Deceptive Waters of Malheur Lake

Located in Harney Basin in eastern Oregon, Malheur Lake sits within the 187,000 acres of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an area that is an important wildlife habitat. Aquatic Biologist, Dominic Bachman, at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge shares insights into whether this body of water is really a lake or not, ecology, history, and conservation efforts within the refuge.


Dirty Freehub 0:20

Welcome to the Duty Free Hub Connection. I’m your host, Kira Corbett. And today our guest is Dominic Bachmann, aquatic biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located in southeast Oregon’s high desert, adjacent to the steep mountains. It is an important place for abundant wildlife, habitat and natural resources. tell us a little bit about Malheur Lake. Like, where is it located? How big is it? What does it look like?

Dominic Bachman 0:46

Malheur Lake is in southeast Oregon, in the northern part of Harney County, about 20 miles south of the town of Burns, Oregon. So remote. Big, big county, big area of Malheur Lake itself. It’s a terrible name. It’s not really a lake. It’s a wetland. At Max, right now, it’s probably 25,000 acres and it’s knee deep would be about the deepest that it is. So

Dominic Bachman 1:16

It’s confusing. So it’s, I think, more like a swamp or a wetland than like a lake that you would go fishing on. In fact, very difficult access. The valley’s extremely flat and the only boats that can get out there mostly are airboats like hovercraft fan boat looking very.

Dirty Freehub 1:35

So if it’s not necessarily like a lake, what kinds of plants and like, wildlife is usually found in this area.

Dominic Bachman 1:41

it’s famous for migratory birds. It’s actually the reason that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established is that there was a bunch of different migratory colonial nesting birds, egrets and herons and ibis and things like that. We have a lot now of waterfowl, also ducks and geese and swans and things like that live and nest and spring and fall migration foraging in the lake. as far as vegetation, it looks like a lot of wetlands that you can imagine a tulip which is hard, simple Russian cattails growing out there. In some years, like last year, we had some clear water and there’s like a lot of what’s called submerged vegetation. So you can imagine, like your fishing and catching the seaweed you catch. That’s what’s growing out there. And it’s loaded with little seeds and bugs and all sorts of good things for the birds to eat.

Dirty Freehub 2:37

So you’re saying if I was fishing, I’d be catching some seaweed?

Dominic Bachman 2:42

Yeah. It is actually interesting. The waters can be so shallow out there. I call it the Harney County tides in that I can park that airboat and the wind is blowing a lot, it’ll actually blow the entire lake to the other side of the lake and there won’t be any water anymore. So the water actually moves back and forth, depending on how deep it is and depending how windy it is.

Dirty Freehub 3:04

Oh, that’s actually kind of fascinating. I don’t think I’ve heard that before.

Dominic Bachman 3:06

Yeah, it’s it’s it’s wild. You park the boat and go up on land and do something, come back and go, Oh, the lake moved.

Dirty Freehub 3:15

That’s hilarious. Now, I know the indigenous people played a big role in taking care of the lake. What kind of history might lie around this area?

Dominic Bachman 3:24

So a couple of things. If we go back in sort of pre-history now here Lake is part of Historic Lake now here, which is a Pleistocene lake Pleistocene Lake Malheur that was like 900 square miles, covered a huge area in southeastern Oregon. And it actually flowed out into the Malheur River and into the Snake River and into the Pacific Ocean. the current Malheur Lake is just a mini sort of bottom of that lake, which is it’s it’s called Indoor Lake or a terminal lake. It has no outlet. Similar ones that you’ve probably heard of in Oregon. We have a lake. And then there’s a much more famous one, the Great Salt Lake, where it’s just the end. And in this case, the Blitzen River and the still these river terminate this lake. A lot of these lakes are hypersaline salty lakes. This particular one, Malheur Lake, is a freshwater lake, which is kind of rare for a terminal lake, the native people. So currently we have the Burns Paiute tribe that is in the area. And I will say I’m a little underqualified to talk about all the details of the indigenous people, but I know some of the basics of the history of Malheur Lake So historically, the band of Northern Paiutes was the Why did Ekiti. known as like root and plant collectors. They use the lake in a bunch of different ways. their important foods is called WADA. be a plant called seaweed. And the genus. Way to imagine, like a little black tumbleweed looking thing that they collected seeds from the Tooheys or hard, simple brush. They weave them into all kinds of things fishing nets and traps and shoes and things they use the willows that were surrounding the edge of the lake to make all sorts of different things as well. In fact, there was a really neat thing I was reading about a few years ago where they found 10,000 year old pair of of basically sandals that was made out of sagebrush fibers that were like shredded out and then weave together. So we as human beings have been using the lake for all kinds of things. One of the neat things, especially about Mountain Lake, is just that it rises and falls massively. In the 1980s, it was over 100,000 acres and just two years ago it was about 1000 acres. So depending on how much water there is, it can it can be really cover a huge area or a very small area.

