Greenies, ranchers find common ground in Harney County

PHOTO BY RICHARD WILHELM, COURTESY OF THE WETLANDS CONSERVANCY AND LIGHT HAWK – Water is a precious asset for birds and other wildlife at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, as well as ranchers in the area.

Editor’s note: With all the recent talk about conflict between ranchers and environmentalists in Harney County, Esther Lev, executive director of The Wetlands Conservancy in Portland, has a different take on the issue.Four years ago, four Harney County ranchers invited me to talk with them about flood irrigation, in the hope we might have a common vision.

It took only a few minutes to find a common appreciation of the benefits that spring flood irrigation provides to ranching operations and millions of water birds that stop, feed and rest on their migration north. Wetlands in the Harney Basin, which includes Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, provide critical habitat for a diverse number of bird, plant and amphibian species, and livelihoods for farmers and ranchers. Harney Basin wetlands and Malheur Lake are among the most important places on the continent for migratory birds, supporting more than 320 species of birds.

The waterfowl and waterbird populations that migrate along the Pacific Flyway depend on flooded pastures and meadows for forage, resting and nesting habitat. On the managed wetland/pasture around the basin, public and private lands host hundreds of thousands of waterbirds every spring.

Traditional flood irrigation (which mimics historic natural flood events), and annual haying and grazing can create ideal spring conditions for migratory waterbirds. Floodwaters from melting snowpack in the surrounding mountains are diverted onto fields and pastures, creating shallow ponding among short grasses with an abundance of seeds and invertebrates for waterbirds to feed on. In peak seasons, more than 300,000 snow geese join sandhill cranes, northern pintail, white-faced ibis and other birds in foraging across the Harney Basin’s floodplains.

But this rich area also is at risk. Pressure is mounting for development, and conversion to more efficient irrigation poses a threat to these critical seasonal wetlands. Conversion of these agricultural fields to sprinkler irrigation can have a significant deleterious effect on food production and nesting habitat for thousands of migratory birds.

PHOTO BY RICHARD WILHELM, COURTESY OF THE WETLANDS CONSERVANCY AND LIGHT HAWK – A mosaic of wetlands in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge can be observed from the air.

With success on the first topic, the four ranchers and I cautiously dug a little deeper and explored other shared views. After stories, jokes and occasional ribbing, (after all, they are ranchers from Eastern Oregon, and I’m a conservationist from the Willamette Valley) we recognized a shared love, awe and respect for the landforms, wetlands, water, birds, wildlife and human inhabitants of the Harney Basin. This shared respect for the land, and the value it brings to the people and wildlife, led to brainstorming some wetland and water system restoration and enhancement ideas and projects.Several weeks later, we took some of our new ideas back to our diverse group of partners who had been working together since 2009 on a collaborative Malheur Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. In parallel with the conservation plan process and the birth of the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, there were days spent in the field, ranch visits, phone calls and burgers, beer and bourbon at the Pine Room.

Through the years of the refuge planning process, the partners have created a new language that supports our common visions.

We don’t always agree on every idea, process or project. However, we all agree that one of our highest priorities is a better scientific understanding of the relationships between water table and vegetation composition and the effects of changes on flood duration and groundwater elevation, to help both public and private land managers as they struggle with the balance between providing waterbird habitat and producing nutritious forage for livestock. That information can be used to support more effective and consistent management of both waterbird habitats and irrigation waters.

The result of this effort goes far beyond the measurable benefits to the resources. There are now lasting relationships, built on trust, which lay the foundation for some truly great things to happen in Harney County.