Oregon Wildlife Refuges

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

". . . where "misfortune" turned to fortune for wildlife"

Stretching 39 miles wide and 40 miles long, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon is shaped like a lopsided tee. It is configured to include the high-desert area that is rewatered each spring from mountain snowmelt, great enough sometimes to cause Harney, Mud, and Malheur lakes to become one.

The marshes and wet meadows around the lakes and along 32 miles of river floodplain draw a spectacular variety of birds. Three streams flow through the refuge to the lakes: Blitzen River arising in the Steens Mountain in the southeast; Silver Creek fed by springs around Harney Lake; and Silvies River flowing from the northern mountains.


By the late 1800s, the human impact on this rich but sensitive area convinced President Theodore Roosevelt that it needed to be protected. Thus, in 1908 he established the Lake Malheur Reservation, an 81,786-acre preserve and breeding ground for native birds. It would later become one of the largest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

[The conservation-minded Theodore Roosevelt, as President, is credited with establishing the greatest number of refuges including the first on Pelican Island in Florida.]

Malheur (pronounced mal-hewer) was named by a French trapper and means "misfortune," undoubtedly a reference to the trapper's harvest. Misfortune, however, also described what later happened to this lush natural area in an otherwise fairly arid landscape.

In the 1850s, miners in search of gold heard about the marvelous green valley with 8-foot-tall grasses in the middle of the desert. Word was passed to stockmen who promptly moved in their cattle.

The most notable stockman was John W. "Peter" French, who arrived from California in 1872 with 1000 head under the auspices of Hugh Glenn, a wealthy stock owner who had to look elsewhere for pasture when California ended open-range grazing.

French soon fenced nearly 200,000 acres, including the entire Blitzen River Valley, for a herd wearing his P brand, by then numbering over 40,000. Much of his land was acquired by having his workers file land claims and later selling them to French.

Misfortune came to French personally 25 years later when he was murdered allegedly by a homesteader who feared he would lose legal ownership of his land. Relations between French and the settlers had never been harmonious, and the accused homesteader was arrested but later acquitted.

Sold later to partners including meat-packer Louis Swift, the huge ranch was subdivided by gravity-fed canals into 160-acre ranchettes. The river was rechanneled so that ultimately the entire Blitzen River Valley could be developed.

Misfortune also came to Malheur because heavy cattle grazing overwhelmed the capability of the grass to regenerate. Denuded stream banks eroded, and soils, which were of poor quality to begin with, became drier. Cattle ranching began to decline just 2 decades after it was introduced.

Adding to the misfortune was the serious decline in the waterfowl population, brought about by several human actions: Settlers relied heavily on the birds for food. Ranchers drained the marshes on which the birds depended and turned them into irrigated hayfields. And then the plume hunters came, eager for the egret, swan, and tern feathers for which a lucrative market had developed.

The madness stopped , as one writer put it, when in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt made Malheur Lake and surrounding marshes a bird sanctuary. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt added the prime water source with the purchase of the 65,000-acre Blitzen River Valley and French's P Ranch. A year after the reservation was officially named the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1940, purchase was made of the prime habitat of the 14,751-acre Double-O Ranch, which included Harney Lake.

Area & Wildlife

Malheur NWR now consists of 185,540 acres of marshes, uplands, and lake beds perched some 4,000 feet above sea level. It is a complex of profound importance to bird migration and production in the Pacific flyway.

Water flows into the refuge by springs and Silver Creek in the Double-O Unit to the west, by the Silvies River from the north, and the Blitzen River from the south (full name Blitzen und Donner). The Blitzen River Valley lies within the refuge and derived its full name from an Army officer who, leading a raid against Indians in a thunderstorm, recalled his German lessons while crossing the stream. Water levels in the refuge can vary considerably depending on the depth of snowfalls in the southeastern Steens Mountain and the northern Blue Mountain.

