A member of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stands guard at the refuge, Sunday, Jan. 10.

A member of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stands guard at the refuge, Sunday, Jan. 10.

Rick Bowmer/AP

The employees of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have not been able to go back to their desks ever since the armed occupation started earlier this month.
They’ve been able to do much of their work off-site, but some important stuff is being left undone.
That includes the effort to eradicate an invasive fish from the refuge’s waters.
The common carp arrived in the refuge in the 1920s and multiplied like mad, crowding out native species and severely messing up the habitat.
Linda Beck is a fisheries biologist at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and she spoke with Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross about how the occupation is disrupting the refuge’s important work.

Q&A with Linda Beck, a fisheries biologist at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Geoff Norcross: What were you planning to do about the carp this month that you haven’t been able to do because other people are in your office?

Linda Beck: Well, we were planning on fixing and doing some repairs to a trap on the Blitzen River, which is our northernmost dam on the river. And that, in the first year of operation, stopped 30,000 carp from going up the Blitzen River.

GN: What could possibly happen?

LB: Potentially we could be set back all the improvements we made in the last three years with controlling carp.

GN: After losing a month of work, you could be set back three years?

LB: It’s a little more complicated than that. If this trap isn’t in the water when carp start to want to run up from Malheur Lake into the Blitzen River … if we don’t have that trap in the water, there will be some that will be moving up the river into areas that we have pretty much controlled the carp or eradicated them from the Blitzen River.

GN: The occupation is happening in the headquarters right now. Is there no way for you to actually go to the waters and do your work there?

LB: Actually, that site is in the line of sight of the tower, where there’s actually armed guards. So we’re not safe to go there.

GN: What could happen if you’re not allowed back onto the refuge to do your work anytime soon? We don’t know how long this is going to drag on.

LB: Right. Typically right now, it is in January, and people think this is a time just to work up data in our offices. But actually it’s a time to prepare for the spring runoff. And at Malheur, that means anytime between January and June. We usually have three maintenance men on the ground. All they do is run water at Malheur. And why we need to run the water and distribute it is for our habitat, for our birds. And so the whole purpose of Malheur is for our birds. So everything we do, and what we’re trying to do, is provide good habitat for the birds.

GN: Can you help us understand how big of a problem this is? How big the problem of invasive carp on the refuge is?

LB: The invasive carp on the refuge has contributed to a loss of over 90% of the good habitat that we’ve had for them on Malheur Lake. So a 90 to 95% decrease in the population of our birds. When I’m out there on the air boat, sampling carp and doing these other things that I need to do to understand the aquatic health of Malheur Lake, you only see a few birds. The carp have muddied the water so severely, that it’s really like one big mud puddle. The potential for that lake is to rear thousands and thousands of ducks and geese and shorebirds. Right now, we’re really not producing that.

GN: At the heart of all this is the debate over who is best suited to care for the land, whether it’s the state, whether it’s the county, whether it’s the federal government. What do you think people need to know about what happens at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and how your work is helping to heal the land?

LB: Everything that we do is trying to help conservation. What people don’t understand about Burns, it’s a very tightknit community. There’s only 7,000 people in a very vast area. Yeah, I work at the refuge, but my family are ranchers. And there’s people that work at the refuge that grew up, were born and raised in Burns, went to college and came back to help the community. What we do at the refuge impacts the immediate community.