George M. Benson: Refuge Protector

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of George Benson courtesy of USFWS

Refuge Headquarters is often the first stop for visitors to Malheur Refuge, and for good reason: The Visitor Center and Nature Store are located here, and wildlife-watching opportunities abound on the surrounding property. Many Headquarters visitors also make their way to the small museum, which houses interpretive exhibits and nearly 200 mounted specimens of birds, mammals and other wildlife. Astute visitors will notice a plaque dedicating the museum to an influential figure in the Refuge’s history: George Benson.

George M. Benson served as a game warden under the Bureau of Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees management of National Wildlife Refuges, among much else) in Harney County, beginning in 1918. Preferring the title of “refuge protector,” Benson enforced hunting and trapping laws at what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

Benson also banded many waterfowl at Malheur Refuge, including swans, canvasbacks, redheads, mallards, and pintails. He often enlisted the help of local children for his banding projects; their collective efforts helped the Bureau of Biological Survey determine bird population trends on Malheur and Harney lakes. Benson’s love of birds eventually introduced him to taxidermy, and many of his well-preserved specimens are on display in the Refuge Headquarters.

In 1921 Benson discovered the remains of several bison along the eastern shore of Malheur Lake. Scientists across the country were intrigued by his find, and subsequent excavation at the site revealed an entire herd of bison that had become mired in mud, likely while attempting to drink from the receding lake.

With his wife, Ethel, Benson eventually moved into an old ranch house that once stood in a cottonwood grove south of the lakes. The small stone building that remains in the shade of these cottonwoods was first a well house in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was planting willows and excavating what would eventually become Benson Pond. The building then served as a hunter check station in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Benson Pond today, look for resident great horned owls beneath the giant willows along the dike. In spring and summer, the trees around the first bridge are a good spot to study up to six swallow species as they alternately perch and feed nearby. In summer, search the exposed branches for roosting common nighthawks, which perch parallel to the branches. The pond itself is a good place to see swans. During spring and fall migrations, tundra swans use the Refuge as a refueling stop, and resident trumpeter swans typically nest here, protected by the tall cattails and tules.

The George M. Benson Memorial Museum at Headquarters, dedicated in 1953 to Benson for his many years of service to the Refuge, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.

A Message From the Refuge Manager

Written by Jeff Mackay, MNWR Refuge Manager/Project Leader
Photo by Alan Nyiri

A Reflection on 2020

As we put a bow on 2020, Refuge personnel are more than ready to dive into 2021 but let’s first re-revisit the outgoing year.  As most of you know, in May I was promoted to the Project Leader position.  We also filled two fire-fighter positions and the Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator position. This position serves as the resident sub-station manager for the Buena Vista unit.  At year’s end, four key positions remain vacant: Deputy Project Leader, Administrative Officer, Ecologist, and Maintenance Mechanic.  The Deputy Project Leader position became vacant in May upon my promotion.  The Administrative Officer position has been vacant since April 2019 and Administrative Assistant Suzanne McConnell continues to serve in the position skillfully accomplishing the full suite of administrative duties.  The Ecologist position became vacant in April upon the transfer of Wildlife Biologist Edward Sparks to a National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  The maintenance position became vacant with the promotion of Kenneth Berry to the Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator position.  This position oversees maintenance and operation of the fish passage infrastructure on the Donner und Blitzen River and the East Canal, both home to redband trout.  During the past year Refuge personnel have stepped-up taking on additional duties and our partners continue to work with us to accomplish our highest priority tasks.

Due to the age of most infrastructure on the Refuge, periodic repair is essential to preserve continuity of operations.  Examples of some of the major projects accomplished in 2020 include painting of wood surfaces on facilities at Refuge Headquarters, installation of ductless heating and cooling systems in two quarters and one office building, replacement of 30 miles of boundary fence, replacement of the support structure and deck on the East Canal – Bridge Creek bridge, repair of Page Springs diversion structure on the Donner und Blitzen River, and repair of a few canals and levees supporting water management.   Much of these repairs won’t be noticed by visitors, however, installation of four new vault toilets In November replacing the old outhouses should catch visitor’s attention in 2021.  Another visible feature at Headquarters is the loss of two trees.  The weakened top section of the John Sharff spruce tree was lost in a wind event in November.  The storm also toppled one of the dead spruce trees on the south edge of the lawn.  Fortunately, Refuge staff and partners had initiated development of a tree management plan in 2020 to begin the task of assuring the perpetuation of trees and shrubs at locations including Headquarters, Sodhouse Ranch, Benson Pond, and P Ranch.  The planning effort involved a professional arborist enabling us to tap his expertise in our response to the tree damage.

