovely Crane’s Nest gift shop, book store and visitor center, interacting with birders and visitors eager to share how delighted they are to be at Malheur and to inquire about the Refuge and its wildlife, while making sure the store shelves were well stocked and neatly presented. By mid-July, as the number of visitors began to drop, Janelle trained me on how to generate and print thank you letters for new members, and carry out various inventory and other necessary office tasks. It is fair to say that Janelle is an utter delight to work for, as her great organizational, supervisory and teaching skills are enhanced by her unending kindness and positivity. Meeting other volunteers from far away in Oregon and all over the country, who stay for weeks and months at the newly renovated RV site located at the headquarters, has also been immensely enriching. Being a small part of this amazing team of dedicated volunteers has been as awe-inspiring as the natural environment we are helping protect and preserve.

Moths of Malheur – Part 1

Written by Dana Ross/Photo by Dana Ross

Brightly colored butterflies may catch the attention of even the most casual naturalist, but what about moths?  As largely nocturnal creatures, moths are less often noticed and tend to be unappreciated for their more subtle beauty.  And of the relatively few moth species that may mingle with the daytime butterflies? My sense is that they are generally mistaken for the latter.

Twenty-five years ago I had the good fortune to be accepted as a student worker into the lab of Dr. Jeffrey Miller in the Department of Entomology at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  I had been a butterfly guy (the “kid with the butterfly net”) since the age of 4, but little did I know that my insect universe was about to expand enormously. Jeff was deep into a project that involved the field collection of Pacific Northwest caterpillars from a large number of tree and shrub species and the lab rearing of each larva on its field-associated larval hostplant.  He would photograph the caterpillars as they went through a series of growth stages toward pupation. Once the adult imago eclosed (“emerged”) and was subsequently identified the complete adult-caterpillar-larval hostplant relationship was confirmed (often for the first time) augmented by Jeff’s beautiful macro-photography.

Around that same time, Dr. Paul Hammond – moth taxonomist extraordinaire – was collaborating regularly with Dr. Miller.  It was then that I – having officially joined the team as a Faculty Research Assistant – began to appreciate the remarkable abundance and diversity of moths.  It became my task to regularly sample these insects using light traps at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Western Cascades of Oregon. Each visit entailed deploying the night-time sampling devices (and their heavy 12 volt battery power source) late in the day and rounding them up early the following morning.  Samples were processed back at Jeff’s OSU lab with Paul sorting, counting and naming each species.  I was his scribe, dutifully searching through an enormous moth checklist and scribbling down abundance numbers for moths like Eosphoropteryx thyatiroides and Pseudobryomima muscosa.  I eventually learned hundreds of moth Latin names and “faces” (wing patterns) and have been able to use the resulting skill set and Dr. Hammond’s continued mentoring to begin the documentation of moths at various ecologically important sites throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Financial support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program has provided for the first time documentation of moths at a number of Pacific Region National Wildlife Refuges, including Malheur NWR.  I’ll give you the run-down on what I’ve discovered while “Mothing Malheur” in the next part of this series. Stay tuned!

My Malheur Summer

Written by Norman Clippinger, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Biological Science Technician/Photo courtesy of Norman Clippinger

I have spent the last five years working as a seasonal Wilderness Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, but due to budget constraints, they halved their number of rangers park-wide. If I couldn’t be a park ranger, I wanted to continue my seasonal work as a biologist. I applied for what was nominally a Biological Science Tech position at a number of locations, and nearly landed one close to my Colorado home working on an endangered species in Wyoming. So when I got a call from James Pearson, a Fish Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), it wasn’t clear to me at first what I’d be doing out in eastern Oregon, at that place where some folks took over the Refuge headquarters for a while. I’m not a fish biologist—I did my Ph.D. dissertation on an endangered mammal. I could have waited for another job somewhere else, but it was late in the hiring season—I took a chance and accepted James’ offer.

