A long overdue update and an appeal for your leadership help from the Friends of Hart Mountain
Since our last newsletter at the end of 2019, the world has changed much for many people, but Hart Mountain still sits solidly in the high desert of the Northern Great Basin. Sage-Grouse still perform their age-old dances and Pronghorn still sprint across the Refuge’s vast steppes. With these reassuring facts in mind, the Friends of Hart Mountain is asking for your help and involvement in the leadership of our organization. First, we must apologize for our lack of regular communication with you, our members, for much of 2020. The pandemic has presented some significant challenges to the organization’s leadership team, and our work this year has slowed as a consequence. However, we do have much to share with you and we hope you will find the contents of this newsletter will be both informative and of interest to you. We are looking forward to brighter days to come when we can welcome members back to the Refuge to for volunteer activities, the eventual celebration of the opening of the Refuge’s new visitor center to the public, and keeping you better informed of the what’s happening at Hart Mountain.
To those points, we are asking for badly need your help. The Friends of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is a volunteer-run organization. Our board of directors is composed of a group of individuals from across the region who care about the Refuge’s mission to protect and provide habitat for the species that call it home and for its role in the larger national discussion on the value of public lands. The volunteer board of directors is responsible for all aspects of running the activities of our Friends group; we have no paid employees. While we have recently welcomed some new members to our leadership team, many of our board some of us have served since 2016 and our terms are soon drawing to a close. We are seeking FOHM members who are interested in stepping in to help direct the future of our organization as we move forward into 2021 and beyond. We need your help! In order to continue our work in supporting the Refuge and its mission, we must have motivated members who care about Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge to replace our outgoing board members. We badly need individuals who are willing to do the work required to help lead this organization. We value diversity and inclusivity in our organization. We are hoping to recruit leaders who represent the diversity that exists in the different stakeholder perspectives regarding our Nation’s public lands and in the National Refuge System. It is essential that we find new and committed individuals in order to sustain the work of the Friends of Hart Mountain in the coming years.
The Board of the Friends of Hart Mountain works closely with the management and staff of the refuge and with the National Fish and Wildlife Service Friends coordinator in Portland. We meet four times a year, normally twice at the refuge (outside of a pandemic, of course), once in the Willamette Valley and once in Bend. On those occasions when travel is difficult, a member can participate remotely (this was once done from Copenhagen!) When possible, family members are welcome to accompany a Board member to the refuge meetings, which are often held in conjunction with a work activity such as the annual Sage-Grouse restricted lek count, mule deer counts, and riparian restoration work such as planting willows. Subsidies for long distance travel can be discussed. An effort is made to distribute responsibilities so that no one member is saddled with an undue burden. Officers comprise a president, vice president, treasurer and secretary and are elected annually. Board terms are three years. Training opportunities for Board members are available through the USFWS’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia and seminars, as well as on the Refuge. The Board is particularly looking for persons having knowledge or an interest in such areas as web site management, fund raising, grant writing, newsletter publishing, public outreach, event planning, membership, and the like. These qualification are not required, however, as the basic requirements are enthusiasm, ideas, and a desire to see Hart Mountain NAR fulfill its mission while having a good time! A sense of humor (and patience) is a plus.
Please reach out to us if you are willing to help by volunteering for a seat on our board of directors or to offer volunteer help in other ways. We, the sage-grouse and pronghorn, and all those who share our love of this special place will be grateful.
View of Cambell Lake in the Warner Valley looking northwest from the Hart Mountain escarpment road. Image: J. Laney
Updates from Refuge Manager Danielle Fuji-Doe
Refuge Manager, Danielle Fujii-Doe, has provided us with some updates on management activities at Hart Mountain.
Bighorn Sheep Management Plan: In late 2019, the Friends of Hart Mountain board approved a donation $1500 to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help cover expenses related to the ongoing study of the Refuge’s Bighorn Sheep population. A Notice of Intent to Prepare a Plan and EIS was published in the Federal Register in May 2020, with the comment period ending June 2020. USFWS is still working on the draft of the new Bighorn Sheep Management Plan. The Friends will help to communicate the release of this plan to our membership once a draft is released to the public.
Poker Fire Restoration: Aerial spraying related to the September 2019 Poker Fire was completed last fall via helicopter. USFWS is in the process of working with a contractor to conduct ~1,500 acres of reseeding on Poker Jim Ridge in the Refuge. More info on this fire is included in the Hart Mountain Wildfire Updates later in this newsletter.
