Just a couple of hours ago the Milky Way was twinkling overhead with the gaudiness it sometimes displays in certain unpopulated reaches of deserts. But now our galaxy has turned timid. In fact it's pretty much disappeared. The peach light just before sunrise reveals a jagged mini-butte covered with rocks, some as big as Volkswagens, and a low line of willow trees a hundred feet south of that. Between the butte and the willows, a sure sign of water, two domed tents are staked in the fine alkali dust that covers this corner of Oregon, so remote National Geographic magazine once called it "Oregon's Outback."
Andy Talabere and Justin Gerding wriggle out of the tents, stretch and head for their kitchen/dining hall-a tarp lashed lean-to style over a camping stove, small table, ice chests and other gear. They eat some cereal and make lunch, sandwiches filled with thick slices of yellow cheese.
It's a month colder than it should be on September the eighth, says Talabere, a master's student in Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He and Gerding, a 1998 graduate of Philomath High School who's working with him as a summer employee, start loading equipment into the back of a white truck with four-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance.
As the sun rises over the mini-butte you can see their campsite better, how it sits on the outskirts of a little BLM campground dwarfed by open country. The empty campground, except for one old pickup with a sleeper on the back, has a chemical toilet and, best of all, a natural hot springs that Talabere knows from experience attracts an interesting assortment of characters for communal soaks out here in the big lonesome.
How lonesome? The campground is in Harney County, the ninth largest in America, bigger than several eastern states. It's 24 miles by mostly gravel road to Fields, where a small store and cafe make up what the few residents of this area consider the closest town. If you turn right on that gravel road-east toward Idaho instead of west toward Fields-you'll find the isolated Whitehorse Ranch. The closest city is Burns, population 3,000, about a hundred miles to the northwest. To get there for supplies you have to swing around southeastern Oregon's most well-known landmark, Steens Mountain. You can see the 60-mile-long monolith from the campground, rising thousands of feet above the Alvord Desert with a few patches of snow near the rim.
All this is "no joke, Sherlock" information to Talabere and Gerding, who are in a hurry, as they are most mornings. Soon the campground is in their rear view mirror, partially obscured by a roostertail of dust as they bounce through the high desert. They're on a side road probably better suited for travel on horses, or maybe camels.
For about five miles they stay pretty much parallel to the same thin green line of small willows and other plants that passes the campground, traveling through a pale celery and brown land that in some countries would be called a sagebrush steppe. It's punctuated with buttes they can name and others that don't have names. Finally they pull over and park with the green line on their right and a sheer, 200-foot rimrock bench on their left. The smell of sage is pungent in the clear morning air and it's curiously quiet except for the occasional noises of flies and grasshoppers.
Both sit on the truck's tailgate and pull on chest waders and rubber gloves. Talabere slips a high-tech-looking pack on his back and grabs a white pole about six feet long. It has a metal hoop on one end and on the other a cord attached to the pack.
Carrying five-gallon buckets and other equipment, he and Gerding weave about 50 feet through head-high clumps of sagebrush and rabbit brush to where willow trees, more like bushes, surround a tiny stream named, not surprisingly, Willow Creek.
They head downstream to a pile of faded gray willow sticks, bits of sagebrush and other material that's partially blocking the creek. After stretching a net in front of this beaver dam, about seven feet wide, they get out of the water, walk 180 feet upstream and stretch a net in front of another dam. Then it's back to the first dam. These maneuvers are second nature. They've cordoned off what Gerding calls a beaver pond, though an antelope could bound across it easily at its widest and a human could jump it in spots. Now they're going fishing.
Talabere turns on his backpack, which is a device called an electrofisher powered by a 24-volt battery. As he wades upstream, it emits high-pitched beeps. Methodically, he places the hoop at the end of his white pole where fish might feed or hide. The device sends a mild electric current through the water. Gerding's job is to scoop up stunned fish with a long-handled net before they recover and dart away. He puts them in a plastic bucket on the bank filled with water.
The creek is clear in the shallows where it glides over rocks and a dark, greenish brown in its depths. Their first catch is a two-inch trout from swift water. The next is an eight-incher in a deeper, slower spot where the winding creek undercuts the bank at a sharp turn. Gerding has to move quickly. It's just after 8 a.m. and the water is still relatively cool, about 48 degrees Fahrenheit, so the fish recover in seconds.
When they reach the upper dam they start back downstream with a different strategy, moving more briskly to "herd" fish to the lower net where they can capture them. The round trip takes the better part of an hour. At the downstream dam, they get out of the creek and analyze their catch.
The sweep was productive. They count 28 fish one year or older and 12 less than a year old, called fry. The smallest fish is an inch long; the largest nine inches. With the analysis finished, Talabere gently returns the catch to the creek and they swim away.
Then they make the circuit again, gathering 14 fish over a year old and five fry. A third and last up-and-down pass yields six fish over a year old and no fry. "Almost every section we survey has one wily fish and that one loses you," says Talabere. "But we get most of them."
Curiously, the fish they catch are all the same kind: Lahontan cutthroat trout. The golden, speckled creatures are one of the several subspecies of cutthroat trout native to western North America. Named for their historic range in the Lahontan basin of northeast California, southeast Oregon and northern Nevada, they are the only fish that live in Willow Creek and a similar isolated stream nearby called White Horse Creek.
Willow Creek is a dead-end. Only 18 miles long, it starts at springs in southeastern Oregon's Trout Creek Mountains and flows due north, ending in irrigated fields in a basin where, long ago, a large body of water named Coyote Lake connected to other waterways in southeastern Oregon.
Many scientists believe that, as the landscape and climate patterns changed, the trout in Willow and White Horse Creeks were cut off from other Lahontan cutthroats and over tens of thousands of years became genetically distinct. Today, because of their isolation, they are thought to be the only remaining native population of Lahontan cutthroats in Oregon not threatened with hybridization through interbreeding with other types of trout. Since 1991 the fish have been listed as threatened by the federal government. That's why Talabere and Gerding are here.
"When the Lahontan cutthroat in this basin were listed in 1991 it became a priority to evaluate the habitat and population," explains Talabere, who worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) before he came to OSU to study for a master's degree in fisheries biology.
In 1994, Talabere worked on an ODFW project that estimated the fish population in Willow and Whitehorse creeks be about 39,500 fish, limited to about half the potential stream habitat available. "That's really where my master's study started," he says. "We saw some interesting patterns in the distribution and size of the fish."
He and others noted that the area right around the creeks, damaged in decades past by livestock, wild horses and weather factors such as droughts, was improving. They suspected the improvement could be attributed, at least in part, to a change in how the federal land the creek runs through was managed. The Bureau of Land Management was working cooperatively with ranchers, environmentalists and state resource managers. The improvement included the return of willows and other trees around the streams, and there seemed to be a related rise in beaver activity, including the number of dams.
"There was growing interest in how beaver ponds affect fish distribution," says Talabere. "Some work on this had been done in the Midwest and west of the Cascades. But none had been done in this kind of desert ecosystem.
"There's a lot of concern that beaver ponds increase the water temperature, both because of an increase in the surface area of the stream and because beavers cut down trees, removing shade," he said.
He convinced his soon-to-be major professors at OSU, fisheries ecologist Bill Liss and aquatic ecologist Bob Gresswell, that a two-year project on Willow Creek would be a good thing. In July of 1998 he set out to gather the first year of field data.
In very general terms, what Talabere and others who worked with him did was measure shade and other physical characteristics along Willow Creek and survey the fish. For comparison, they did the same studies in stretches of the creek with beaver ponds as in stretches without beaver influences, and they placed special devices in some of the study areas to monitor the water temperature over time.
The following spring, high water washed out some of the beaver dams, so in 1999 they used some different study areas and sampled sections rather than entire stretches of beaver complexes. Talabere also put more emphasis on studying parts of Willow Creek with distinctively different gradients, or degrees of steepness.
The project data won't be entirely analyzed and his master's thesis completed until this summer. But he has some early impressions of how beavers may affect Willow Creek and the Lahontan cutthroat trout that live in it.
Photo: Lynn Ketchum
Photo: Lynn Ketchum
"There is a difference in the beaver pond complexes between the temperature of the water going in and coming out," he says. "The water heats up a degree or so in complexes in our higher-elevation areas studies, and 2 or 3 degrees in lower-elevation complexes. But it did that in the study stretches without beaver activity, too.
He hasn't completed analysis of the amount of shade by the creek, but he suspects there is more where beavers are active.
The creatures tended to cut down more willows in the fall, eating the outer part and using the rest for construction work. "When I go out to Willow Creek beaver ponds in March some of them tend to look like war zones. Clearcut. All stumps," says Talabere. "But by July it's all grown back, and more. There have been beaver in North America for three to four million years and willows even longer. They've evolved together.
"This is highly speculative at this point," he says, "but there appear to be more large fish in the beaver complexes. If that's true, and I haven't analyzed all the data yet, it means the beaver ponds are providing either more food that allows fish to get larger, or greater habitat area. Ultimately what it means for the population is that you grow more large fish per unit of stream and get more reproduction.
"We don't know for sure yet whether the study will show that the presence of beavers is harmful, neutral or beneficial to the fish, and when we do we won't know how far beyond Willow Creek whatever we determine may be true," he concludes. "But this study may give us another tool to use in the potential recovery of these threatened fish."