Q&A with Marshal Moser

Wildlife biologist seeking to save threatened bull trout in Upper Klamath Basin

Marshal Moser is a field naturalist and certified wildlife biologist on a mission to restore the health of the Upper Klamath Basin’s ecosystem, with particular interest in the endangered bull trout. He has lived in Chiloquin for 17 years and has been working with the Klamath Tribes Ambodat Department to collect genetic samples of DNA in local streams to identify bull trout using an eDNA sampler owned by Ambodat. Bull trout of the Upper Klamath Basin are concentrated in what biologists have identified as the Klamath Recovery Unit, composed of the Upper Sprague River, the Sycan River, and tributaries of Upper Klamath Lake. Ambodat is also involved in the bull trout recovery efforts and is assisting Crater Lake National Park biologists with fish monitoring work at Sun Creek in the park and will begin work to restore bull trout streams of Long Creek located on Nature Conservancy land at Sycan Marsh. In addition, Ambodat is looking to hire tribal members to help remove invasive brook trout.

Presently, there is a need for more data to identify and delineate present and historical populations of bull trout in the Upper Klamath Basin. Bull trout of the Basin were once widespread, but their numbers have dwindled due partly to habitat fragmentation from agricultural water diversions and past fisheries management. Their recovery has also been hampered by competition and interbreeding with the non-native brook trout.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established the Klamath Recovery Unit of southern Oregon, including core bull trout areas in the Upper Klamath Lake, Sycan River, and Upper Sprague River. The Upper Klamath Basin core area is comprised of the northern portion of Upper Klamath Lake and its immediate major and minor tributaries. Sun Creek, which originates from the southern slopes of Crater Lake National Park, and Threemile Creek, located on the west side of the Wood River Valley, serve as key streams for bull trout survival and long-term efforts to recover bull trout populations in the Upper Klamath Basin.

Moser’s gathering of genetic data of bull trout in the Basin is much needed to identify population numbers and locations of their habitat accurately – and he does so as a volunteer.     

So, you’re just doing this on the side, in your free time. You’re not being paid. You’re just volunteering your interests and efforts.

Correct. It’s a great interest of my life. I’ve done the things I’m comfortable with and enjoy filling my time with such consulting.

We’re in a historical moment where you can engage as a field naturalist. Because we’re removing all these dams and the basin is going to change, the river is going to change, and there is a great interest from around the country and internationally. How can people get involved with this restoration that’s going on? People can become activists, right? Which is kind of what you are.

Not so much as a political activist, but actually trying to help on the land in some of the efforts to restore it. There is, like you said, a whole bunch going on: fish re-stockings, the dams being taken out, monitoring fish by putting transmitters and transponders in them. What got me started in the present one, where I’m using some of the Tribes’ equipment, is the Forest Service wants to know where the bull trout are in the Upper Basin that flows into the Sprague and Williamson Rivers. And there was a grant with Trout Unlimited that had some money. And then, the Tribes offered their sampler to sample the DNA in the streams. A sampler is a machine that sucks the water out and runs it through a sterile filter to capture the genetic material that’s in the water.

The Tribes have it at their water quality lab?

Yes, that’s where it’s maintained. And I have it right now. I’ve been using it for quite a few months. It’s the only one they have, and they weren’t using it. So, this fits right in with the reasons they got it.

You went over there and said you wanted to use it as a volunteer?

I said I needed that to document some of the fish. It’s one of the best methods there is, in ways better than electrical fishing, better than hook and line fishing, better than seining, and other methods to catch the fish because you can suck a tiny amount of water out of the stream, about two to five liters, and check for every species over a half-mile upstream. All the fish that are there can be used for other documentation, too. Technically, it’s called environmental DNA sampling – eDNA. And it’s a very thorough method, which you can easily missusing other methods, the presence of something there that’s in low numbers or in a different place that you didn’t sample, hiding under a log, or like some of the fish that hide under rocks and leaves. And so, it’s a very, very thorough method of checking what’s there. It does have to be sent to a lab. And that does cost a bit, but the price has been dropping from hundreds of dollars to between $100 and $200 per sample, and that’ll give you all the fish here in the stream. You can do plants, other animals, anything that had living or dead parts in the water that may have included DNA.

Are you paying for these samples out of your own pocket?

It’s not being paid for. The samples are being collected, put in alcohol, and kept in a refrigerator.

Are you going to send them back to Ambodat?

If they want them, I have sent them a map of all the sample sites. And they may not want all the sample sites, but that will be their choice of what they want to use. Other organizations, like Trout Unlimited, that got the original grant in the first place, will be interested in the bull trout.

And the bull trout is a native species to the area.

They are a native species. It’s a little bit of a mystery how they got here, but they originally were as far south as the McCloud River in California. They went extinct from there in the 1990s. But there’s no connection through the rivers now to the populations that are in Central Oregon. Central Oregon on Metolius River and the Warm Springs reservation have possibly the healthiest population in the U.S.

And the Basin?

The Basin has a population here. It’s very unusual. It surprises people to learn about it. There’s some along the edge of the Cascades and some of the creeks of the Upper Sprague River in both branches, the north and the south forks.

There is a display of fish at Wood River Wetland for trout there, and I think the Bull Trout is listed.

Yes, it’s there. So, for a while, I worked for the Lonesome Duck about four miles downstream as a consulting biologist, full time there, and we had a team of guides, and every once in a while, a guide would report somebody catching one. Now, another thing that happens is they look so much like a brook trout that people don’t know. And there are warnings when you get into the area, signs up along the road to tell you if you don’t know the difference, you better not keep it between a brook trout and a bull trout. And I can think of a sign way up on the Sycan right now, the Sycan River, warning people that you’re coming into bull trout country, so it’s better to know what you’re doing. They’re very similar. And it’s possible that people are getting them and don’t even know.

Do you have a goal in mind? What’s your mission with the DNA testing?

To find out where the different fish are. And you can get some idea of the size of the population and to supply the baseline material for areas that do need the restoration, helping the fish try to come back to natural populations again. What I would be doing is supplying data to interested organizations like the Tribes and Trout Unlimited. Each one has kind of its own niche, what they’re most interested in. And the Tribe is very interested in the suckers, of course, and they may be interested in Bull Trout, too. I’ll make that all available.

When is your timeline to complete this part of your project?

There is no particular timeline. And that’s one of the things about DNA: it can last indefinitely. It depends on how it’s preserved. But right now, I’m trying to get over to the point where somebody else can help with the funding of it. I don’t care that much about who funds it. But somebody, especially those that are interested in seeing what’s in those streams from the DNA, they would be the ones most likely to want to pay for those samples. And I recently found three labs that can run those samples for a couple of years. I did not know which lab could run the samples by the protocol in which they were preserved. And I had to look that up and ask some other people for help.

If you could get involved with the Tribes? What would you like to see them do?

I just like to encourage them to continue doing what they’re doing: preserving these populations. Trying to get back to the original conditions that were here, a healthy population of all the native species.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, I’d like to encourage people with something you asked me before: there are different places where people can volunteer their work. And there is a lot of money available; a grant writer would be great. Because I just don’t have enough time to do that. I’m just a one-man show. And I would rather just be a consultant for this work, non-paid, and help other people. For grant writing and fieldwork, Trout Unlimited needs some field people here; there’s a very small group. And a lot of us, well, I’m 75, a lot of us are that age, and we need some younger people that are interested in this and willing to supply muscle power, brain power — all of it’s needed.

And if somebody wants to get involved, how do they contact you?

Email is best: [email protected].