Hunting: Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has finalized a rule to open or expand hunting and fishing opportunities at national wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries across more than 2.3 million acres. For Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the final rule includes opening new opportunities for waterfowl (ducks, mergansers, geese, and coots) and California Quail hunting, and expanding existing upland game hunting (non-native Chukar partridge) to acres already open to other hunting. The Friends of Hart Mountain encourages interested members to consult with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Service and Hart Mountain Refuge management for questions regarding these hunting opportunities.
Hart Mountain Visitor Center: Due to COVID-19 and a few other items, the new Hart Mountain Visitor Center is still a work in progress. However, new informative kiosks at Camp Hart, the Hot Springs Campground, and HQ have been installed. The updated deadline for the completion of the new visitor’s center is March 2021. However, due to COVID-19, the current visitor center has been closed and will continue to be closed until further notice. The Friends of Hart Mountain will update the membership when these regulations change.
Get to know the folks that work at Hart Mountain
The Friends of Hart Mountain want to help our membership get to know the folks who put in the hard work that keeps Hart Mountain N.A.R. running. Zack McCoy is the Heavy Mobile Equipment Operator/Maintenance Mechanic at the Refuge. Here's a bit about Zack in his own words:
"I've been working at Hart Mountain as the maintenance mechanic/equipment operator since January of 2017. This is my first job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but I grew up on wildlife refuges with my family. My dad retired a few years ago after serving for 48 years. We spent time on refuges in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Indiana. It was a good way to grow up, and after working in commercial aviation and the Marines as a mechanic, I decided that I would start applying for the service, and that was when I got this job. I have not regretted it since I started.
I live on the refuge at the McKee Ranch homestead at the base of the mountain with my girlfriend Joelle, who is the Invasive Species Biologist for the Sheldon-Hart Complex. We have several horses, cats, dogs, chickens, and a large garden that we enjoy. I love the area and we like to explore not only Hart Mountain, but the rest of Oregon when we have the time. I like classic cars and have a mostly self-restored '68 Mercury Cougar. I enjoy fur trade rendezvous and the crafts associated with them such as building muzzleloaders and buckskinning. I am also a fan of video games with good story plots.
Working on Hart has a unique set of challenges, but I consider myself a very lucky man to be a part of the Sheldon-Hart Complex team."
Next time you're at Hart Mountain and see Zack, make sure to give him a wave and thank him for his hard work!
Zack McCoy, Heavy Mobile Equipment Operator/Maintenance Mechanic at Hart Mountain. Image courtesy of USFWS.
Hart Mountain Wildlife Updates
Each year, the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex produces a report of the Biological Program activities in the Refuge Complex. Here we have provided a summary of some of the information on wildlife monitoring and management contained in the 2019 report as it pertain to Hart Mountain.
Greater Sage-Grouse Population Trend: The population trend of Greater Sage-Grouse is in decline across the Western U.S. and unfortunately the same is true for the population on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. During the early breeding season male sage-grouse gather and perform elaborate mating display on “leks.” Each year, staff and volunteers conduct spring ground surveys to census the number of males in attendance at a small subset of the known leks (i.e., “trend leks”) in order to monitor general population trend on both refuges. In 2019, for Hart Mountain Refuge, monitors observed and average of 18 males per lek (vs. 31.8 males/lek complex in 2018), significantly fewer than the long-term average (40.3 males/lek complex, 1981- 2019).
Average number of male Greater Sage-Grouse/ trend lek complex
Figure adapted from the Summary of FY 2019 Biological Program Activities: Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex showing the long-term population trend of breeding Greater sage-grouse (average number of males/trend lek complex), at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge from 1981-2019.
Greater sage-grouse long-term trends in demography and habitat use: A project was initiated in 2013 as 4-year effort by researchers from the University of Nevada–Reno to investigate differences in Greater Sage-Grouse movement, reproduction, and habitat use under differing grazing regimes (Hart Mountain Refuge - no grazing, Sheldon Refuge - horse grazing, and Massacre/Vya allotments - livestock and horse grazing); preliminary results are pending. In 2017 the project’s funding was extended for an additional 4 years, although the focus by UNR was shifted to include only the Sheldon Refuge and Massacre/Vya study sites. Hart Mountain Refuge staff have assumed responsibility for the continuation of long-term sage-grouse captures and telemetry monitoring project on Hart Mountain Refuge. Fifteen new birds were captured in May of 2019, which brought the total number of birds being monitored up to 31 at the start of the season. They were tracked through the nesting season, with biologists collecting nest and brood success data as well as habitat information at over 200 sage-grouse locations and comparative randomly selected sites.