Bird life is dramatically affected by water levels , which was especially vivid when the refuge experienced several years of record floods in the early 1980s only to suffer severe drought conditions of similar duration in succeeding years. Malheur, the largest of the three refuge lakes, covered 100,000 or more acres with 6-foot-deep water during flood years and dwindled to a mere 400 acres just a few years later.

White pelicans, egrets, herons, and ibises thrived during flood years. Waterfowl production began to abound, however, after the lakes dried out and the flats began revegetating.

A major production area, Malheur is host to nesting redhead, canvasback, and ruddy ducks; eared and western grebes; double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, black-crowned night-herons, and white-faced ibis. Six species of hawks and five species of owls nest there.

Spring migration in March and April brings major flyway concentrations of snow and Ross' geese, northern pintails, and a variety of shorebirds including long-billed curlews, avocets, and willets. In the fall, migrants include large numbers of greater sandhill cranes, tundra swans, and Canada geese.

The refuge bird list contains nearly 300 species and reads like an encyclopedia of bird species. Of particular interest is the willow flycatcher, whose concentration on the refuge is the densest recorded so far anywhere else in the world. Contributing to that density are the 58 percent rate of birds that return to the refuge to nest and a nesting success rate of one fledged bird for every two eggs laid, results that were revealed in a multiyear refuge study.

Losses of young sandhill cranes prompted another long-term study that eventually identified an unsuspected predator as one of the causes for the high mortality. Eagles, coyotes, and owls were known predators, but researchers found that mink were causing the greatest number of predator losses.

A runner-up cause of death was gapeworms, parasites that suffocate a young bird by blocking its trachea and causing the bird to gape. Those findings led to a new experimental control program to bring the mink population down as well as a study of the effectiveness of medication for gapeworm given orally.

"Maintaining a healthy flock of cranes," says refuge manager Forrest Cameron, "is one of the best things we can do." The refuge sandhill-crane flock is the largest one of the central California population.

Documenting the causes of prefledgling mortality, adds refuge biologist Gary Ivey, is important because it is a major factor limiting "recruitment" of new birds to the flock. Ivey has concluded that maintaining a healthy and stable flock requires an integrated approach that includes habitat management as well as predator and parasite control.

Greater sandhill cranes are attracted by Malheur's wet meadows , many of which are irrigated by the ditches and berms that were installed by the early ranchers and expanded and upgraded by the post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps. The large birds stand 4 or more feet tall, have wingspans of 7 feet, and weigh up to 14 pounds (Summer 1993 Refuge Reporter, p.4).

Visiting Malheur NWR can be a treat, especially for birders, who come in large numbers. Reportedly, a birder can count as many as 100 species in a day during spring and fall migrations.

It was visitors who in the 1970s complained vociferously about dwindling birds and an abused refuge landscape. Overgrazed and trampled, the refuge had taken on the look of the ranch that it had been before refuge establishment.

Habitat and Commercial Grazing

Commercial livestock grazing, in fact, had become a major use of the refuge, increasing from 21,000 to 125,000 animal unit months a year between 1941 and 1970. (An animal unit month or AUM is the amount of forage consumed by one cow in one month.)

The refuge responded to the criticism by sharply reducing permitted grazing. By 1993, grazing was one-fifth of what it had been and is restricted to meadows for the purpose of improving waterfowl feeding habitat. It does not begin until September, and the cattle are out of the refuge by the end of January. Haying, if any is done by ranchers, occurs in August after nesting is over.

Cameron says that grazing is now in balance with refuge wildlife needs. When prescribed burning is not feasible, he says, controlled grazing is an acceptable substitute. But in the west, he continues, no cow should be allowed to put its foot in a stream.

Efforts continue, therefore, to restore woody vegetation that was ruined by grazing along streams, although that is a longer-term proposition. One action taken is that cattle can no longer "trail along" Krumbo Creek to exit the refuge, but the 200 to 300 cows must be driven through the area in one day.

Cameron has even reached out to induce an adjacent ranch owner to revegetate his privately owned riparian zone and to keep his cattle out of it with new fencing. The rancher paid half the cost under the terms of the federal Partners for Wildlife Program.

