Malheur occupation could set conservation efforts back years

Invasive carp may recolonize areas they were once eradicated from, depending on how long the occupation lasts.

 

When Ammon Bundy and his militiamen marched into Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 2 with rifles in hand, the occupation was widely construed as an attack on the 315 million co-owners of America’s public lands. But for Linda Beck, Malheur’s fish biologist, the takeover felt discomfitingly personal. It was on Beck’s desk, a cozy corner nook, that the insurgents laid their ammunition boxes and ate their pizza. It was Beck whom they called “carp lady,” and Beck whom Ryan Bundy referred to as “part of what’s destroying America.”

The displaced scientist observed the assault with bewilderment. The rebels claimed to speak for Harney County, but Beck had lived in Burns since 2009, and she’d never hesitated to wear her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform into town. She sat on local library boards and joined quilting groups; she gave talks to Lions Clubs and school classes. “It’s a tight-knit community, and you have to get along with your neighbors — they’re your police officers, your cashiers at Safeway,” Beck told me last week during one of the first interviews she'd given since the standoff began. (She spoke from an undisclosed location after the government moved her and her colleagues in response to threats.) “And people know I come from a ranching family.”

Yes, you read that correctly: Linda Beck — carp lady, symbol of federal overreach, alleged foe of Oregon’s ranchers — is the wife and daughter-in-law of Oregon ranchers. And in thwarting Beck’s research and management efforts at Malheur, the militants aren’t just standing in the way of science; they're potentially obstructing the same “traditional” land uses they endorse. 

Though Bundy’s occupation now dominates the spotlight, Beck has spent years combating an even more insidious invader: common carp. The carp arrived at Malheur in the 1920s, released as a food source by either a local landowner or the feds (no one’s quite sure), and swiftly spread through the refuge’s lattice of ponds and rivers. They took up particularly tenacious residence in Malheur Lake, along whose muddy, shallow bottom they rooted, pig-like, for food. As the carp stirred up gunk, the lake grew cloudier, blocking sunlight from reaching aquatic vegetation. The plants died, and the insects they sheltered disappeared. Lacking habitat or food, the vast flocks of migrating ducks and geese that had once used the refuge as a pit-stop along the Pacific Flyway dwindled to a tenth of their former glory.

malcarp1-jpg
If any refuge knows how to deal with a passel of destructive, seemingly unremovable invaders, it's Malheur.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Native fish have suffered, too: In seven years of surveying the lake, Beck has caught just one red-band trout. “It’s like a big mud puddle now,” she said. “It’s hard to watch.” 

Over the years, the refuge has doused the lake with Rotenone, an aquatic poison, five times. None of the treatments have worked for more than a few years. By the time Beck arrived in Burns in 2009 — she’d moved there from Montana with her husband, who’d returned to work on his father’s ranch — the problem had come to seem intractable. Beck, a longtime federal fisheries biologist who’d researched aquatic invasive species like New Zealand mud snails and whirling disease, had quit her job to relocate to Oregon. Soon after, she turned up at the refuge to volunteer. Two days later, she was hired. Now the carp were her problem.

In the years since, Beck and her colleagues have developed an ambitious carp control playbook. They have installed a bevy of screens and traps to prevent the creatures from moving between water bodies, tracked down their spawning aggregations using telemetry, and experimented with grids that blast eggs and larvae with deadly electrical currents. In 2013, Beck drained 717-acre Boca Lake, creating a smorgasbord of dying carp for pelicans and coyotes, then screened off the lake to prevent future infiltrations. Aquatic vegetation immediately rebounded, followed by bugs, birds and native fish.

Even Malheur Lake, where carp run so thick that their backs create wind-like ripples across the glassy surface, is not beyond hope. A few years back, Beck and other biologists proposed an elegant solution: opening up the lake to commercial fishermen. Hired netters would haul out the carp, which have little market value as human food, and turn them over to Silver Sage Fisheries, a subsidiary separate sister company of Tualatin-based Pacific Foods. The fish would be trucked to Burns, processed into fertilizer, and spread across fields owned by Chuck Eggert, Pacific Foods’ founder. The dead fish would nourish organic hayfields, feed for dairy cows.

“From our perspective, it’s a win-win,” Tim Greseth, executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that helped broker the deal, told me. “We’re restoring the ecology of the lake, putting people to work, and benefiting private enterprise.”

Ammon Bundy sits in Linda Beck’s office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, which the occupiers have used as their headquarters.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Though commercial fishing was supposed to begin in 2015, it was thwarted by drought and low water levels. This year, precipitation has created decent conditions for fishing — assuming the occupiers clear out. A spokesperson from Pacific Foods said the fishing project isn’t scheduled to begin until April. According to Greseth, if the standoff drags on much past then, the contract could conceivably be canceled.

Meanwhile, every day that Ammon Bundy remains parked at Linda Beck’s desk deals another blow to carp suppression. Beck had hoped to remove carp at the mouth of the Blitzen River, which empties into Malheur Lake, within the next two weeks. Meeting that deadline now seems impossible. Absent active removal, carp may recolonize areas from which they’d once been eradicated — efforts that took years to complete. 

“The longer the standoff goes on, the more behind we get in carp control,” Beck lamented. “This is going to set us back three years in our conservation goals.”

Earlier this month, Travis Longcore, an ecologist at the University of Southern California, penned an impassioned and widely shared op-ed, titled “I Stand With Linda Sue Beck,” defending the value of scientific land management. (Beck told me she read Longcore’s missive, and has received supportive emails from strangers around the country.) Longcore opines that the militants’ desire to put Malheur back to “use” devalues research, recreation, conservation and other functions that the refuge already serves. The standoff, Longcore writes, is “an attack on the value and worth of science and scientists in the United States.”

And research isn't the only prospective casualty: Malheur’s upcoming carp-removal project figures to employ commercial fishermen, create local processing jobs, help farmers and feed cows. 

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News.