In early September 2020, a series of wildfires ignited throughout Oregon and the Northwest. Many of these fires were ignited by powerlines, downed by a sustained high wind event. These winds, as winds often do, gave these fires a tremendous amount of power. Causing the destruction of many small, rural towns in Oregon, and some not-so-rural towns in Jackson and Clackamas Counties. These fires created controversy, some unfounded and driven by partisan winds, some important, but difficult debate around the idea of why we’re seeing increasingly large, hot fires burning in Oregon’s forests and grasslands.
The question of why is complex, and complexity does not always make a compelling answer. This complexity can be summarized with three main thoughts. First, fire-scar data from Oregon’s forests show that large, stand-replacing fires are part of our forest history. After these fires, habitat is created for many bird species, particularly cavity nesting birds, grasses grew in abundance, and many shrubs and trees that prefer sunlight to thrive (for example huckleberries) could grow.
Second, colonization of the west led to a history of fire suppression. Settlers saw Native use of fire as destructive. A waste of resources. Native Nations were prohibited from practicing their cultures and ceremonies until into the 1970s. For fire dependent cultures, such as the Karuk of northern CA and the Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley this included ceremonial burning in their forests and oak woodlands. The cessation of Native forest management led to increased tree density, encroachment of pines into oak woodlands and meadows/grasslands, and increased shrub density. Western management of forests further increased stand density, removed snags from forests, and in many cases increased the amount of woody debris in forests.
Third, climate change is creating decreased snowpack, prolonged drought, and a problematic mix of increased shrub growth, followed by increased shrub death. The increasing amount of fuel in Oregon’s ecosystems has continued, exponentially, for decades. Because wind tends to dry things out, the high winds, very likely pre-dried already parched fuels for fires, creating an unstoppably fast spread.
When we consider these three things: historic fire regime, a shift in forest management from Native ceremonial burning to western fire suppression, and the effects of climate change on fuel accumulation in Oregon’s landscapes, we have a perfect storm. Now more than ever, we need to turn to the peoples that managed our ecosystems since time immemorial. We need to listen to Native voices and include them in land management decisions. One excellent example of this is the US Forest Service and the Karuk Nation’s partnership. The work the Karuk have done in restoring their culture, fighting for the Klamath, and working to restore their forests is truly inspiring.
We have suppressed our way into a tinderbox and the best way forward, the way to avoid fires that sear forest soils sterile and decimate Oregon’s rural communities, is by reintroducing fire to our fire-dependent ecosystems. This will take time and planning, and likely the thinning of forests pre-burn. Above all, it will take the inclusion of the peoples and Nations whose lands we live on, who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial.
My first visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was in 1986. I went out early one morning to do some exploring on my own and I saw a kit fox, an animal I had never encountered before. It was then and there that I knew I was in a magical place. Thus began my love of and for the Refuge. Over the years, I have continued to visit the refuge at least twice a year. Moving to Central Oregon from the Willamette Valley four years ago has made the trip even easier. Malheur provides me with a sense of peace and wonder. It heightens my senses. I become more observant. I stop and listen more carefully. I watch for small movements. I rejoice in the different textures and colors around me. I gaze in amazement at the variations of light during one single day. I gaze at the magnificent clouds above the wide-open spaces. I have favorite places that I visit every time; they feel like old friends I am dropping in on to see how they are doing. Malheur has helped me become a better photographer. I am able to look at places from a different perspective. I notice small things as well as the larger landscape. From the smallest birds flitting about in the trees to the hawks gracefully soaring in the skies above, there is movement everywhere. I’m always delighted to watch a coyote jump to the top of hay bales to survey the hunting grounds. By being quiet and still, mule deer will stop and watch me with curiosity.
I am always respectful of all inhabitants of the refuge; I never want to frighten or startle an animal or bird. I tread lightly and quietly. In return, I have been witness to so many wonderful scenes. I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit their home.
This year COVID curtailed my travels. I stayed home from mid-February until the week after Labor Day when I ventured over to Malheur from Sisters. It was wonderful to be back in this beautiful place that brings me so much joy. I felt like I could breathe more easily. For the first time in a while, I felt relaxed. I am partial to visiting during the haying season so that I can watch Northern Harriers and coyotes hunting the fields. On every visit I see something new.
I have visited many wildlife refuges all over the United States over the years. While all of them have something interesting about them, Malheur is one of a handful of places that draws me back again and again.
I believe that it is imperative to support the places that we love. We have to work together to protect these special lands. We can never take places like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for granted. It is a privilege to wander this beautiful land that we must never take for granted.
Friends of Malheur Refuge’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce the addition of Alan Contreras and Sheran Wright to its roster. Both are longstanding members of Oregon’s birding community and bring a diverse set of skills and experience to the board.
Alan Contreras is a fourth-generation Oregonian born in Tillamook County. A birder from the age of 11, Alan first visited Harney County in 1969. He has made biannual trips to the Refuge for the past 50 years.
From 2011-2012 Alan served on FOMR’s board while also serving on the board of the Great Basin Society, which operates the Malheur Field Station. “I’ve been a part of the interest groups at Malheur Refuge for quite a while now,” he says.
