Watching out for wildlife

Over the past few decades, Oregon Field Guide has documented conservation effort and wildlife research projects across Oregon with many of those projects spearheaded by the state’s fish and wildlife department. But conservation programs run by the state wildlife agency have been slashed since the heyday of the early 90s. So who’s watching out for Oregon’s wildlife now? And is enough being done?


Over the past few decades, 'Oregon Field Guide' has documented conservation-effort and wildlife-research projects across Oregon, with many of those projects spearheaded by the state's Fish and Wildlife Department.

But conservation programs run by the state wildlife agency have been slashed since the heyday of the early '90s.

So, who's watching out for Oregon's wildlife now?

And is enough being done?

Our environmental reporting partner, 'Earth Fix,' has the story.

People spend big money to hunt and fish in Oregon.

[ Gunshot ] Hunting tags and fishing licenses are largely what funds the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Reel this one up.

Hatchery coho.

Must be about eight pounds.

It's money that goes towards things like fish hatcheries and intensive wildlife research like this.

I'll track down a radio-collared animal, and then we move in in, and we dart it.

As just one example of the kind of attention game animals get, 'Oregon Field Guide' once documented a 17-year study that used helicopters and teams of researchers to track hundreds of elk in the Blue Mountains.

This calf was born this morning.

In fact, you can still see some afterbirth on it.

It looks like it's a little wet and sticky.

Massive efforts like this give biologists the information they need to keep Oregon elk herds healthy.

[ Radio beeping ] It's also expensive.

Putting a radio collar on a single elk can cost up to $1,000 or more.

But for wildlife we don't hunt, it's a very different story.

These traps, we actually made these, a group of us, back in the early '90s, and you can see all the holes that I've stitched through time.

Simon Wray has been studying Western pond turtles in Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley for 23 years.

Western pond turtles are declining throughout the Northwest.

They're threatened by nonnative predators like bullfrogs and habitat change.

But Oregon's longest-running study of native pond turtles falls to just one person -- Simon and his homemade gear.

Recycled water bottles and duct tape and some string, and then, basically, these are strapped on the top of this thing.

You have to be inventive with the materials at hand and the meager budget that you have.

You have to find ways to fill in the gap and get the job done.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife has only three full-time, nongame field biologists out of a staff of 1,200.

Just another one.

Another female.

There's so little money for this work that Simon wound up doing surveys on his own time for 10 years, essentially as a volunteer.

That was captured in 2007.

It was a juvenile at that time, so this is the first capture since I got that.

This is my life.

This is what I do.

This is why I wake up in the morning and go to work.

I mean, I'm all in to do what I can and try to make a difference.

At least the turtles have Simon looking after them.

Hundreds of species get little to no attention at all.

When you look at the number of species out there -- birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals that we have virtually no information on -- for a lot of those species, we don't even have the basic information necessary to know how to benefit those species.

Oregon spends far fewer tax dollars on wildlife conservation than Washington, California, or even Missouri and Arkansas.

Take a look at where ODFW spends its money.

About 10% of Oregon's wildlife are so-called game animals.

They get the biggest slice of the pie.

The other 90% includes hundreds of rare and sensitive species.

They get a fraction of Fish and Wildlife dollars.

I don't think that there's anyone that would argue that the mission's being fully implemented, but it's -- we're doing what we can with the resources that we have.

ODFW has been reluctant to spend more hunting and fishing revenue on nongame wildlife, trying instead to raise money through things like birdseed taxes and specialized license plates, but those efforts have failed.

Lawmakers are now proposing income taxes and bottle taxes as they struggle to fund wildlife conservation.

If we thought we were doing enough right now, we would not be going down this path of looking for alternative revenue.

Oregon has a list of species the agency is most concerned about.

Lindsay Adrean kept tabs on those species for Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

My biggest fear is that 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.

That list of species has been neglected for so long that Lindsay and other biologists can't even say when many species on it were last monitored.

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.

Bats are an example of wildlife that only got help after they were pushed to the brink.

Threats like disease and wind turbines have been hammering bats nationwide, so Oregon is now scrambling to get basic information about its own bat population.

So, Smith Rocks is this amazing bat hotel.

This is a great place to begin to kind of get our heads around what's going on.

In this case, ODFW teamed up with federal biologists to deploy bat-call monitors around the state and do hands-on health checks.

The agency didn't have its own bat expert, so it tapped outside biologists like Pat Ormsbee.

Yes, it's a male.

She remembers when ODFW led the way.


There were more specialists.

They were considered the source of information for species.

We said we were interested in doing pine-marten surveys, boy, they went with us.

We used their snowmobiles.

They had people who had the expertise with that species.

Sharp-tailed grouse, same thing.

You know, just -- Bats, same thing.

We just rarely went to the field without somebody from ODFW.

ODFW has fewer nongame field biologists today than it did back in the early 1990s.

So they're increasingly dependent on other agencies to help keep watch over sensitive wildlife.

This is a massive project for Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

They got funding to do this for about two years.

It's also exceptionally rare.

There's over 600 species of nongame wildlife in the state of Oregon.

They get about 2% of the total Oregon Fish and Wildlife budget.

So most species are getting nothing like this.

As you see, these efforts that can kind of bubble up and then die out, and it erodes partners' trust in the ability of the department to implement the conservation strategy.

Biologist Audrey Hatch left ODFW, frustrated by how little the agency did for so many sensitive species.

This is a Pacific tree frog, one of our native amphibians.

The biologists we spoke to were especially concerned about the state's amphibians.

Why is this species doing reasonably well and many of our other native amphibians are declining?

And we're really not sure what the answer to that question is.

ODFW hired Audrey to update its conservation plans for species like this.

But she says the state failed to implement it.

Without the department stepping up clearly and taking some leadership with what they've got, I think other organizations are going to scratch their heads a little bit and they're going to wonder why do we need to sign on if the agency that's given this charge isn't taking the reigns.

[ Swan calling ]

Oregon Fish and Wildlife leadership disagrees with that criticism.

It's director says conservation happens in ways you don't see 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.

If you 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, none of that shows in the conservation pie.

But even the agency says it is millions of dollars short of what's needed to fully protect Oregon's native fish and wildlife.

So, while the game animals like elk and trout get expensive GPS trackers and helicopters, native turtles keep getting duct-tape solutions.

We have to use every dollar that we can as carefully as we can.

We come up with creative fixes like this that are basically free, just take time to cobble together.

Because there's an awful lot of important information out there that we need to do our jobs to conserve the species in the state, and so we have to find a way to get the job done.