Introducing FOMR Board Member Liz Jones!

Please welcome Liz Jones, Friends of Malheur Refuge’s newest board member!

Born in Springfield, OR, and raised in Eugene, Liz attended the University of Oregon and has lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of her life.

She first stumbled upon the high desert of Harney County in the early 1980s, while returning from a two-week trip to Yellowstone National Park with her husband Jeff. They stopped at Page Springs Campground, near the southern edge of Malheur Refuge.

Liz knew immediately that they had found a special place. “I went, ‘Wow, I have to come back here,’” she said.

Living in Seattle at the time, she and her husband revisited Harney County on occasion over the years. After they moved back to Oregon in the early 90s to “come home,” as she puts it, she estimates that they’ve been back to visit every year since.

The waters of Harney County are what initially drew her here. “I’m not a passionate birder or a biologist. My passion is flyfishing,” she said. But over the years, she’s come to appreciate the collaborative efforts between stakeholders in the area to conserve natural resources, including those at Malheur Refuge.

Liz learned of FOMR recently, after she and her husband volunteered at the Refuge and the Nature Center & Store. She became a FOMR member soon afterward, and last month she accepted FOMR’s invitation to join the Board of Directors.

“I’m one of those people who join to make a difference,” she said. Liz comes from a corporate business background and brings years of organizational experience to FOMR. We’re very pleased to have her on board!

Adapting Amid COVID-19

Written by Alexa Martinez/Photos by Teresa Wicks

The worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 has affected every single one of us in many ways. At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, we were issued a total of nine weeks, for a stay at home quarantine. This was difficult for those of us who generally look forward to spring fieldwork. This pause affected certain projects within the biological program more than others.

Some restoration work, water quality and weather data collection on Malheur Lake went on hold along with not completing shorebird or colonial bird nesting surveys. The limitations of what we can do as refuge staff was definitely a challenge. The feeling of not being able to complete work and give your full attention was very hard to process. There is only so much you can get accomplished on a computer when half of your job is field related.

With that said, I am certainly grateful for the technology we have to allow us to stay connected through shared resources, such as, ZOOM, Microsoft TEAMS, and Google meetings. Being able to have meetings with other biologist in the Pacific Northwest Region and listening to their struggles during this time opened my eyes to see how COVID-19 is affecting the fieldwork for 2020.

I cannot speak for all refuges in the Pacific Northwest Region or throughout the System but I am very grateful for the partnerships Malheur NWR has. Within the wildlife program, we are lucky to have Portland Audubon Society conducting our land bird point count, secretive marsh bird and vegetation surveys on their own at the refuge during these nine weeks. Unfortunately, because some surveys require refuge staff support of direct involvement, we lost the opportunity to test a new colonial water bird protocol in May. The new protocol would help inform the refuge what colonial water bird species continue to utilize Tern Island and what their nest success out on Malheur Lake is. Our spring shorebird survey was put on hold due to COVID and we were not able to record the spring migrant shorebirds for the year. Under the current circumstances, being able to rely on our partners for several data sets not being lost, is better than nothing.

Martinez practicing the colonial nesting waterbird survey protocol on Malheur Lake with Portland Audubon Society volunteer. This is one survey that was not conducted in 2020 due to COVID-19 staffing restrictions.

Other than our partners conducting important biological work, Refuge maintenance staff and their duties are considered essential. This classification has allowed for uninterrupted water management throughout the spring. As the wildlife biologist for the Refuge, staying in close communication with maintenance staff has allowed us to ensure impoundments were receiving the water as needed. The timing is particularly sensitive as the basin receives snowmelt from the Steens Mountain while birds are migrating through on their journey north or settling in to nest here among the wet meadows and riparian areas.

In order to get to where we are now, during the nine weeks of stay home quarantine, different programs (Biology, Maintenance, Visitor Services) at Malheur NWR worked with their supervisor in order to create safety protocols to enhance the safety of staff, partners and visitors. These protocols have allowed us, as necessary, to return to station. It feels good to be back, especially to help where help is need. Of course, the work environment is very different and we are all taking precautions and remind ourselves of our role in maintaining everyone’s safety.  It will take time for things to come back to normal and hopefully we can all learn and move forward from all this in the near future.

