My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Friday, March 9, 2012

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge - First Impressions

I've worked at Malheur NWR five days now and am pretty overwhelmed with EVERYTHING - the place, the people and all the different stuff I get to do.

First, the place: This a a place of contradictions. It's a wetland in the Oregon High Dessert. The area feels like a flatland, surrounded by low mountains, but the basin itself is at an altitude of 4093 feet and Steen Mountain, the tallest mountain, is 9700 feet. The water runs in but it doesn't run out.  It has to leave  by evaporation or sink into the ground and get used by plants. Long ago, Lake Malheur was connected to the sea, but a basalt uplift blocked it's passage so the final place for the liquid water is in Lake Harney, which, of course, is very salty. The landscape is a mix of soft and hard.  The rounded hills look soft but there are lots of rocky outcroppings that are hard. And there are hard transitions between rises and plateaus.
View of Steens Mt. from Buena Vista Overlook - miles of valley in between

A "soft" spot where the marsh is turning to dry fields

Rocky outcropping

"Soft" sage-green hills in the evening light
 And the Size of it: 
You can't figure out how vast the area is because you can see so far. I find myself speeding because I don't feel like I'm going past anything. I think Steens Mountain, the 35 mile long block mountain that supplies most of our water through snow melt via the Donner und Blitzen River, is about 50 miles from headquarters, but is visible from our high point where the fire tower is and from the auto tour road. And at night, I can see the lights of Burns, about 30 miles away.
View of Steens Mt. from Frenchfglen where the Steens Mt. driving loop starts
I'm reading a book I found in the house, The Oregon Desert, written in 1964 by two friends, a "cowboy who thought like a scientist" and  " scientist who thought like a cowboy. Reub, the cowboy, says you don't measure the desert in miles, but in looks.  It's a good ten looks across.. I think I've traveled about half a look so far.

And the remoteness of this place:
 Malheur NWR is in Harney County, the largest county in Oregon and the ninth largest county in the United States.  But it only has 7,600 residents so the towns are both small and far apart.  I think I can drive 6 miles for stuff like white bread (Ugh) and milk. The first Safeway is in Burns.which is 32 miles away.  The town where everyone goes for major shopping  and doctor visits is Bend which is 160 miles away. The staff lives in Burns and carpools to work. Yesterday I drove over 100 miles and saw maybe 6 other vehicles. Today I drove about 90 miles and saw three cars.

View looking south down Hwy 205 to Steens Mountain - upper right white line.
Second, the People: All the people here are go-getters with big ideas and the energy to make things happen. The volunteers get to go to the staff meetings and give input and learn what everyone else is doing. This contributes to the family feeling.  I've liked and admired everyone I've met and several people already feel like new friends.

Third, my jobs: Every time I open my mouth, I'm given another interesting job even though my calendar says I'm only working in the Visitor Center.. So far, I
  • am working on retrieving the numbers of ducks here in the spring from the Refuge narratives and putting the information on an Excel sheet.  When finished, it is going to one of the speakers at the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival for him to use in his presentation. (This refuge was established in 1902, so it took parts of four days to finish this job. I probably would have not taken so long if I didn't get trapped into reading funny stories or following the reintroduction of Trumpeter Swans. ) 
  • worked on planning to cook carp into various appetizers for the Carp Workshop next week.  I'll also be the cook IF the staff can find the carp. And be the carp cleaner/preparer. Since it's so cold - 14 degrees as I write this, with a high of 45 degrees expected -the carp are probably down too deep to easily net so this may not happen. ( Thought I was off the hook with this one, but, but just as I was starting off to play, a happy staffer gave me two carp and promised me he was working tomorrow and expected to get lots more. )
  • will be taking little environmental learning activities  to share with Paiute Indian Children in an afternoon program on Fridays. (There is a reservation in Burns.)
  • will get to attend the three-day Carp Conference and will also be a general gofer - and possible cook  - there. 
  • have been directed to take the trail brochure and hike all the trails and make sure the brochure description matches the trail conditions and length. (Hiked one this afternoon.)
  • have been told to familiarize myself with the Draft Comprehensive and Conservation Plan so I can discuss the three alternatives with visitors. 
  •  have been given the job of inventorying 4 housing areas so they have everything they need for the volunteers.  (Got two of them done.)
  • have been given the job of filling the bird feeders as needed  (So I take my binoculars, fill the feeders and check out new arrivals in the trees, grasses and pond.)
  •  will drive around the 45 mile auto tour, as well as other places to fill up the brochure boxes.(Took parts of two days to find them all but I've got this job figured now. )
  • have  been given the job of producing a Power Point show about the refuge that has to be ready by
    April 7.
  • will be leading a tour of the refuge or driving the second van on some of the tours that happen during the bird festival. 
  • will work on scanning pictures from the narratives of the refuge. 
  • will be a wandering docent starting next month. 
  •  will be entering bird sightings in Facebook to keep up with our new arrivals.  We are getting new species in on an almost daily basis right now. (Today's new species were green-wing teal and shovelers. )
  • will, of course,  work in the Visitor Center.  But we have had NO visitors yet since I've been here so I have lots of time to work on other projects. And some of them will keep me out of trouble in the evenings. 
And I've already been "got" here. I took this picture at 2:30 P. from Highway 205.

A lone cowboy drives a few cattle about a mile away from Highway 205

This picture was taken about 5:30 from about a quarter of a mile away.

Or maybe not.
I gave everyone a good laugh when I told this story at work.  I found out that Dwight Hammond is a rancher whose lands adjoin the refuge. He used to have grazing rights on the refuge  and has had bad feelings about the refuge phasing them out. I think he put up these sculptures out of spite, but it makes for a beautiful scene and is a reminder that a few ranchers were successful in the Oregon High Desert.

And Harney County is one of the top producers of beef in the country. 

Yesterday, I ended up working late and doing the 45 mile drive home, again stopping lots of times for pictures while checking that the auto tour signs were all up. My reward was this an awesome moonrise, complete with a moon dawn of red clouds.
Even the moon looks closer here- this moonrise even came up with a red cloud ahead of it