There's Always More Work To Be Done!

Cameron is still wrestling with and implementing solutions to several other problems. The most time-consuming is removing the fences, 450 miles of barbed wire in the interior and 200 miles along the refuge boundary, that were erected to both separate and contain the herds. One writer estimated that the wire from the interior fences alone, if stretched out, would extend from New York City to Denver.

The problem with the barbed-wire fences is that they are lethal to wildlife. Pronghorns and low-flying birds become entangled and impaled by fences on land and diving birds, by those under water.

Removing fences is not easy, particularly in wet areas, but Cameron reports that a total of 35 miles have been removed so far and boundary fence has been retrofitted with smooth top and bottom wire, the bottom high enough for antelope and deer to crawl under. Much of the removal was performed by volunteer groups; Corvallis Audubon Society is one of the outstanding contributors of labor. Experimentation with electric fences is also under way.

Removing unwanted carp from refuge waters is not easy, either. Carp got into Malheur Lake in the late 1930s, and its numbers exploded during the high water levels in the 1980s. The introduced fish destroy the emergent vegetation that is essential forage for water birds. Its control requires intensive water-level management.

Water-level management, however, will not be fully operational until repairs are made to damaged water-control structures caused by the floods in the 1980s. Two-thirds of the dikes, canals, and dams in the Blitzen Valley and Double-O wetlands were damaged, and the dike that was the only water-management facility on Malheur Lake was destroyed. The 10-mile dike separated a 15,000-acre wetland on the east from the deeper lake on the west, and the food productivity in the shallow water supported thousands of water birds.

The repairs, which include restoring and enhancing some 34,000 acres of wetlands and breeding habitat for water birds and providing public access for wildlife viewing in Malheur Lake, will cost an estimated $4.5 million.

Refuge management problems, however, do not dissuade some 50,000 persons from visiting the refuge each year. "When people come," says manager Cameron, "they have really good feelings."

Clearly, Cameron and his staff have good feelings, too, a tribute to Cameron's friendly and able leadership. Tall and soft-spoken, Cameron is as likely to be seen inspecting the refuge on horseback as working at his desk and computer at the Headquarters and Visitor Center building. His roots in Oregon are deep, his great-great-great grandfather having brought the first cattle into western Oregon in the early 1800s.

He was recruited for FWS's prestigious upper level management training program in 1994 and was a member of the team that produced a hypothetical reorganization plan for maximizing wildlife conservation (Fall 1994 Refuge Reporter. p.11).

John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival and Art Show

The Visitor Center provides overlook views of Malheur Lake. The trees and shrubs in its spacious surroundings are choice spots for seeing migrating warblers and other songbirds.

A drive on the 41-mile tour road that parallels the Blitzen River passes through riparian and wetland areas and ends at the site of Peter French's P Ranch. Most refuge visits are made for wildlife observation and photography. Sport hunting and fishing are permitted on selected refuge areas concurrent with Oregon seasons and limits.

The economics of Malheur NWR and the wildlife that it represents do not go unnoticed. For the 15th year, the Harney County Chamber of Commerce will hold the annual 3-day John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival and Art Show in commemoration of the first refuge manager and to extol the outstanding wildlife at Malheur NWR and environs.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, moreover, have jointly developed Oregon High Desert Discovery, a plan to accommodate visitors in this remote area and to guide them to five natural areas including Malheur NWR and Hart Mountain NAR.

In a 1993 study of the impact of Malheur visitors on the local economy, respondents reported average stays in the area of over 3 days, spending 3 nights camping or two in a hotel, eating meals in local restaurants, and buying at least one tankful of gasoline. The visitors came from 28 states, 30 Oregon counties, and several foreign nations. Over one-third had annual incomes in excess of $50,000.

Malheur's ancient past is being discovered at 200 archeological sites on the refuge , most being located at spring sites and dating back as many as 5000 years, according to charcoal analyses. Its more recent past includes the Long Barn, a huge innovative building used by Peter French to store hay indoors and thought to be one of the factors that made him the cattle tycoon that he was.

