The Harney Basin Revival: The Role of Carp Wrangling and Consensus Building

Troubled by a massive invasion of common carp, biologists at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are implementing a control strategy. 

In southeast Oregon, an unlikely set of partners have come together to address the future of some of North America’s most important bird habitats. The challenges here – a tenacious carp and a culture of conflict – have long seemed insurmountable. But things are changing as a result of new partnerships; collaboration, cooperation, and good science are set to trump decades of conflict and failure. And this means the future looks brighter for the northern anchor of the SONEC (Southern Oregon-Northeastern California) region.

The high desert marshes and rich meadows of the Harney Basin have long attracted millions of migratory birds. But Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the basin’s centerpiece, has been declining in health for years. An exploding population of non-native common carp in Malheur Lake, the heart of the refuge and the largest freshwater marsh in the West, has been pushing it toward ecological collapse. Introduced decades ago, carp have destroyed the lake’s marshes by uprooting vegetation and creating a vast, murky expanse of open water. A lake that once annually produced more than 100,000 ducks and geese and sustained peaks of more than half a million migrating waterfowl now supports less than 10% of its historic numbers. On the floodplains outside the Malheur Refuge’s boundaries, where traditional flood irrigation, haying, and grazing create ideal spring conditions for migratory waterbirds, private lands still host hundreds of thousands of waterbirds every spring. These ideals are at risk as private lands face increasing pressure to develop as well as convert to more efficient irrigation systems. Such threats would put a significant dent in the volume of spring floodwaters that replenish these habitats.

A gaggle of Snow Geese take flight over hay meadows on the Silvies River floodplain near Burns, Oregon. 

Things began to change in 2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kicked off a collaborative process that engaged dozens of stakeholders in developing a new 15-year management plan for the Malheur Refuge. Ranchers and wildlife advocates worked with federal, state, tribal, and local government officials to set aside years of conflict and controversy and achieve a remarkable consensus on the refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan. The top priorities: an aggressive basin-wide carp control effort coupled with science-based adaptive management using a broad range of strategies to improve wetland health. Buoyed by the success of the refuge planning effort, a diverse group of stakeholders continues to collaborate under the new Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative. The coalition’s goals: to implement a basin-wide carp control strategy and work with private landowners to conserve important bird habitats beyond the refuge’s boundaries. With support from the High Desert Partnership, a community-based organization that helped host the collaborative planning process for Malheur Refuge, the stakeholders are working to secure federal and state funding for carp control efforts and to open up communication with owners of key floodplain properties. The Intermountain West Joint Venture helped fund the High Desert Partnership’s work on the management plan and the wetlands initiative through its Capacity Grants Program.  Thanks to these notable improvements brought about with collaboration and good science, an important piece of the extraordinary SONEC landscape may be conserved.



Also in the Winter, 2013 issue of Conservation Roundup: