For wildlife in Oregon, the best way to stay alive is to make sure someone wants to kill you.
If the state can make money selling a fishing license or a hunting tag for an animal, it goes to great lengths to keep populations healthy.
Teams of biologists collar hundreds of mule deer with tracking devices that cost almost $1,000 each. State police fly planes over wilderness in the dead of night searching for poachers. In one recent four-year span, Oregon spent upwards of $37 million to improve habitat for mule deer.
But for the Western pond turtle, a candidate for the endangered list, the state’s longest-running survey amounts to one man with some homemade gear in the back of his truck.
That is reality for wildlife across the West. Hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians receive little attention, despite fears many are in decline.
In Oregon, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has spent decades disregarding its statutory mission to preserve all wildlife in the state.
As the state’s rising population has paved over habitat and introduced new threats to wildlife, routine monitoring is near nonexistent for nongame species, leaving information gaps that cripple the state’s conservation efforts.
Oregon’s wildlife agency has cut conservation programs and neglected hundreds of sensitive species to the point that biologists now worry some populations will go extinct within Oregon’s borders before the agency ever realizes.
“We know so little about so many of these species, it’s completely a possibility they could go extinct, and we wouldn’t know until after,” said Lindsay Adrean, a former ODFW biologist.
Agency leadership has put its hope in proposals for income taxes and beverage bottle taxes to pay for expanded conservation efforts. These initiatives could be taken up next year by the Legislature. Similar efforts have failed in the past.
“If we thought we were doing enough right now, we would not be going down this path of looking for alternative revenue,” agency director Curt Melcher said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that would argue that the mission is being fully implemented.”
Running On Fumes
It was a long day in the middle of June. Simon Wray drove the forested bends in Interstate 5 southbound toward the Rogue Valley, racing the sun from one imperiled species to another.
Hours earlier he sat through a court hearing for the Oregon spotted frog, an aquatic species smack dab in the Klamath Basin water war and one entry in the world’s long list of dying amphibians.
Next up was the Western pond turtle, a native reptile in decline and the subject of Wray’s favorite study.
For over two decades, he’s literally held together the state’s longest running turtle survey with twine and duct tape.
“This is my life. This is what I do. This is why I wake up in the morning and go to work,” Wray said. “I’m all in.”
With any luck, he’d have traps set by nightfall.
Wray is one of three field biologists focused solely on nongame species at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, out of a staff of 1,200.
The state’s nongame species conservation program includes a handful more staff in its Salem headquarters.
The team responsible for Oregon’s 600 nongame wildlife species — or roughly 88 percent of all species in the state — receives about 2 percent of the department’s total budget.
Melcher, the agency’s director, said conservation work happens in ways not seen in the numbers. He points to the kind of work happening at Summer Lake, where the refuge manager — not one of the full time nongame biologists — is leading efforts to bring back rare trumpeter swans.
“Look at all of our state wildlife areas, where we do a whole bunch of conservation work not just for hunted species but for all species that use those wildlife areas,” Melcher said. “None of that shows up in that conservation pie.”
The Bonneville Power Administration also funds a six-person team at ODFW meant to mitigate the damage from its dams and reservoirs, which includes nongame species.
Melcher said perception hasn’t caught up to the reality that many ODFW staff, while funded by hunting and fishing dollars, are actually spending significant amounts of time on water rights, county development plans or other wildlife issues not directly related to game opportunities.
“We probably haven't done a good job of telling that side of the story,” Melcher said. “If you go back 40 years, I think it truly was the case that these staff folks spent a lot more time in that era directly on fishing and hunting.”
Like most wildlife agencies in the West, ODFW has slowly adapted from its roots as a hunting and fishing regulator to a wildlife research and conservation agency.
In Washington, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife says it has sufficient monitoring for only half of the state’s threatened and endangered species.
But Oregon lags behind Washington and other states on species conservation, critics say. The state spends fewer tax dollars on wildlife conservation than many states, including neighboring Washington and California, as well as Missouri and Arkansas.
As a result, ODFW is overly reliant on money from those who hunt and fish. Between license sales and federal funds from excise taxes on ammunition and tackle, the agency receives over half of its funding from the sporting community.
The state can legally spend those dollars on any species. But Melcher said there’s an expectation those funds will be used on the species that make money.
Even without expanding its conservation program, rising expenses and dwindling license revenues left ODFW with a $32 million shortfall in its last budget cycle.
“This is an agency running on fumes,” Michael Finley, chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, said during a 2016 budget meeting.
String And Duct Tape
As Simon Wray’s truck neared the California border just before dusk, he left the highway and met up with fellow biologist Steve Niemela.
The two wound their way up the rural Siskiyous, up mountain roads dusting the doors of their government-issue white Chevys.
Normally he made the drive alone. But Wray, 59, was training Niemela for the day he retires.
“Quite frankly, I’m not willing to walk away from it,” Wray said. “I’ll probably be some old codger in the next 30 years still doing this stuff just because I believe in it so much."
They parked just shy of the two ponds where Wray has been catching and marking turtles for 23 years.
Wray pulled out a set of nets, which still included some he and other biologists stitched together in the 1990s: “They’ve been stretched back into shape and stitched back together so many times it’s ridiculous.”