The Malheur NWR history provides a powerful lesson: Unless set aside, unique wildlife habitats are prone to be used for incompatible human activity, usually for economic gain. That was understood by Theodore Roosevelt in his day, even though at that time the nation was far less developed and population little more than one-quarter of the size it is today.

Only 90 years later, some important political leaders see it differently and are calling for the opening of these set-aside public lands to economic exploitation and for changes in their purposes.

But, fortunately, citizens can take some comfort in knowing that the men and women who manage Malheur and the other national wildlife refuges are still guided by the vision of Theodore Roosevelt and the other conservationists who made the national wildlife refuge system possible.

Flintstones at Malheur

Finding Dino was Eric Scheuering's first task on a Saturday in early June at Malheur NWR. Wilma was next on his list. Dino and Wilma were greater sandhill crane chicks (more properly called colts by the experts) that were part of a multiyear research project to learn the causes of the high mortality rates suffered by the young cranes before they reached flight age. Scheuering and his colleagues assign fun names to the birds on whom they must check daily because the evidence needed to determine cause of death, should it occur, can disappear rapidly.

As a biological technician, Scheuering hunts for some 18 colts that have tiny radio transmitters attached to their legs or backs, depending on age. The radios emit signals that are heard through earphones connected to a hand-held antenna and receiver. The signals lead the researchers directly to their subjects, getting stronger as they get closer. The birds stay in the same general location where they were hatched, but finding them can still be difficult. Scheuring can recall, for example, walking through a marsh with cold water up to his neck and holding the antenna over his head.

Scheuering has discovered that presence of parent birds will tell him whether the radio-marked offspring is still in the area. But on every fourth or fifth check, the colt must be captured to check on the condition of the radio and its mount. Absence of the parent birds typically indicates a deceased colt, but it could mean the presence of just a radio that became detached from the bird.

Between 1991 and 1994, radios were attached to 107 birds. Radio tracking has verified that population controls instituted by the refuge are decreasing predation by coyotes and ravens, and it also showed, surprisingly, that mink were chief predators of young cranes. A subsequent mink-control program lowered total losses from a high of 36 percent to 12 percent. Although the cause of crane deaths cannot always be identified, mink predation is the easiest to determine, according to Scheuering, because they only decapitate. Eagles, on the other hand, completely consume their prey and leave the bone remains in a neat little pile.

Scheuering shared daily marsh treks with volunteer helpers, who are typically graduates of wildlife-related university programs who value the short-term experience at Malheur. Scheuring was a volunteer himself until the refuge staff position became available.

His opinion of Malheur? The expert and friendly staff plus the emphasis on nongame species, says Scheuering, has made Malheur his Mecca. His position was terminated in November 1995, and he is now pursuing graduate study.

Discovery Project To Benefit Visitors And Local Economies

It may take 10 years or more to complete, but that does not dissuade the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management from pursuing their Oregon High Desert Discovery Project. The joint undertaking is designed to make visiting five prime natural areas easier and more informative.

Local communities will benefit, too, say the designers, because more tourists staying longer will help the local economy. The bottom line, however, is for visitors to gain a greater appreciation for high desert resources, which, the designers hope, will in turn promote resource protection.

The plan is to link five areas managed by either FWS or BLM with a coordinated set of visitor facilities and services. Malheur NWR and Hart Mountain NAR are included as are Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area, Steens Mountain, and Warner Wetlands Area of Critical Concern.

An interpretive center is envisioned alongside the Headquarters building at Malheur NWR, where a diorama would trace the natural and cultural history and show close-ups of refuge wildlife. One center is also planned to serve Hart Mountain NAR and the Warner Valley wetlands and another at Frenchglen to describe Steens Mountain uniqueness.

A number of interpretive wayside sites, two interpretive auto trails, welcome centers at Lakeview and Burns, and a new campground in Warner Valley are also part of the interagency effort to fill the need for currently lacking visitor services.

