Words of Water

Written by Linh Nguyen/Photos by Alan Nyiri

As a Professional Science Masters student intern from Oregon State University, my program requires an internship consisting of a meaningful research project that will serve the organization I work with. In constructing the framework of my project for this internship, Ms Wicks and I settled on a project  that is a visually engaging outreach display of quotes about the Refuge, we call it the Words for Water project. I would be reading books, and collecting quotes about the landscape of the refuge through time from multiple sources . 

The more I read about the refuge, the more I admire the rich history of the land. It was first the home of the Burns Paiute Indian Tribe. Seasonally, the Wadatika Band lived in caves, and near shorelines, where they hunted for fish and game, and gathered seeds and fruits among other things. The first recorded encounter of the Paiute Tribe with the remaining part of the world started with Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper from Hudson’s Bay. In their expedition, they passed Malheur, Mud, and Harney lakes, and when they entered the Harney Valley on September 6th 1845, Jesse Harritt, a diarist in the party praised: 

“As we advanced this morning the beautiful scenery increased; this valley is one of the most sublime places I ever saw; […] the soil is rich and beautifully set with fine grass, intermingled with patches of sage; the mountains to the north in places are thinly set with pine and cedar timber.” 

From 1859 to 1865, the U.S. Military and Oregon Volunteers also explored the Harney Basin, Lt. Joseph Dixon wrote of the area north of Malheur Lake from the crossing of the Silvies River (June 1859): 

“to the base of the mountains, a distance of about 18 miles, the country is a beautiful level valley, covered with a luxuriant growth of bunch grass, wild pea vines, and red clover, interspersed with fields of camas on a rich soil abundantly watered by numerous mountain streams…. This wide savannah or grassy meadow section is abundant; antelope, deer, elk, and several species of grouse, prairie chickens, ducks, geese, etc.” 

As can be imagined from these two excerpts, the area was beautiful and thriving vigorously, with rich biodiversity. 

In June 1872, Peter French departed from the Sacramento Valley with 1,200 head of cattle, a Chinese cook, and a dozen vaqueros. The Donner und Blitzen River was enticing to French, as Giles French, his biographer noted, “This valley, surrounded by sloping hills on which grass grew as high as a man’s stirrups, looked like cattle heaven to Peter French and he thought it could be just that if range and cattle were properly managed.” French and his men altered the sagebrush steppe and diverted the natural flow of the river by flooding the lower Donner und Blitzen, to promote the growth of meadow grass. Giles French, wrote: 

“His irrigation projects … held the water of Malheur Lake at a lower level, causing more dry land between the water and the meander line. The meander line is a surveyed line which follows the outline of some given stream, lake, or swamp. Such lines were later to have profound impact on the life of Peter French.”

Indeed, the contest between French and homesteaders who moved onto lands below the meander line is the cause to his murder in 1897. 

You can see how, having begun this internship during these unprecedented times, reading these historical accounts is my only opportunity to come to know the landscape of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding Harney Basin. There is a deep and dynamic history that is inextricably connected to the land. Small windows to this world of water and land can be found among these words. I found my favorite quote among all these books.

“One of the greatest values of our national wildlife refuges is that they preserve nature unspoiled and provide a place where persons can go to repair the damage done by the rattle and clang of civilization. Nature aids us in placing human relations in proper perspective”

(Jackman and Scharff 1968:65). 

Responsible Recreation on the Refuge

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

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.”

The Difference Between Rabbits and Hares

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!

Youth Artist in Residence Program

Art Gallery & Competition

The Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in conjunction with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, sponsored the annual Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program. Wildlife Refuge Specialist Carey Goss and a local artist spent eight days traveling to schools in Burns, Diamond, Frenchglen, Crane, Drewsey, Riley, Double O, and Fields. The program combines history, art and science and served almost 600 students in grades K-8.