Malheur Lake Modeling, a PhD

Written by James Pearson/Photos provided by James Pearson

As I wrap up my Ph.D I wanted to give a brief description of my work, a quick synopsis of my results, and describe how these results have changed our thinking about restoration in Malheur Lake.

Malheur Lake is large (≈ 19,600 ha) and shallow (average depth ≈ 0.58 m; max depth ≈ 1.26 m), and therefore to better understand how Malheur Lake should function I first tried to get a basic understanding of shallow lakes in general. Shallow lakes exist in either a clear or turbid state (i.e. Alternative Stable States Theory), with the clear state characterized by an abundance of aquatic macrophytes, diverse aquatic biota, low water column nutrients and phytoplankton biomass, whereas the turbid state is characterized by the opposite. These two distinct states are maintained by reinforcing (positive) feedback loops that pull the system towards one of the two states (clear or turbid).

In order to better understand the current turbid state of Malheur Lake, I used a mechanistic modeling approach to the different factors maintaining the current state of turbidity. The two agents suspected in maintaining the turbid state in Malheur Lake are: 1) benthic (bottom) foraging by non-native Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and 2) wind resuspension of lake-bed sediments.

I first simulated the non-native Common carp (hereafter “carp”) population in Malheur Lake and focused on controlling carp via removal efforts aimed at suppressing carp biomass below the desired 50 kg/ha threshold. These simulations indicated that individual carp removal actions would likely fail due to compensatory density dependent responses (recruitment, mortality, growth) within the carp population. Simulations further demonstrated that combinations of two or all three active removal methods could reduce the biomass below the desired threshold, however the carp reduction rate would have to be maintained ≈40% at each life-stage, in perpetuity. Furthermore, adding hydrologic variability into the carp population model ultimately demonstrated that the carp population in Malheur Lake is more affected by the interactions within the population brought on by environmental fluctuations (lake area) than the human capacity to impose mortality rates via removal efforts.

Ultimately these results demonstrated that focusing management actions solely on the reduction of carp would likely be ineffective, and thus investigations of other mechanisms helping to maintain the turbid state was necessary. Therefore, I shifted the modeling to investigate the deleterious effects of the wind and wave energy, with simulations ultimately demonstrating that the wind-wave energy is a major driver of the turbid state, and that restoration efforts in the form of wave reduction barriers may be used to decrease the suspended sediment concentrations and increase the water clarity. Collectively, modeling results reinforce the notion that future restoration actions in Malheur Lake must be more broadly focused (i.e. systems perspective) and guided by the principles of the alternative stable state theory.

Whereas our modeling demonstrated that human-constructed wave reduction barriers may be used to decrease the overall SSC in Malheur Lake, there are other means of attaining the same ends. For instance, facilitating the establishment of emergent vegetation in the lake could reduce wind-driven SSC, with results expected to vary among locations based on results of this work. Work in other systems has demonstrated that emergent vegetation can act to dissipate wave energy in shallow lakes, thus decreasing the winds forces and limiting resuspension. The rigid stems of emergent vegetation can dissipate the height of peak turbulence, and thus lower the frequency of resuspension events (increased wave dissipation with stem density). Furthermore, I was unable to find a study that has demonstrated deleterious effects of carp on emergent vegetation, yet there are a large number of studies demonstrating the negative effect of carp on submergent vegetation both directly and indirectly. Therefore, unlike submergent vegetation that is adversely affected by carp, emergent vegetation should be able to persist even in the presence of carp, and thus provide shelter from the forces of wind and potentially promote favorable growing conditions for submergent vegetation during years in which the carp biomass is low either via carp management actions or natural population fluctuations brought on by environmental variability.

A representation of % change in turbidity under the influence of wind reduction.

