They’re holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, and they’re unwelcome. There are too many to count. And no matter what the community does, they can’t seem to get rid of them.
Yes, carp. The oily, invasive freshwater fish that’s displeasing to eat and even worse for the environment. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge has been battling an armed occupation of ranchers on its property for only six days, but it’s been waging a bigger, much more important war against carp for nearly a century.
“Managing carp at the scale we need to manage carp here has never been done anywhere in the world before,” Refuge manager Chad Karges told Oregon Public Broadcasting back in 2014. They’ve tried everything: Dynamite, poison, suffocation, you name it. Today, the effort to eradicate the carp invasion is ongoing, and many say the 130 bird species that have nested at the refuge depend on that effort’s success.
But here’s the thing: The other hostile takeover — the armed group of ranchers — may actually hamper the carp eradication effort’s success. If the ranchers occupying Malheur get what they want — a sharp decrease in federal government ownership of public lands, and the ability to mine, drill, farm, and graze on those lands instead — the current effort to cut the carp and restore critical bird habitat could be decimated.
Cutting the carp
The carp are a huge threat to these birds. Most experts think the fish were introduced into the marshes at Malheur in the 1920s as a food source for humans. But now, the carp there are pretty much serving only to destroy birds’ food and nesting sources.
As the Portland Audubon Society explains, the carp “directly compete with water-dependent birds and have totally stripped aquatic vegetation from most water bodies. Their bottom-feeding behavior has reduced water clarity, which in turn alters invertebrate communities and kills plants by blocking the light they need to grow. Before the carp invasion, 110,000 ducks would hatch on the refuge annually, but now the number stands at only 30,000.”
It’s also really, really hard to do anything about them. “They’re the perfect invasive species,” Karges said. “There’s very little that will kill them.”
But after years of different efforts — physical barriers, chemical treatments, even something called a “Robo-carp” — refuge officials finally think they have a way to stop the carp and start bringing back bird habitat: a massive commercial fishing operation. Though it may seem obvious, fishing operations had been avoided partially because most Americans won’t eat carp. But the new effort, taken up by the refuge in partnership with the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the owner of Pacific Foods, seeks to use the fish as organic fertilizer for crops.
“We’re at a unique point in time when we have a lot of partnerships who are really focused on helping move this thing forward,” Karges said in a video explaining the carp problem and the proposed solution. “It’s kind of an exciting time for the refuge.”
No federal government, no solution
The key thing to know about the carp solution, though, is that it hinges on the federal government.
The owner of Pacific Foods and the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation are only able to undergo this commercial fishing operation because of a five-year, $35,000 contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the Malheur refuge. The U.S. government also oversees other efforts to get rid of invasive carp at other critical wildlife habitats across the country, including the Great Lakes, where carp threaten to replace commercially important fish like walleye and rainbow trout.
This is why the current occupation of the Malheur refuge is a problem for the carp eradication effort. One of the group’s core demands, according to CNN, is that the federal government “relinquish control of the wildlife refuge so ‘people can reclaim their resources.’” In general, the group is opposed to the idea of public lands — lands like parks, forests, or refuges that are regulated by the federal government for public use.
If the federal government “relinquishes control” of the Malheur refuge, it’s hard to see how the contract to stop the carp could continue. And if that effort stops, carp would be allowed to continue multiplying unabated — an all but guarantee that an internationally known destination for birders would be lost, and replaced by a takeover of hostile carp.