This year, in the face of Covid-19, we are modifying this program to engage our rural students through a virtual gallery of their artwork. We hope you enjoy the creative genius of our local youth. Enjoy!

This program has annual costs of approximately $1,200. We are proud to share this with you and hope that you will consider supporting the Youth Artist in Residence Program.


Spring Water Management

Written by Debby De Carlo/ Photo by Peter Pearsall

Sandhill Cranes are passing through, white-face ibis, curlew and other waterbirds have arrived at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the refuge is ready for the breeding birds. Managing water for best uses at the Refuge looks straightforward in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan. But there are new or different variables every year, USFWS Wildlife Biologist Alexa Martinez explained. “We make our decision(s) based on the fields and ponds that have the highest priority for wildlife benefit and then to our haying program which also provides stubble habitat for other species of wildlife as well as hay for livestock. It may vary from year to year due to the amount of water we receive and how fast it comes down from the snowpack on the Steens. Usually the manager, biologist and maintenance crew get together to make a final decision by March 1, with a water plan for the year.”

One big challenge, said Maintenance Supervisor Ed Moulton, is moving the water from the southern end of the Refuge to the northern end. “We use canals, ditches and dams,” Moulton noted. “It’s very labor intensive. If it comes off the mountain gradually, that is good. When it comes off fast, that is not good, but we take it when we can get it.”

There are ponds, called impoundments, that hold the water when there is a good amount of precipitation in early spring. Last year was a good water year, with a good snowpack and plenty of precipitation in the spring, though the water did come off the mountain a little fast, creating a bit of a headache for water managers on the refuge. 

By moving surface water throughout the Refuge by way of canals, ditches and dams, and by using flood-irrigation to create wet meadow habitat, there is diverse wetland habitat for nesting birds and for the millions of birds stopping over to rest as they migrate to more northern nesting grounds. 

A benefit of spreading water across the desert landscape is the creation of wet meadows, or haying fields. Besides providing nesting habitat for meadow dependent species like Bobolinks, neighboring ranchers cut the hay in the fall, hay they can feed to their cattle. The resulting stubble provides forage for spring migrating birds as they fly north.

Throughout the Silvies Floodplain, and wetland habitat around the refuge, some area ranchers participate in the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, coordinating with conservation groups, land management agencies, and other stakeholders to maximize conservation benefits for wildlife and production benefits for agriculture. They primarily achieve these objectives through flood-irrigation, similar to the surface irrigation used by the Refuge According to Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator and biologist Dr. Teresa Wicks, flood irrigation is time consuming and labor intensive for these ranchers,” she said. Using wells for irrigation can be less labor intensive, but may not be sustainable in the desert. “As groundwater is pumped out of the ground for agriculture, the water table has been drawn down. As the groundwater table has been drawn down, surrounding wells and groundwater dependent ecosystems have potentially been affected. “Conversion from flood-irrigation, using surface water, to sprinkler irrigation, using groundwater would remove habitat for migrating waterfowl and waterbirds,” Dr. Wicks added. “Surface water is important. For example, in years where less water makes it to Harney Lake, the lake becomes more saline. Brine shrimp and alkali flies can’t survive in water that is too saline. So in particularly low water years, this important food source for migrating and breeding shorebirds may not be available.” “Water management for ecosystems, the economy, and society are why collaboration with all the partners in the region is so important and will continue to be if predictions of future widespread drought, and increased climatic variability in the West are accurate,” she added.

Looking east from 205 towards Malheur Lake in late February 2020.
Photo by Janelle Wicks

Due to high amounts of water entering the system throughout 2019 parts of the refuge and surrounding areas are seeing benefits with remnant surface water from the previous year. Mid-February saw the spread of surface water from the lake to the Narrows wayside, which had been long hoped for over the last few years. Now, geese, ducks, and even pronghorn are visiting this oasis and are visible from the pullout on 205. We can only imagine the sheer magnitude of similarly vibrant and thriving habitats across the Refuge’s 187,000 acres.