Most planned field work with our U.S. Geological Survey partners associated with restoration of Malheur Lake was postponed to reduce the risk of disease exposure to personnel.  Biologist James Pearson along with seasonal Biologist Rebecca Pickle and partners from the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative scaled back larger planned work to evaluate various actions designed to reduce sediment resuspension, protect growth of bulrush, and monitor water quality in Malheur Lake and the Donner und Blitzen River.  Biologist Pearson has shared information on his work in a previous newsletter and this issue.

Many of the wildlife inventory and monitoring surveys were completed thanks to our Portland Audubon science partners.  Aerial waterfowl surveys were cancelled due to the confined space in the small aircraft used to conduct the surveys.   A new survey of colonial nesting waterbirds (pelicans, terns, grebes, ibis, egrets, herons, cormorants) on Malheur Lake using an Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle (UAV or “drone”) was cancelled in 2020 after use of drones was prohibited.

Substation managers completed irrigation of meadows and maintained water in ponds providing important wildlife habitat for migrating and nesting birds.  Additionally, maintenance staff maintained Refuge roads allowing visitor access throughout the public use areas.  Refuge haying and rake-bunch-grazing partners completed their operations in hay meadows.  These partners provide a valuable service as the Refuge does not have the staffing and equipment to complete this important habitat management task.

With a fully staffed work-force, Refuge fire personnel were prepared to respond to two fires on the Refuge and ably assisted partners in the Burns Interagency Fire Zone with suppression of several wildland fires throughout Oregon and the western United States.  Although assigned to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, fire personnel are considered national resources and can be assigned to incidents across the nation.

While the difficult decision was made to close the Refuge Visitor Center and the George Benson Museum as well as the Cranes Nest Nature Store (operated by the Friends of Malheur Refuge) to provide for employee and visitor safety, the Refuge auto tour route and hiking trails remained open.  Additionally, and unfortunately, all environmental education programs were cancelled on the Refuge in 2020.  Despite state-wide travel restrictions, visitation on the Refuge increased as many visitors sought respite from the new urban challenges.

Looking Forward

As we enter 2021, there is hope for a return to normal operations eventually.  For now, all operational programs (Malheur Lake restoration, Inventory and Monitoring, Habitat Management, Fire Management, Law Enforcement, and infrastructure and facility maintenance) will be conducted similar to levels executed in 2020.  It is anticipated that a few vacant positions will be filled during the year.  The last 15 miles of boundary fence will be replaced.  Repairs will be completed to several water diversion and fish passage infrastructure on the Donner und Blitzen River and on the East Canal.  A more permanent repair of the East Canal – Bridge Creek Bridge using new thermoplastic technology will be completed.  Replacement of the Knox Spring flume is a priority in 2021.  Upgrades to one of the Refuge quarters will be completed and an old dilapidated equipment storage shed will be replaced.  We also look forward eagerly to working with our dedicated partners continuing delivery of conservation successes in the Harney Basin.

We look forward to sharing 2021 with you and hope that you will have an opportunity to visit Malheur Refuge keeping your health and our local community’s health in mind.  Plan to spend some time safely at the Refuge Headquarters followed by traveling the Refuge automobile tour route.  Several trails await to share the rewards of quietly traversing native habitats.  Braving the hungry mosquitoes in early summer will reward anglers fishing the Donner und Blitzen River.  While we may not yet be able to open the Refuge Visitor Center or the George Benson Museum in 2021, Refuge staff remain available by phone and email to answer your questions.

Wishing you and your family a Safe and Happy New Year!