The plan is thus far conceptual, but it has won praise and support in public reviews. Although private funds might help to pay for the cost, the availability of federal funds for this acclaimed project grows increasingly uncertain during this time of changing budget priorities.

What to Do and How to Get There

A proper first stop at Malheur NWR is the Visitor Center and its interpretive exhibits and book shop. The Visitor Center overlooks Malheur Lake, and the trees and shrubs around it are choice spots to observe a variety of warblers and other songbirds during spring and fall migrations. The friendly staff will know what is in season and where best viewings are available. The general rule always applies: Wildlife is most likely seen in early morning and late afternoon.

The adjacent Benson Memorial Museum contains nearly 200 mounted specimens of local birds in one of the buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s. Trained by stone masons, CCC workers constructed the buildings with a dense volcanic rock that was mined from a quarry on the refuge.

Driving south on the refuge automobile tour route, visitors will come first to the Buena Vista Overlook, where there is an exceptional view of Blitzen River Valley with Steens Mountain as the backdrop. New exhibits and a comfort station were added in 1993.

Sandhill cranes may be feeding in the wetlands along the route. Stopping at Benson Pond to see what water birds may be using it, visitors may also see both animals and birds in the grove of tall cottonwoods surrounding the pond. Located at the end of the tour route are remnants of the Peter French P Ranch including the Long Barn, which is open for inspection. Willow flycatchers occupy the trees just north of the ranch development.

Hiking is limited from March through August to those roads open to vehicles and at public fishing areas. Fishing is permitted at Krumbo Reservoir and on streams near the P Ranch. Rainbow trout are stocked by the state. Boats with electric motors are allowed only in the reservoir during season. A boat ramp and dock were added recently. A fishing and hunting brochure is available from the refuge.

Burns, which is 30 miles from the Visitor Center, is the closest major town. Gasoline and limited food and lodging are available in Frenchglen, a hamlet named for French and Glenn just south of the refuge on the unpaved road that goes to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. The boundary of that refuge is 36 miles from Frenchglen, and the headquarters is 49 miles.

Field Trips to Malheur NWR

Billed as the premier birding event in the Northwest, the 1997 John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival will be held in Burns, OR, from April 4 to 6.

For the 15th year, the Harney County Chamber of Commerce will sponsor the 3-day event, which starts early Friday morning and ends on Sunday afternoon and draws over 1000 people. Wading birds are this year's festival theme.

The busy program includes workshops, lectures, exhibits, and field trips to birding spots in the Harney Basin, in which Malheur NWR is located. Local birders staff  "Bird Central" at Burns High School, where festival participants can get answers to any question about the Festival and even get help with bird identification. The festival, emphasize the promoters, is designed to accommodate everyone from beginning to life-long birders.

John Scharff, in whose honor the festival is held, is a highly regarded resident of Burns and the first manager of Malheur NWR. Now in his 90s, Scharff was refuge manager for 30 years until he retired in 1970.

One of the guided tours in past festivals and likely to be included in the one this year is to a sage-grouse lek and to breakfast and a slide program at Malheur Field Station.

The station was constructed in the 1960s as a Youth Job Corps Center. The facility is leased by the refuge to a consortium of northwest universities that operate it as a regional environmental education center with room and board. Offerings include courses for both credit and noncredit as well as Elder Hostel programs. Dormitory housing and meals and RV hookups are also available for visitors to the area during the spring through fall, although reservations are strongly suggested.

For more information on the festival, contact Harney County Chamber of Commerce, 18 West D Street, Burns, OR 97720, 541-573-2636.

For more information on the Field Station course schedule and accommodations, contact Malheur Field Station, HC-72, Box 620, Princeton, OR 97721, 541-493-2629.


From I-80 in Nevada, US-95 north at Winnemucca to intersection with OR-78 at Burns Junction, OR-78 for 58 miles to Princeton, left on road with sign to Malheur NWR. From Burns, OR-78 south, right on OR-205 for approximately 28 miles, left at refuge sign.

For further information, contact:

Malheur NWR
HC-72, Box 245
Princeton, OR 97721

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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