Water and Wetlands in the Arid Harney Basin

It is been a really dry or “drought year” in Harney County, which directly impacts wet meadow plant composition and habitat quality for wildlife, cattle and water management decisions. For more than ten years, The Wetlands Conservancy has been working in partnership with the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, wetland ecologists and private landowners to document wet meadow plant communities and diversity in response to changing water levels, timing and in turn subsequent water management decisions. The first few years, at the end of each field season, we would stop and consider whether to count it as the first year of the study, as the conditions were a bit different and didn’t seem to match what we thought was “normal”.  Over the years, we have learned that “normal” is always changing and unpredictable. The predictable is the adaptability of the wildlife that utilize the wet meadows and the refuge and private landowners who manage the water.

This year of extreme drought provided another look into both the ecological and social processes and functions that influence Harney Basin wet meadow habitat composition and quality. In addition to conducting plant surveys for multiple years, we have been doing one on one and group conversations with private landowners about their wet meadow management strategies and observations over time. The ranchers who manage wet meadow habitats in the Basin face economic pressures and challenges to continue to maintain working lands, water and wildlife resource values. They are continually confronted with challenges in water supply and scarcity brought on by changing climate, aging infrastructure, and changing regulations. Some ranchers reaching retirement age have no younger family members wanting to continue the ranching operation, which represents a potential threat to long-term maintenance of these important wetlands.  Annual water and vegetation management play an integral part in providing the necessary habitat for migrating and nesting waterbirds of the Harney Basin.

Research on wet meadow management was common during the 1950s to 1970s, with the number of articles declining after the early 1980s. The early research was conducted on native flood meadows dominated by native species of grass, sedge and rush. The vegetation composition of the meadows began to shift in the early 1980s.  The conversations with private landowners and past biologists and reviewing old Malheur National Wildlife Refuge surveys have added incredible context and depth to our plant surveys and change over time analysis.

We have found biologists, birders, wetland enthusiasts, ranchers and refuge staff share a common love and desire to maintain the Harney Basin wet meadows in perpetuity. We look forward to continued conversations, research and management experiments to implement our collective vision.

-Esther Lev, Director, The Wetlands Conservancy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *