DRY RIVER CANYON, Ore. — In the middle of the night, at the edge of a Central Oregon canyon, a man in a jumpsuit sent mating calls into the darkness.
With each chirp from the speakers on his laptop, Tom Rodhouse hoped to lure an elusive Oregon spotted bat toward the nearly invisible net planted nearby. No luck.
“I saw some a week ago,” he said. “Where are they now?”
Rodhouse, an ecologist with the National Park Service, has been helping the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife with a new push to monitor bats.
Threats like disease and spinning wind turbine blades have hammered bats nationwide, prompting a rush by scientists to better understand these winged mammals. But in Oregon, bat populations are still a mystery. The state now hopes to get an accurate count before it’s too late.
Except for the birds, mammals and fish that attract hunters and fishers, hundreds of species in Oregon lack any kind of routine monitoring. Many fear species will disappear on Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s watch.
Leadership at ODFW blames the lack of money and points to new funding proposals as the answer.
But an EarthFix analysis reveals a different story. Efforts to preserve nongame wildlife have repeatedly faltered at the department, not just from a lack of funding but also because management let its conservation program fall into disarray, according to an examination of state and federal records, as well as interviews with longtime agency watchers and current and former staff.
ODFW’s biologists are spread thin across competing priorities. Positions are left vacant. Projects are abandoned. Grant money goes unspent. The agency leaves troves of data in boxes and file cabinets in offices across the state, squandering years worth of science on Oregon’s wildlife.
“We need to do what we can with what we’ve got before I’m ready to advocate for just a huge infusion of cash to fix everything, because I don’t right now think that’s going to fix everything,” said Audrey Hatch, a former ODFW biologist the agency hired in 2014 to update its conservation strategy.
“I’m not going to give my son a credit card if he runs down his debit card buying candy bars,” she said.
Bats on the brink
If you want to understand nongame conservation at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, examine the largest such project it has: bats.
Across the state, its staff are deploying state-of-the-art acoustic monitors to capture bat calls. They call it “bat grid 2.0”, after the first bat grid lost funding years ago.
The agency lacks its own bat expert, but leveraged the expertise of other scientists, including Rodhouse.
In locations like Smith Rock State Park, they supplemented the acoustic monitoring with hands-on checks for disease and for species like the spotted bat that cannot be detected with a monitor.
The bat grid involves staff in every ODFW district, outside contractors and partnerships with federal agencies. It is a massive amount of work on a relatively low budget — an effort that could serve as a model.
In those regards, the project is groundbreaking for the agency.
Oregon Fish and Wildlife paid for it by scraping together money set aside for personnel but unspent because of staff vacancies that hadn’t been filled. It was initially proposed to cover several species threatened by energy development, but later narrowed to only bats.
And while ODFW hopes to continue it long term, it currently has funding for two years.
In those regards, it follows a familiar pattern.
A trail of unfinished projects
Biologists at the agency have watched countless monitoring and restoration efforts bubble up and die out over the years.
A few years ago Ann Kreager, an ODFW grassland biologist at the time, was assigned to a habitat restoration project in the Willamette Valley’s Polk County.
Her bosses said the Legislature wanted to see restoration work. She was given one year and a budget of about $50,000.
“At a minimum, people shoot for two years. Sometimes it takes three. We had one season,” Kreager said.
She scaled the project down to a mere 40 acres, and somehow her team finished. They mowed and sprayed to eliminate invasive weeds and planted native grasses to create prime habitat for birds like meadowlarks.
But it was too rushed. Soon after they finished, the invasive weeds returned and choked out the native plants. Their work was lost.
“It was such a catastrophic failure,” Kreager said. “It was completely wasted. We knew it was going to happen, those of us that were on the ground, but there was nothing we could do.”
The State Wildlife Grant Program, the primary funding source for the agency’s conservation efforts, is inconsistent year to year. Since 2010, grants have dropped about 35 percent.
The agency says the uncertainty of those grants makes building sustainable programs problematic.
“It’s one of the risks. It’s why we want stable funding as opposed to a shot for one year of grant funds,” ODFW Director Curt Melcher said.
Oregon struggles to make use of everything available to it. Since 2006, the state has returned $674,000 in unused federal conservation grants — nearly enough to pay another biologist’s base salary for that span.
Melcher said the program is still relatively young, and that states and the Fish and Wildlife Service are “working together to learn ways to best leverage the available funds.”
Staff spread thin
The agency’s lack of prioritization leaves staff chasing fires rather than preventing them. At times, that has pulled members of its small conservation team away from core work.
In 2006, the state’s coordinator for sensitive species instead spent a significant portion of her of time working on rules for wildlife control operators — for nuisance animals, not sensitive species. In 2015, another biologist in the same position, meant to oversee 286 species, spent the bulk of her time responding to a federal plan to shoot cormorants on the Columbia River.
In Eastern Oregon, a nongame biologist position morphed into part-time wolf coordinator and eventually full-time wolf coordinator, with duties that include responding to livestock depredation and killing wolves on behalf of ranchers. In fact, ODFW has spent about 10 percent of all its State Wildlife Grant money on that one species.
“There is no species in Oregon that generates the same level of interest as do wolves,” Melcher said.
An agency divided
Melcher’s organization is torn in many directions.