Next he pulled out a stack of empty plastic water bottles, wrapped in duct tape and tied with string. They are homemade floats, to keep his traps out of reach of bears.
“Yeah, you have to be inventive with the materials at hand and the meager budget that you have,” he said “You have to find ways to fill in the gap and get the job done.”
Outside of ODFW, universities, conservation groups and federal agencies do wildlife research, but not enough to fill the gaps left by the state. Once a species hits the endangered list, it triggers more money and attention toward conservation. But it’s also far more costly and difficult to to bring a species back from that point.
Wray and his ODFW colleagues are struggling to prevent species from slipping that far.
With a toss, splash and quick knot tied around a nearby stick, he’d set the first trap of the night. By morning, they’d have the latest read on the population Wray had worked so hard to establish.
“It’s kind of like Christmas,” he said.
The turtles here are holding their own, he thinks. Elsewhere in the region, habitat loss and competition from non-native species have decimated their numbers.
All Of That Time Has Been For Nothing
Worldwide, species are dying out at a rate that’s prompted scientists to warn that a sixth wave of extinction is underway. The causes are many, including habitat loss, the spread of disease and the introduction of invasive species.
Oregon is not immune.
Biologists say many of the state’s amphibian populations are fading. They think disease and energy development could spell a looming crisis for Northwest bats, and that climate change will have untold impacts on many species, from the mountain-dwelling furry American pika to birds like the Black oystercatcher on the coast.
Yet Wray’s 23-year study on turtles is not the rule. It is the exception. Many species get little to no attention.
“When you look at the number of species out there — birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals — that we have virtually no information on,” he said. “For a lot of those species we don’t even have the basic information necessary to know how to benefit those species.”
Ten years ago, Oregon established a statewide conservation strategy and identified a list of species most in need of attention. It includes nearly 300 fish, wildlife, plant and invertebrate species.
Today, the state still lacks basic information such as geographic range, population status or habitat requirements for at least half the species on it. The list is not comprehensive. Experts say the same data could be lacking for other species not mentioned.
“My biggest fear is we have worked so hard to put this list together with the goal of preventing these species from becoming threatened and endangered, and feeling that that time has been for nothing,” said Adrean, the former ODFW biologist.
She left the department in 2015 for a research fellowship in the Gulf of California. Before that, her job was coordinator for the species on Oregon’s conservation strategy.
That list of species has been neglected for so long that Adrean and other biologists cannot say when many species on it were last monitored. For several, the agency’s best data shows no recorded observations in over a decade. Either they were not studied, or the agency cannot find a record of it.
That lack of data leaves the agency ill-equipped to inform decisions about whether and where to site wind farms, how much logging to allow on certain forest tracts and even how best to schedule its own stocking of fish in Cascade lakes — all choices that could imperil sensitive wildlife.
Toward The Edge Of A Cliff
At the edge of the water, Wray reached into the reeds and pulled a trap he’d laid the night before. As he lifted the net for a closer look, a clump of turtles rolled from one end to the other.
“Here we go, got quite a few. One, two, three … six!”
He pulled one out and ran his fingers across its shell. Turns out, they’d already met.
“I caught this turtle before,” he said, touching a notch he’d filed into the shell years ago. The turtles can’t feel it, he said. “This was captured in 2007. It’s obviously grown, it was a juvenile at that time.”
Wray single-handedly established the turtle population in these ponds. Taking unwanted pets and other Oregon-native pond turtles brought in to the district office, he released them here with the blessing of the private landowner.
He’s been tracking their progress ever since. On his watch, the population has grown from one to at least 130.
Wray launched his study in the heyday of nongame conservation at Oregon Fish and Wildlife. In the early 1990s, the agency had a nongame conservation team of 14, including seven nongame field biologists covering all corners of the state.
Staff at the time thought it was just the beginning of the state’s efforts. It turned out to be the pinnacle.
Lawmakers slashed the agency’s budget. Its nongame program shrunk. A separate division dedicated to habitat conservation was eliminated entirely.
“I feel for future generations.” said Claire Puchy, who led ODFW’s nongame efforts in the 1990s and now serves on the agency’s budget task force. “They may not know what they’ve lost.”
In the midst of those cuts, Wray moved to an agency job in Bend. His old district had no staff or money to continue the study without him.
He could either let the project die, as so many others have, or continue it on his own time.
He kept it going.
Each year, for 10 years, he prepped a weekend’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, loaded his personal car with nets and instruments and drove halfway across the state.
He camped for the weekend beside the ponds and worked sun up to sundown. Some years, he awoke to a tent drenched in spring rain. In others, a tent caked with snow.
By the end of a few 12-hour days wading into ponds, checking traps and marking turtles, he’d be too hungry for just stale sandwiches. He always brought sardines for the turtles, and once or twice he cracked open a tin on the return trip, helping himself to the reptile bait.
Wray is hopeful those days are gone.
Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s current budget crisis has thrust the agency’s unfulfilled conservation mission into the public debate.
The agency recently estimated it needed $47 million over the next two years to fully implement its long-underfunded conservation strategy.
The proposed taxes would cover that cost. Without them, the agency’s latest budget calls for a fraction of what the conservation program needs.
“I don’t know how close we are to the edge of the cliff or how long we can defer putting attention and time and dollars into addressing those problems,” Wray said. “But the longer we wait, the closer we are to the cliff.”