Avian Botulism Response in Covid Times

Written by Marie Travers & January Bill of Bird AllyX

Bird Ally X is a group of experienced wildlife caregivers dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation, education and advocacy. Since 2018, the nonprofit organization has partnered with the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge along with Focus Wildlife to provide emergency rehabilitation during botulism outbreaks. The first year we cared for 494 birds; last year it was 233. But just like so much of life in 2020, this year’s outbreak was unprecedented in scope and scale, epic in both volume and complexity. 

Long-time refuge staff say it was the worst botulism event at KBNWR in decades, with an estimated 40,000-plus birds perishing due to heat, drought and lack of water on the refuge.

On July 15th, 2020 Focus Wildlife and Bird Ally X set up the field hospital. The following day, the first two avian botulism infected birds were delivered to the hospital, a full month earlier than in previous years. Area wildfires restricted bird collection, allowing the disease to spread unchecked at the beginning of the response. Once search and collection was in full force in early August, the number of birds coming in skyrocketed, averaging 75 birds a day. One day we received 179 birds. Over the next 75 days, a total of 3,179 waterbirds were admitted and treated, a 544% increase in patients from 2019. Of the birds surviving the first 24 hours, 78% were released. Because of the continuous influx of unprecedented numbers of impacted birds, the hospital was in constant state of expansion and modification.

COVID made the response much more complicated. Our plan was to keep our bubble as small as possible by hiring interns rather than relying wholly on volunteers. As a staff of two, we knew it would be a long haul to October and we had to stay healthy. With one intern at the outset, we hired another after a few weeks and several more in the following weeks. We also had a few incredibly dedicated volunteers who have worked every botulism response with us—they drove from the Bay Area and paid for their own food and lodging to join the effort. A few local volunteers helped at the hospital, cleaning, doing laundry and data entry. The small but mighty team consisted of two to nine people working each day. The work hours were incredible, totaling 4,698 hours in all. By comparison, during the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, 400 volunteers cared for 1,100 birds.

Soon we had hundreds of ducks and shorebirds at the MASH hospital to care for, and released birds on a daily basis to make room for the new ones arriving each afternoon. Our days ran together and were the same, resembling “Groundhog Day:” feed birds, clean, swim birds, move birds, dry birds, intake birds, release evaluations. Each new day also threw us some kind of crazy curveball.

Just like so many hospitals treating coronavirus patients, our MASH hospital reached maximum capacity. With so many birds coming in, we spent nights fundraising to buy additional enclosures and pay for the interns now desperately needed. These funds were essential to expanding the capacity of care and treatment for the botulism response. Donations and grant funds were used to purchase and build additional enclosures (including conditioning pools and predator-proof permanent enclosures) as well as rehabilitation treatment equipment and supplies. Donations were also critical in helping pay stipends for interns, whose help was vital at this time.

Miraculously, every single time we asked for help, we got it. Organizations and individuals stepped up in ways we could never have imagined. People offered up pools and affordable intern housing options. Volunteers sponsored intern stipends and paid for vital equipment. And several nonprofits—including Friends of Malheur NWR, Mt. Diablo Audubon and so many other awesome organizations—made significant donations that saved birds and our sanity. It was truly inspiring.

Going above and beyond

Friends of Malheur Refuge was one organization critical in supporting our ability to expand our treatment and care capacity.  As the number of birds brought to the hospital began to reach critical capacity, Friends of Malheur Refuge offered help by providing a grant of $9,260 to hire more interns and help with equipment and supplies.  A special thank you to all of the Friends of Malheur Refuge whose donations were critical to this life saving work. We are also grateful to other organizations and individuals who made our work possible including:

Klamath Basin Audubon Society
East Cascades Audubon Society
Mount Diablo Audubon Society
Willapa Hills Audubon Soviety
CAL ORE Wetlands and Waterfowl Council
Cal Waterfowl members
Robert G. Kirby Fund of Oregon Community Foundation
Black Brant Group Inc.
Bird Ally X members

The 2020 Avian Botulism Rehabilitation Team:
Laundry Team:  Fran McDermott, Molly Russell, Polly Ganong-Strahan
Interns:  Kaile Edenhofer, Jenna Farmer, Christine Impara, Molly Joyce, Erin Linton, Gage Mazet, Lindsey Sampson
Volunteer bird bander: Elizabeth Huggins
Volunteer responders: Marguerita Scannell, Nancy & Jerry Mix, Lloyd & Mattie Bill, Peg Devero, Geanie Flanigan, Rusty Rosenberg
Volunteer wildlife rehabilitator: Elissa Blair

2020 Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex Botulism Rehabilitation Response Affiliated Award

The two wildlife rehabilitators managing the response, Marie Travers and January Bill, received the California Council for Wildlife Rehabilitators Award of Excellence for going above and beyond in the field of wildlife rehabilitation for their 2020 Avian Botulism response management.