Hunters and fishers still provide more than half of ODFW’s funding, but an increasing share of the population does not hunt or fish.
Fulfilling its conservation million would require more than a new revenue stream for ODFW — it would mean a restructuring of the agency’s culture and infrastructure, which since its outset have been designed to support hunting and fishing.
Hunting and fishing communities support increased conservation work. But if ODFW takes money from licenses and tags, and fails to deliver hunting and fishing opportunities, it risks alienating the community that most supports it.
And yet, if it doesn’t adapt, it might not survive.
Internal employee surveys show staff divided over the future of the agency, with many unsure whether leadership is taking it the right direction.
Some say the department is ignoring massive losses of animal life while it caters to the “hook and bullet” crowd. Others complain about the agency’s conservation work, saying ODFW should return to improving opportunities to hunt and fish.
Meanwhile, conservation initiatives dating back to the 1990s remain unfinished.
Years worth of data, unused
When the conservation team’s data analyst Arthur Rodriguez first arrived at ODFW in late 2012, he had an idea he thought was a game-changer.
What if there was one central location for all studies and recorded observations of Oregon wildlife? A one-stop clearinghouse would equip the agency finally to answer basic questions, like what species have been studied? When, where and how?
“I have a distinct memory of being here a few months,” he said, “and thinking I was so smart for coming up with this idea, and then looking through my predecessor’s notes, and realizing `oh, this has been talked about for a very long time.’”
Four years later, it’s still being talked about. Rodriguez works on it while juggling other projects.
In Washington, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has one central database for all its nongame species. Anyone with a question about where an animal has been observed, or whether a new road, housing development or energy facility might affect it, can find their best answer there in a matter of minutes.
But when someone called the ODFW office in Bend looking for data on pygmy short-horned lizards, biologist Simon Wray first checked an incomplete database Rodriguez cobbled together in headquarters, then he checked his own records, then an Excel spreadsheet started by his predecessor. Then the file cabinet.
It took him three or four hours to report back that the agency essentially had no data on the species.
By one tally, ODFW kept its data in 1,400 different files and formats. The agency is missing basic information necessary for conservation on hundreds of species. Some of the answers might already be sitting, unused, in ODFW offices.
Researchers outside ODFW file reports full of data every year with the agency under permits required to handle wildlife in the state. That process still happens on paper. In the history of the agency, only years 2001 to 2013 have been entered into a database.
In many cases, the agency’s knowledge gaps could be filled in if someone took the time to look, said Chris Rombough, a independent herpetologist who has contracted with ODFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“A lot of those data already exist, but it’s just that they haven’t done any effort in pulling them together,” Rombough said. “I mean that’s super basic, but we haven’t done it.”
Take the southern torrent salamander, for instance. The state says it knows very little about where it is found and how it responds to changes in forest management, like clear-cutting or weed killer spraying. In a search he said took half an hour, Rombough compiled a spreadsheet of known salamander specimens and a three-page list of relevant studies, including nearly a dozen on the effects of forest practices on salamanders.
Rombough’s colleagues say ODFW-issued permits for wildlife research have become increasingly costly and backlogged, costing them precious field time. They complain ODFW has little data of its own and yet has hindered the ability of others to study wildlife in the state.
The result, they say, is the government mislabeling some species as threatened, diverting attention from wildlife that really need it.
The agency plans to move to a digital permitting system it hopes will streamline the process.
“On the surface, it seems prudent — let's be cautious and assume everything is threatened, right?” Rombough said. “But the truth is that there isn't enough money to go around, and it should be spent on the species that need it the most.”
'Where's the beef? Where's the vision?'
Audrey Hatch wrestled with this in her efforts to update the state’s conservation strategy, making decisions about which species to list as part of the conservation strategy.
She also spent five years with ODFW. She saw first-hand how little knowledge ODFW had about the wildlife it is meant to protect, and why.
As a task force convened by lawmakers debated future funding for ODFW, Hatch wrote a letter to a few members urging them not just to find more funding but to examine the agency and set a better course.
Hatch feared Oregon’s latest plan to guide species conservation might not be enough, and that it has little agency support.
Claire Puchy, a task force member who wrote one of the agency’s first nongame wildlife plans back in 1993, agreed with Hatch’s concerns. She wondered why the current conservation strategy lacked any measures of success or accountability.
“Where's the beef? Where is the vision?” she wrote. “We used to have that vision and strategy and coordinated science-based approach...and accomplished a lot even with limited funding.”
Those concerns were raised but never addressed, Hatch told her.
“It seemed to me that the agency's goal was to complete the Strategy update as quickly as possible so that the agency would continue to receive the State Wildlife Grant funds,” she wrote. “Major issues of implementation and oversight may appear glossed over in the text of the document because there was no guidance or vision provided about those topics by ODFW leadership.”
ODFW’s Melcher disagreed, saying the conservation strategy update was in the works for two years, included hundreds of technical reviews and exceeded the requirements of the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said implementation of the strategy has faltered because of funding, not a lack of agency support.
Recommendations from the task force will be taken up by the Legislature next year. They include two plans for new revenue streams, but no recommendations on the agency’s current spending or policies.
“Time and expertise are being wasted, and decisions are still being made without adequate information,” Hatch said. “Overall, I believe that we have failed on this front. And in my opinion it’s the worst kind of failure – it’s preventable.”