The potential ability for emergent vegetation to diminish the deleterious effects of wind-wave energy, and the fact that emergent vegetation is seemingly not effected by the presence of carp, led me to consider why there is currently very little emergent vegetation present in Malheur Lake. Historical documents describe how antecedent hydrological events are important in determining the contemporary lake state. For instance, during the prolonged flooding in the 1980’s, Malheur Lake increased to a lake area of ≈ 51,500 ha with a max depth of ≈ 4.4 m, exceeding all previously instrumented recordings. These floods inundated the robust emergent vegetation stands for an extended period of time and under depths at which they may not have been able to survive, and thus once the flooding subsided, Malheur Lake was void of emergent vegetation except for a narrow ring around the lake. Therefore, it has been hypothesized that the loss of emergent vegetation, specifically the rooted structures that act to secure the sediment is why Malheur Lake is now highly susceptible to wind resuspension.

To eventually overcome the momentum of the reinforcing feedback loops pulling Malheur Lake towards the turbid state, results of my research indicate that a large perturbation is needed, and the individual scenarios that I modeled will likely in themselves be ineffective at shifting the lake back to the clear state because their forces are too small in the context of Malheur Lake. Therefore, a more large-scale transformative effort that includes carp management, wind fetch reduction, and transplantation of emergent vegetation will likely be necessary to not only flip the current state, but also to maintain the clear state in perpetuity.

Bird Walk

Join Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Field Biologist and Eastern Oregon Program Coordinator, for a birdy exploration of the Diamond Craters Natural Area. This walk is a 1-2 mile hike rough or uneven terrain with no designated trails.

Meet at the entrance kiosk. Information.

To carpool meet at 8:00 AM at the Burns Safeway. Park along the side of the building.


Working Together For the Birds

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Janelle Wicks

Early this spring the Friends of Malheur NWR announced that we were committed to installing vent screens on all four of the vault toilets located on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These vault toilets are located at Buena Vista, Krumbo Dam, Krumbo Reservoir and P Ranch.

Vault toilets mitigate odors from the underground storage tank by venting air through a pipe in the roof. This pipe, while malodorous and uninviting to us, can look enticing to animals that nest, roost or otherwise utilize cavities in trees and rocks, such as birds and small mammals. When the animals enter the vent and tumble into the tank below, they’re often unable to escape and sometimes perish in the dark, damp, confined space.

Thankfully for wildlife, there is a tidy fix for this messy problem. The Teton Raptor Center, widely credited as being among the first groups to address this issue, teamed up with staff from the U.S. Forest Service to create screens that fit over the vent pipes, keeping wildlife out while maintaining proper air flow. In 2011 the Teton Raptor Center launched a public-awareness campaign called the Port-O-Potty Owl Project; they’ve since helped to distribute and install thousands of these screens on vault toilets on public lands. Friends of Malheur is currently looking to raise money to purchase these screens for the four vault toilets currently installed at Malheur Refuge.

Vault Toilet Screens by Peter Pearsall; Malheur Musings, March 2020

In the March issue of the Malheur Musings newsletter we called for support for this endeavor and several of you, our Friends, answered. Foremost in this response were several individual donations and one $200 contribution from the East Cascade Audubon Society, With these funds we purchased the screens, associated hardware and set about adding this project to our Spring Cleaning stewardship work party which was to take place mid-March.

With the impacts of Covid-19 forcing the closure of the Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store we also cancelled all volunteer activities. Governor Kate Brown’s Stay Home, Save Lives order combined with Non-essential travel restrictions, which remain in place still, required that we get creative about following through on projects without the helpful hands of our Friends volunteers.

Luckily for us, the Refuge shares a partner with the Friends in Portland Audubon. Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator and FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks set out to support one another in the time sensitive task of installing these four vault toilet screens. In addition to this, it was just about nesting season for American kestrels and Portland Audubon still had one more nest box to install.

We are grateful for the collaborative nature of partnership that exists withing the Refuge community here at Malheur. Without this we may have had to put off such an important task, not to mention miss out on an opportunity to see the views from atop a vault toilet.