Dirty Freehub 5:51

This is, like, at risk for potentially drying out because of that

Dominic Bachman 5:55

Well, it’s an arid wetland. So wetlands are actually designed to dry out in a way. But I think there are some risks. So you’re correct, this county has increased massively the amount of ground wells for agriculture, mostly alfalfa, and has increased its use of the river systems for irrigation across meadows and things on the refuge and off the refuge. One of the main beautiful wells in our area, natural springs, dried up in 2016. T headquarters office that I’m talking to you from of the Malheur Refuge was based originally as a ranch in the site because of this 3000 gallon spring that is no longer flowing.

Dirty Freehub 6:37

Now, I know High Desert Partnership in the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative play a big role in kind of taking care of this or managing some of the potential dangers with the lake. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Dominic Bachman 6:50

that collaborative is a group of ranchers farmers, state, federal agencies, nonprofits that also care about Harney County and the wetlands and the natural ecosystem, as well as our economy. And they they all come together to work on different grants and projects and plans of how we can all move forward. Those things, even though agriculture and wildlife and some of these things might be kind of pulling in different directions, a really neat collaboration of people and the ideas of partnership. What it does is it’s kind of the glue that collaborate brings these groups together. They bring in outside moderator to help moderate if there’s any issues between groups or things like that. And they brought in an incredible amount of funds over the last over the last decade towards wetlands and to Malheur Lake,

Dirty Freehub 7:43

Well, yeah, it’s really neat. Collaborative with being able to integrate all of those. Now, how can cyclists play a role in helping the lake?

Dominic Bachman 7:51

Yeah, I wanted to talk a quick second about how where the cyclists could go. And just because of my role, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a lot of national wildlife refuges only allow biking in certain areas.

Dirty Freehub 8:03

Mm hmm.

Dominic Bachman 8:03

this refuge, we allow cyclists to go anywhere that vehicular traffic is allowed. And we do have right up your alley a lot of miles of gravel roads on refuge that offer refuge. That would be great for cycling. So what could cyclists or other conservationists do to help with Malheur Lake One of the things that is super valuable to us, and it’s helped my program, which is the aquatic health program, is the Friends of Malheur Refuge. So that’s a nonprofit that actually helps the refuge get things done. They have a specific program where you can actually pay a small fee to make a donation to to the carp program, and you get to actually put a carp scale on this giant fish. One of our biggest battles for Malheur Lake has been an invasive fish called common carp. And what the carp does is it stirs up the water and eats all the vegetation and makes it so that the lake basically looks like chocolate milk and none of the fish can survive there. No plants can really grow there. And it just turns into almost a wasteland out there when carp populations are high. we actually removed almost all the carp, 43 tons of them to falls ago. So they’re very few right now, but that population will come back. One female can have 3 million eggs. So supporting that and then also there may be some opportunities in the future. We just got a grant through help with the Hydro’s a partnership to put in this really cool electronic barrier that stops the carp from coming up the river when the lake gets low. And that actually is kind of like, if you can imagine at the mall an escalator, you push a couple of buttons and it actually lifts the cart up like an escalator and drops them in the back of a truck. So less volunteer work. We could we could use help mostly through the Friends of Malheur. But you could you could sign up as a refuge volunteer. We have lots of opportunities for that. We have housing and an RV park designed just for volunteers that want to stay here and volunteer on the refuge.

Dirty Freehub 10:09

I appreciate those extra tidbits. Those are always fascinating.

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