Alan is semi-retired from a career in higher-education oversight, mostly for the state of Oregon. He is also a writer and editor, notably serving as the editor of “Edge of Awe”, a collection of writings on Malheur Refuge and Harney County from birders, naturalists and other high-desert devotees.
Alan is looking forward to bringing more of Oregon’s birding community into the FOMR fold. “The Refuge is going through a number of transitions now; membership is healthy but we can do better,” he says. “Neither Sheran or I are biologists; neither will we be doing any trail maintenance or tree planting because we’re older—but we do know lots of contacts in the Oregon birding community and we look forward to finding more ways to involve them.”
In 1981 Sheran Wright moved to Oregon from the eastern U.S. and took her first birding trip in August 1983 to Tillamook County, with the Portland Audubon Society. “We saw more than 200 species on that trip, and I was hooked,” she says.
Sheran first visited Malheur Refuge in the spring of 1984, staying at the Malheur Field Station. She’s been back almost every spring and fall, staying a week or more each time. A retired federal labor investigator, Sheran has served on the boards of the Great Basin Society and the Oregon Birding Association (OBA). For years she’s helped organize OBA trips to Malheur Refuge.
Sheran was urged to join FOMR’s board by Alan Contreras. “I thought about it: I’ve been visiting the Refuge for 36 years, I have an ongoing interest in several conservation issues here, such as tree cover and birder access…I was happy to be recommended to the board and look forward to getting more involved here,” she says.
Congratulations, Alan and Sheran! The FOMR Board is fortunate to have them.
Adapted from a USFWS interview with Alexa Martinex (Hispanic Americans: A History of Serving our Nation)
Name: Melinda Alexa Martínez
Where you work and what you do: Wildlife Biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, located in Princeton, OR.
Something you wish to share about your culture, upbringing, important traditions; etc. Growing up from a Mexican background I always enjoyed the holidays and special celebrations since it was a time for everyone to get together, dance, play games and have some amazing food! Honestly, something about food to me is a way to express the heart of one’s culture and tie back an amazing story behind each dish.
We always had cooked certain dishes for different times of the year, which each dish had a special memory. Tamales were made during Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Biscochos (Mexican wedding cookies) were made during wedding celebrations and quinceñeras. Having a rosca de reyes pastry during the posadas around Christmas time and hoping when you cut through the pasty you don’t find the plastic baby Jesus or choke on it when you are eating. Champurrado (thick hot chocolate) was a drink we had during the winter too keep us warm during pecan harvest season. Capirotada (a type of bread pudding) was made during the time of lent. We always had menudo every Sunday with my grandma after church or my Dad’s soccer games. On my Mom’s side, who grew up more from ranching and farming background, we would have matanzas, where a pig is kill and every part of the pig is used for different dishes and shared with friends and family. These are just a few of many examples of how food and traditions are tied back to my Mexican heritage.
No longer living near the borderland of southern New Mexico, El Paso, TX and Cuidad Juárez, Mexico I am not heavily exposed to the Mexican culture. Nevertheless, making these dishes always reminds me of my roots, where I come from and whom I am. It is also nice to share some of these with my staff in FWS and share with them a piece of my culture.
How you found your way to FWS: During the time as an undergraduate at New Mexico State University I was involve in an organization called Natural Resources Career Tracks program in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation. This program helped me get involved with many different agencies and provided me opportunities to build my career within natural resources. Through this program and my involvement with other organizations; such as, the NMSU Wildlife Society, American Fisheries Society, Range Society, Ecology Club and the Chicano programs, all these programs provided volunteer and connection opportunities with USFWS. From banding duck at Bosque del Apache NWR, recapturing Mexican grey wolves, or doing restoration work for Chiricahua leopard frog. I was very inspired by the work being done throughout the service. FWS has definitely been the agency I wanted to be a part of and I am very blessed to have the position I am currently in.
How you became interested in the work you do: Throughout my life, I have always had a connection with natural resources. I grew up in an agricultural community and I expose to the outdoors and the different types of wildlife. I use to love jumping in the back of my grandpa’s pick up and go ride through the agricultural fields. While he would checked the fields and the crops I use to go out and play in the ditch and the irrigation canals to see what I can find. From jackrabbits, rattle snakes, kit foxes, coyotes, roadrunners, lizards, tortoises, owls, bats and many more. It was always nice to walk outside my back yard and explore around the Chihuahuan dessert.
As a family we would always be traveling during the summer to visit other family members throughout the US and Mexico. Travelling help open my eyes at a young age to see what other types of environments were out in the world other than my homeland. When we were not planning large road trips, I was fortunate to have my family take me to areas such as White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Lincoln National Forest, and the Gila National Forest. I was so in awe with these places and the people who got to work there. I just knew this is what I needed to do!
Personal reflection about your job: (i.e. what’s most rewarding, challenging, exciting, etc) The most rewarding part of my job is to watch the people enjoy themselves at the refuge. With the tragic occurrence that happened at Malheur NWR it is amazing to see how much this refuge really means to the public and to see and hear about their appreciation for the work done by refuge staff is very rewarding. During school group visits, I love when children tell me they want to be a biologist like me when they grow up and help protect habitat and wildlife. It just warms my heart. I honestly could not ask for any other reward.
