Malheur Refuge Occupation Gave Invasive Fish Species A Leg Up

Mar 14, 2016

Work is resuming at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Employees had to stay away during the 41-day armed occupation. During that time, some critical work on controlling the common carp got missed.

The carp is an invasive species that really messes up bird habitat on Malheur Lake. Linda Beck is a fish biologist at the refuge. She says they were planning to divert water away from the lake and catch thousands of pounds of carp before they got there. But that was supposed to happen in January; then, the occupation got underway.

Linda Beck: And so what happened is the lake was at about 2,000 acres, now it's at 20,000 acres. Now all those fish are not concentrated in that one focal place. So we missed our opportunity to capitalize on the concentration of carp.

Geoff Norcross: What are you going to do?

LB: Well, we're just going to develop a new game plan. I'm going to meet with the commercial fishermen next week and we're going to put together a new game plan for this upcoming spring and summer. Hopefully, we can catch some of those fish that we missed our opportunity to catch in January.

GN: How commercially viable is the common carp? Do people want to eat it?

LB: Not a lot here in the United States. There are some populations that really love carp, but a lot of the carp that are caught in the United States are exported to China. But it's kind of hard, because Burns is so remote. It's costs a lot. So the commercial fishermen that are coming to the lake, they're going to be turning the carcasses into fertilizer.

GN: Can you give me a sense of how big of a job this is going to be because you lost all that work at the beginning of the year?

LB: Yeah. We need to remember that one female carp can have over a million eggs.

GN: Oh my.

LB: And so, given that there were thousands of carp at the mouth, we could potentially have a really big recruitment year. So there will be a lot of spawning. And given that we weren't able to control the water, and our lake raised so fast, there's probably going to be a huge potential for a real big spawn this year.

GN: Stepping back a little bit. The refuge is for the birds. It's supposed to be a habitat for bird populations. Can you give me a sense of what the common carp infestation means for bird habitat, and why it's a bad thing?

LB: Sure. Back in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt came out to the refuge, if you scared up a flock of birds the sky turned black. That's how many birds were out there, it actually blocked the sun because there's millions of birds. And now, at times when I'm out on the lake, because of the common carp and the water quality, I might only see five or 10 birds out there. Their numbers are really low because the common carp have come in and they cause the water to become really turbid. It's like a big mud puddle. So the light can't penetrate to grow the aquatic plants that the birds utilize as food.

GN: When you get past the rhetoric, and you get past the legal proceedings and the investigations and everything, the very center of this controversy is, who is best suited to care for this land? Is it the federal government, or is it local ranchers, local farmers, local fishermen? I know you have deep roots in the community, you come from a ranching family. But you're also a federal employee. I wonder what perspective you bring to that conversation.

LB: Yeah. One thing we need to remember is the landscape is resilient, and so are the people. No matter what happens, it's going to keep functioning. How it functions is a matter of who's managing it. I guess my perspective is, right now I think we're doing really good things for the environment. And there is some opposition, but we have a lot of collaborative groups that we're working with. I think we're doing a really great job trying to balance the federal government needs versus private landowners, and even the tribal interests. I feel like we're actually a really good example of that across the whole United States.

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