We hope you enjoy this photo gallery of the Avian Botulism Response at Klamath Basin NWR Complex in 2020.

Frozen pond in the distance with a tree and grasses all covered in frost.

Malheur & Me: A Winter Wonderland

Written by Patricia Feltmann/Photos by Patricia Feltmann

My husband and I were introduced to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1980’s by my parents, Tom and Dixie Nelson, who had been visiting for years. We finally returned in 2017 and have been making regular forays to the area ever since.  Our trips are usually in spring and summer, to catch as much of migration and nesting seasons as possible. My husband’s personal favorites are the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, which remind him of his childhood in the mid-west.

This year, however, we decided to make a trip to the refuge in December.  I am not sure Headquarters could look any more beautiful than it was that morning!  The area was covered in freezing fog.  We could hear coyotes howling in the foggy distance and we had the place completely to ourselves. I was able to take a picture of  a California Quail fluffed up against the cold on a frosty bush that has become one of my favorite photographs. As we drove down the Center Patrol Road, the beauty of the refuge itself was the main attraction, with the birds and animals accentuating that beauty. Stepping out of the car to capture that beauty, I was startled by a Ring-Necked Pheasant bursting out of the long grass at my feet, one of many we saw on and around the Refuge on that trip. 

After visiting the refuge, we traveled down to the South Steens Herd Management Area to photograph wild horses. On our way, we spotted a large herd of Mule Deer and then a herd of Bighorn Sheep fairly close to the road above Frenchglen. Once in the South Steens HMA, we were blessed to find many bands we had not seen on previous trips. 

We hope to continue to return to the refuge year after year and in all seasons.  There are so many places  we still have yet to explore on the Refuge and in the surrounding areas.

Patricia Feltmann’s photographs are used here with her permission and are not to be printed or reproduced. To reach Patricia and see more of her photography please visit her website or send an email.

If you would like to share your photographs or reflection on your connection to Malheur NWR, please contact Janelle via email.

Cartoon Goose looks through binoculars across Blitzen Valley Meadow

Christmas is for the Birds & Families

Written by Teresa Wicks /Photos by Teresa Wicks and Participants

Saturday, December 19, 2020 33 participants from nine local families turned out for Harney County’s second annual Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids). It was a cold but sunny day with perfect bluebird skies, though no bluebirds made a showing for the count. Our teams counted birds along designated routes in Burns and Hines, stopping at predetermined CBC4Kids checkpoints where they were encouraged to take and share their group photos.

During the 1.5 hour count our intrepid families counted 26 species, including 722 California Quail. That’s two more species and 362 more quail than last year! While the format of the count was very different from last year to accommodate for COVID safety, families were still able to enjoy the morning and a lunch certificate for Figaro’s pizza. This year’s CBC4Kids awards are as follows:

Best Team Name: Hal Fred’s hitch caught the birds

Best Family Photo: Quiet Quail

Most Species Counted: Jabberjays

Most Quail Counted: Bird Nerds

Thank you to everyone that agreed to host a CBC4Kids checkpoint. This includes numerous local backyard birders that kept their feeders filled the day of the count, the schools and ESD, the cities of Burns and Hines, and the following businesses: Geno’s Youth Center and Kid’s Club, Steens Mountain Brewing Co., Harney County Veterinary Clinic, Hines Mill House, and The Aspens Living Center.

Lastly, a big thank you to our community partners: Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Program, Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County Library, and Burns District Bureau of Land Management; and to our sponsors Leupold and Stevens for donating binoculars and a scope to support birding and nature exploration by Harney County youth and families, and Bird Collective for a generous discount on bird patches for this and other programs.

To learn more about and to support educational programming CLICK HERE.