Image courtesy of USFWS.
Bat Inventory and Monitoring: In partnership with the Regional Refuge Inventory and Monitoring program, work has continued that investigates bat species occurrence and distribution on the Hart-Sheldon Refuge Complex using acoustic monitoring (“NABat”). Data was submitted to and analyzed by the Inventory and Monitoring Zone Biologist (IMZB) for inclusion in the wider NABat analysis, intended to provide baseline data for detection and assessment of long-term trend and species distributions. Preliminary results from the IMZB showed that Hart Mountain is in the “middle of the pack” for detected species richness (n=9) in the Pacific Region. The most commonly detected species on Hart are Hoary Bats, Western Small-footed Bats, Western Long-eared Bats, and Silver-haired Bats. More in-depth analysis of the NABat data is in progress at both the regional and national level. Three of the eight sites on Hart Mountain (including the site pictured here) were burned in the Poker Fire in September 2019, which may provide a limited opportunity to identify fire impacts, if any, on bat distribution or species richness.
Image courtesy of USFWS.
Pygmy rabbit colony assessments: Beginning in 2015, the Hart-Sheldon Refuge complex entered into a 4-year partnership with researchers from University of Nevada-Reno, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Oregon Department of Wildlife, and the Greater Hart-Sheldon Fund on a project to quantify population dynamics and connectivity of pygmy rabbit populations at the site, regional and distribution-wide scale within the Refuge Complex and surrounding areas. During 2019, field crews continued trapping efforts and occupancy surveys, and collected fecal samples from one site on Hart Mtn. Refuge; to date a total of 287 genetic samples have been collected from 18 sites across Hart Mtn. – Sheldon – Beaty Butte.
California bighorn sheep annual summer census: During July 2019, USFWS conducted an aerial helicopter survey of Hart Mountain NAR and observed a total of 68 sheep, a decline from 2018 (100 sheep observed). In addition, they continued the aerial survey efforts started in 2019 on nearby Sheldon NWR for bighorn sheep and observed a total of 112 sheep, a decrease from numbers observed in 2018 (144 sheep observed).
Cougar Abundance Estimate: Cougars have significant ecological impacts on the ecosystems they inhabit, leading to both biological and social ramifications (positive and negative). While reliable information on mountain lion populations is essential for successful conservation and management, they are particularly difficult to study due to their secretive nature. Nineteen bighorn sheep were fitted with GPS collars on Hart Mountain in January of 2019, and within a short time period 5 bighorn mortalities were attributed to cougar predation. In light of recent annual bighorn survey results (significant decline in overall observed individuals), cougar predations, and lack of information regarding cougar presence within the Refuge, the biological program sought to enumerate the cougar population. Using non-invasive DNA sampling design, two biological technicians set up and monitored 34 camera traps and hair snaring sets throughout the summer and fall of 2019. Cameras were successful at capturing images of 39 cougars (not individual cats) for an estimated 9-16 individuals based on photos and dates of observations and collected 46 hair samples (still to be analyzed in collaboration with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife). USFWS will continue the effort and refine the methodology through 2020 field season.
Mule Deer fall composition count: Each year, volunteers and refuge staff conduct mule deer fall Mule deer fall composition count, composition counts in mid-November. Between November 19th and November 23th, 2019, observers spent 47 hours surveying established areas. A total of 151 mule deer were observed in 35 groups. Observed herd ratios were 34 bucks:100 does and 70 fawns:100 does. In comparison, the long-term average (1967-2019) herd ratios were 31 bucks/100 does and 59 fawns:100 does. Eight bull elk were also observed in the Big Flat mule deer survey area on the Refuge.
Pronghorn annual summer census: During July 2019, USFWS surveyed pronghorn habitat via helicopter on both Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuges. In addition, they also partnered with Oregon Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a concurrent survey for pronghorn within the areas between the two refuges (West Beaty, Guano Valley, and Beaty’s Butte). A total of 4,313 pronghorn were observed.