I found out in my first week that there were big problems in ecosystem function in the Harney Basin, specifically with Malheur Lake. The wind blows strong nearly every afternoon in the spring and summer, and that mixes sediment into the water. On my first day of duty here we went out on the airboat to check on the “sondes” (more on that later).  You can’t see your hand one foot under the water in most places in the lake. There are very few fish in the lake compared to others of its size, and what few are in the lake are the invasive Common carp. I read that back in the 1930’s people in the basin (and elsewhere during the worldwide Depression) were starving, so it seemed like a good idea to add a quickly reproducing fish in what seemed like an endless wetland.  While there were reductions in the water quality after the introduction of the Common carp, it seems that the combination of the carp and the massive expansion of the lake in the 1980’s lead to a dissipation in the number of birds utilizing Malheur Lake. Still a great many, mind you, but many fewer than when biologists observed the lake just decades ago.

What happened? As biologists, it’s our job to try to find out why the bird populations have dwindled, and that’s why the team of paid biologists and volunteers from USFWS, High Desert Partnership (HDP), US Geological Survey (USGS), the Friends of Malheur, Audubon Society, local tribes, and other agencies have come together to try to diagnose the ecological malfunction as quickly as possible. Only then could we come up with possible solutions. One thing we did know was that Malheur once had very little open water, with lots of emergent vegetation like cattails, rushes, sedges, and grasses in one huge hemi-marsh. The invertebrates (snails and insects) that fed on the vegetation were food for the huge population of migrating birds. Now it’s mostly a large, shallow, open water lake. Was it the carp eating the emergent vegetation? Or are the carp mostly a symptom of ecological dysfunction, and the main culprit is wind-driven sediment in the water, preventing the growth of new vegetation? Or do blue algal blooms feed off nutrients in the water to block light and choke out other plants?

My part in trying to find the answers was to lead the water quality team. You might ask, what’s water quality? I asked—and found out that water quality is a combination of many water characteristics including pH, dissolved minerals, suspended sediment (turbidity), and algal components that are suspended in the water. How do we measure these? In part by using a device called a sonde: an array of instruments attached to a computer, memory, and set of batteries that will measure the factors of water quality listed above. Part of my job is maintaining and calibrating these instruments, something I’d never done before. We would go out on the lake in airboats to reach the sondes we put out there for week after week recording of data. Oh, and as James told me on my first day, I wouldn’t have another bio-tech to work with—I’d be “in charge”—i.e. doing all this on my own. 

All life requires nitrogen and phosphorus sources (“nutrients”) to make proteins and DNA. That includes the blue-green algae and other varieties of photosynthetic organisms floating in the water. A second part of my job is carefully taking samples of water from Malheur Lake and the two major streams flowing into the lake: the Silvies, and the Donner und Blitzen rivers. These samples will help us determine if nutrient levels are driving algal blooms in different parts of the lake. In other words, if there’s lots of nitrogen/phosphorus in the water, algae grows quickly, and could be blocking light from reaching the shallow lake bottom, preventing the growth of emergent plants. We also collect suspended sediment samples to see if the wind-driven sediment was blocking the life-giving light. Fish biologists were also conducting another study of carp effects on vegetation up at Windmill Pond, but they also required water quality samples for comparison to Malheur Lake. It was turning out to be a very intense summer job!

But as it turns out, I didn’t do the job on my own. I was taught about the various aspects of the job by James, and Casie Smith of the USGS. They did a great job teaching me, and so I was soon calibrating the sondes and deploying them more easily. Ben Cate, Mark Chowning, J.P. Friedrichsen and many other technicians at HDP and Audubon helped me gather samples, transport me and my gear, and calibrate sondes. Ben and our USFWS office-mates Ed Sparks and Alexa Martinez ferried me on the lake via the airboats. The administrative and maintenance staff of both USFWS (thanks to Suzanne McConnell and Jeff MacKay) and HDP provided my finances, ground support and transportation needs. I discovered again that it takes a small army of dedicated people to make any scientific endeavor a reality. (I couldn’t list you all here!) And our scientific work is only possible if interested people in the area and nationwide provide the financial and political support. 

Now nearing the end of my summer at Malheur, I was able to learn a great deal, work hard, and explore the surrounding countryside in eastern Oregon.  I discovered the hardworking and supportive people of this area were my safety net and partners in discovery. I hope the work here continues to shed light on the problems plaguing the Malheur Lake system. Together we can address the problems we’ve all had a hand in causing, and find solutions that will lead us back to a more productive ecosystem. I’m glad I took a chance on Malheur. It is a journey worth taking.