I also enjoy being a part of the big picture in the work of conservation. Being able to work alongside partners and agencies to achieve the same mission is amazing!
Most exciting thing? Oh, where to begin? Every day can be exciting! One day I am flying in a fix-winged aircraft-counting waterfowl, trapping carp, doing outreach, becoming a drone pilot, and the next thing I know I am working during the night chasing ducks with an airboat for duck banding. I do have my slow days every now and then, but I enjoy my job very much.
I have only been with the service for a little under four years and I already have so many amazing memories. I can only imagine what the future holds for me as I continue my career within FWS.
Anything else you want to add: either personal or professional such as what you like to do in your leisure time, your favorite species to work with, interesting work experience, where you would like your career to lead you to, etc. My career is still at its beginning, but I am definitely excited to see where I can grow and learn from all the different programs FWS has to offer and the places to explore. I have met so many different people within the service and they are all so special and play such a big role in the mission of the service. It is all so inspiring! I could not ask for a better agency to call home and my family.
You know, when my family came to the states from Mexico, they would work any job to help supply for their family. My parents have sacrificed and worked hard for my sisters and myself to make sure we have an education and get the opportunity to follow our dreams. I am the first from both sides of my family to graduate from college and land my dream job, and I could not have that opportunity without them. To that, I am forever grateful to parent because I would not be in the position I am today if it was not for them. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for me, and I hope I am making them proud.
I also want to thank all the mentors I have whom all have played an important role in my life and have assisted me when times are hard. I hope someday to help inspire the new generation of Latinos who are striving a career within natural resources, just as my mentors have for me.
What does Hispanic Heritage month mean to me? For me, Hispanic Heritage month is a time for all Hispanic people to be able to look back, recognize and see all the amazing work and influence their ancestors had in the United States. This month allows me to appreciate what my family has sacrificed and worked so hard for, which allowed me to live my American dream. It is a great reminder that I may have been born in this country, but I will never forget where I came from and how my culture has helped me become the person I am today. I am a U.S. citizen by paper, but I am a Mexican by blood. These two combinations is what makes me unique just like everyone else in this country.
First the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, scheduled for mid-April, was canceled. Then the Friends Annual Meeting and Weekend Gathering, was canceled. As COVID 19 spread around the United States, people scrapped their travel plans and stayed home.
For those who love Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, many of whom make an annual spring visit, it’s been especially difficult. But the vital work at the refuge continues, and FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks brought the experience to us via a virtual series of programs on Zoom. Each presentation is available on YouTube which you can get to from our Facebook page.
The first program began Monday, Aug. 17, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Janelle invited viewers to bring a glass of their favorite beverage to the computer or tablet and hear staff talk about their work for a virtual Happy Hour and Refuge Update.
Board director Gary Ivey presented a program on Trumpeter Swans Tuesday.
Wednesday afternoon’s program was Principles and Pitfalls of Bird Identification by prolific writer and birder Kenn Kaufman who spoke via zoom from his living room in Ohio. His tips numbered 12 in all, summarized here. “Focus on understanding and not just naming birds,” he began. “Think of it as a spectrum of understanding.”
Learn various aspects of the shape, color and feathers of a bird as well as habitat. Start with more common birds, he counseled. Notice the shapes as they fly. Put the bird in a family if you can. Get to know the fluidity of feathers, the tail pattern and colors keeping in mind color can change in the light and depending on the season. And understand it’s going to take time.
That evening musician and songwriter presented Stephan Nance with compositions inspired by avian life. There were some technical difficulties, but you can listen to Nance’s music on a variety of platforms.
Did you know adult male Sandhill Cranes are called roans, females mares and chicks, colts? Gary Ivey shared his extensive knowledge and experience with these magnificent birds with an extensive slide presentation Thursday.
He began with some history: While once abundant in the West, populations were reduced in the late 1800s and beyond due to hunting and habitat loss. By the 1940s, just 5 breeding pairs remained in California and 100 in Oregon. None remained in Washington State. While they have made a comeback, threats remain.
Dan Streiffert and the East Cascade Audubon group shared their Birders’ Night program Thursday evening. Dan gave his presentation Birding Malheur & Beyond which is a 3 part tour of birding through Harney County accompanied by his photography.
Friday afternoon brought the return of super birder Kenn Kaufman with a must-see (and hear) presentation on shorebirds. What IS a shorebird? Why are some found nowhere near water? Again, a detailed slide presentation filled with information and photographs helped those of us who have struggled for years with identifying these birds.
On Friday evening, Janelle was joined by her wife, Teresa ‘Bird’ Wicks for their 4th rendition of Malheur Trivia. This casual, pub-style trivia program allows for participants across the country to form or join groups to play and learn. This month’s winners were the Peeps and each will receive a bumper sticker!
Finally, the week was wrapped up on Saturday with a virtual auction that raised ~$400 off of items that were donated in large part by local businesses.
To see the whole line-up of programs, visit our Facebook page or website. Links to the YouTube presentations are available on the website.