Figure adapted from the Summary of FY 2019 Biological Program Activities: Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex showing the Pronghorn population trend in the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex from 1950- 2019.
Hart Mountain Wildlife Updates
The following information on recent fires at Hart Mountain is from the report, FY 2019 Biological Program Activities: Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Hart Fire: USFWS continued the implementation of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) plan developed after the Hart Fire. As part of the progressive integrated response treatments prescribed under this plan, USFWS followed 2017’s chemical control of invasive grasses with the aerial broadcast of seed from a custom blend of native grass and forb species in February and March 2019 over most of the burned area. Approximately 97,400 sage and bitterbrush seedlings were grown from seed collected from unburned areas near the fire and then planted under contract into targeted areas of the fire in November 2019, to “jump start” the shrub recovery for sage- grouse and other shrub-obligate species. In 2018 they established multiple monitoring sites in and around the fire, to inform on the effectiveness and efficacy of our treatments, and for comparison and analysis with efforts on older fires on the Complex, to develop a better understand of area-specific rehabilitation needs and develop improved prescriptions in future events. These monitoring sites were reread in 2019, 2020, and will be recurrently in the coming years. This data will be coupled with data from other fires on the refuges (e.g., Riffle Fire, Poker Fire, Badger Fire), to identify and assess long-term trends. Results from the monitoring to-date are pending.
Hart Fire in late June 2018 (left) and Hart Fire in early July 2019 (right). Images courtesy of USFWS.
Poker Fire: An undetected hold-over lightning strike on Poker Jim Ridge blew up in high winds on Poker Jim Ridge on September 15, 2019. Aerial resources had initially tried to cut it off and contain it at Upper Division Canyon (the big notch on the ridge behind headquarters), but the winds proved too much and the fire rapidly pushed north. Both the terrain and winds limited what responding fire personnel could do on the ground, so aerial resources were used to try and keep the fire from burning to the east, off of the ridge until weather conditions improved. By the time the winds died down and moisture and low clouds moved in after midnight, the fire had burned over 20,623 acres, leaving a scar almost 17 miles long and 4 miles wide, making it by far the largest and most destructive fire in the history of the Refuge to date (more than double the size of the previous two largest fires combined).
Much of the juniper woodlands northeast of Poker Jim Springs were damaged and most of the big sagebrush and low sagebrush was lost in the burned area, though the high winds did make it kind of a “dirty burn,” leaving a few streaks and islands of damaged but unburned habitat. Bunchgrasses were damaged or depleted in significant sections as well. One high point in the fire was that one of the responding BLM fire crews was able to save the historic Poindexter Cabin despite the flames reaching the base of the structure. USFWS developed a plan intended to stabilize the burned habitats and begin the rehabilitation process. In November 2019, invasive annual grass control was conducted through much of the burn, to give the native bunchgrasses a chance to start to reestablish themselves from the individuals that survived the fire. The plan also calls for aerial seeding of customized native grass seed mixes in fall 2020 into areas where the native bunchgrasses are depleted, and targeted control of weeds in a few select problem areas (mostly old disturbance sites). While the stabilizing invasive grass treatment was funded in full, much of the rest of the plan was funded at a much-reduced level compared to the amount requested due to national budget short-falls. USFWS conducted fire response effectiveness and efficacy monitoring in the Poker Fire area in 2020, using existing monitoring sites and other sites with pre-fire habitat data where they are available (for better pre-/post-fire and treatment effectiveness/efficacy comparisons).
View of the Poker Fire from near the Black Rim Road, looking west back towards the origin of the fire. Images courtesy of USFWS.
McKee Meadow Prescribed Burn: On November 6, 2019, a prescribed burn of grassland wet meadow was initiated at McKee Ranch on Hart Mountain NWR. Unfortunately, the fire jumped control lines, resulting in the burning of an additional 68 acres of mostly sagebrush habitat not on the original burn plan. Cheatgrass was fairly prevalent in the escaped burn area, and at lesser densities also perennial pepperweed, whitetop, Canada thistle, Russian knapweed, Russian thistle, and tall tumble mustard. Herbicide was applied in order to mitigate for invasive annual grasses in the burned area.
The sun sets over the rim of Warner Peak. View from Hart Mountain Hot Spring, late August 2020. Photo by J. Laney
Header image: View of Cambell Lake in the Warner Valley from the escarpment road on Hart Mountain- by J. Laney