The Harney Basin, nestled in southeastern Oregon at the northwest corner of the Great Basin, is intricately woven into the lives of local ranchers and native wildlife. Bound on the north by the Blue Mountains and on the southeast by the Steens Mountains, the basin is one of the most vital stopping points for millions of birds as they migrate north. More than 320 species flock to the wetland attracting birders and leading to a strong tourism economy for Harney County. Many ranching families have also worked on the land for decades, relying on the surrounding wetlands for seasonal irrigation.

Encompassing Burns, Oregon, Harney Lake and Malheur Lake, the swampy basin is endorheic in nature, meaning it retains water and allows no drainage or outflow to any rivers or streams. Instead, the water in Harney Basin pools into seasonal lakes and swamps. Due to the idyllic conditions the basin creates for birds and the integral role they play in irrigation for local ranchers, the region where the Harney Basin sits has seen its fair share of conflict and disagreement over the years, particularly in relation to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Birds on a ranch in Harney County, Oregon, Photo credit: Andi Harmon

Birds on a ranch in Harney County, Oregon, Photo credit: Andi Harmon

Dramatic environmental changes over the past ten years have caused a fissure in the delicate balance of the basin. In response, many stakeholders in Harney County have banded together to create collaborative strategies to combat invasive carp and promote traditional flood-irrigation practices that support local ranchers and preserve important bird habitats.

The Ties that Bind

Thanks to the destructive impacts of an exploding population of a non-native carp fish species in the lake, lands in the Harney Basin no longer provide the food or cover migrating birds need during their migration. These invasive carp feed on invertebrates, uproot vegetation and disturb the muddy bottom of the wetlands, severely depleting migratory bird food resources and damaging the nesting and rearing habitats of the birds. The ideal conditions of Malheur Lake once provided habitat for 180,000 waterfowl per year. Today there are less than 10 percent of this original number.

Migrating birds now rely on the spring flood irrigation practiced by local ranchers. While irrigation trends across the west have moved towards other types of irrigation, in the Harney Basin spring flood irrigation creates seasonal wetlands that are ecologically beneficial for native wildlife.

The distinct connection between wildlife and irrigation led ranchers in the area to pioneer the use of Candidate Conservation Agreements to preserve habitat for sage grouse habitats and healthy rangelands. The Harney County Restoration Collaborative in the southern Malheur National Forest is now a model for how collaborative community groups can come to consensus on restoration recommendations to the Forest Service. In addition, a diverse group of stakeholders has been working on developing and implementing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan since 2009.

Proposed Harney Basin Wetlands Focal Investment Priority, Map Credit: Oregon Solutions

Proposed Harney Basin Wetlands Focal Investment Priority, Map Credit: Oregon Solutions

Most recently this unique group of stakeholders created the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative (HBWI)–a collaborative effort to accomplish two goals: get the carp population under control while also allowing for private landowners to conduct season flood irrigation. The initiative was convened by the High Desert Partnership and facilitated by Oregon Consensus and it addresses approximately 513,000 acres of wetlands. It builds upon the earlier collaborative work between the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and many of the same parties associated with the Malheur Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan. That earlier collaboration between ranchers, conservation groups and federal land managers helped build the necessary capacity, trust and relationships for the HBWI to be effective.

Esther Lev of The Wetlands Conservancy explains: “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 CCP process the partners have created a new language that supports our common visions.”

Preserving Vital Wetlands for Fowl and Ranchers

The aim for the HBWI is to provide 10,300 acres of flood-irrigated spring migratory bird habitat on private lands in Harney County. HBWI also includes an effort to better understand the flow of water in the basin and how fish both use and move within the basin’s waterways. Thus far, the project has helped to preserve existing jobs at area ranches while also creating a new economic opportunity through removal of adult carp. In August 2016 commercial fishermen reported catching 30 to 50 15-18 lb carp per day–they are now are catching 300 fish per day.

Invasive carp loaded on a commercial boat, Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Invasive carp loaded on a commercial boat, Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

In addition, the protection of bird habitat and strategies focused on carp removal help preserve the ecotourism that is also so vital to the region’s economy. The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival alone attracts hundreds of visitors in one weekend per year. These visitors spend money on food, lodging, equipment, transportation and other expenses further supporting the local economy of Harney County.

Although other regions in Oregon do not face the same carp infestation problem, those with land management challenges would benefit from the collaborative approach the different partners in the Harney Basin have taken. A shared understanding for what problems different groups in a community actually share, as seen in the instance of invasive carp, can knit people together in shared action. A strong local capacity to support collaborative work is critical for a community–particularly in the midst of crises like the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Also helpful is the existence of a local champion with a meaningful role, like the High Desert Partnership, who can take on convening a diverse group like those working on the HBWI.