The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Russell Illig/Stockbyte/Getty Images

At the center of an attention-grabbing armed takeover of public land in Oregon lies the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), an isolated property with over 187,000 acres of open water, wetland, and shrub land. Its management by the US Fish & Wildlife Service is governed by the National Wildlife Refuge system mission, with goals to protect land and water “for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans”.

  As a wildlife refuge, how significant is Malheur?

Spectacular…in Its Own Way

Located in very remote Harney County, the refuge headquarters are about 150 miles east of Bend, Oregon, and 200 miles west of Boise, Idaho, the two closest large communities. A few small rural towns dot the landscape around the refuge. As a protected area, Malheur does not boast dramatic sandstone cliffs, sparkling mountain lakes, or inspiring waterfalls. Its beauty is more subtle, and is centered on the large wetland system supporting a surprising amount of life in an otherwise stark desert. The source of the refuge's water is the Bonner und Blitzen River, which flows through extensive marshes and into Malheur Lake.

A Rich Cast of Residents

Native fish species pilot the Refuge waters, mule deer and antelope herds cruise the flats, but most of Malheur NWR’s visitors’ attention (at least mine!) is turned towards the birds: a staggering 320 species of birds have been observed on the Refuge.

In the summer, many species breed in the marshes, including several waterfowl species, Sandhill Cranes, Western Grebes, and White-faced Ibis. The surrounding grasslands host breeding Bobolinks, a species mostly associated with the eastern half of North America. Other favorites of mine include breeding Prairie Falcons, Loggerhead Shrikes, Long-billed Curlews, and Sagebrush Sparrows.

An Important Rest Area for Biodiversity

The summer wildlife is of high interest, but the real draw to Malheur for many birders is spring and fall migration. During those times, millions of birds flying over the arid Intermountain West look for a food-rich oasis to spend a few hours resting and feeding. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge provides just that, and was recognized as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

As the armed trespass situation developed in January 2016, the Audubon Society of Portland issued an eloquent statement, reminding us that:

“The 188,000 acre refuge represents some of the most important bird habitat on the Pacific Flyway. It is one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System and belongs to all Americans. In 2013, the Refuge adopted a long-term management plan developed through an inclusive collaborative process that brought together the local community, tribes, conservation groups, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders. These stakeholders have continued to work together to implement this strategy which includes one of the biggest wetland restoration efforts ever undertaken.”

The conditions that make Malheur such great wildlife habitat do not just happen.

Water levels, vegetation restoration, invasive species control, and infrastructure planning are carefully managed to maintain the place's extremely high value for migrating birds and other wildlife. At the same time, visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing, fishing, hunting, and hiking. The 2016 illegal occupation is rather rich in irony, as a declared attempt to “take land back for the people” by forcing the transfer of public land to commercial ranching activities.

Pressures on the Malheur NWR

The current armed takeover will hopefully have little effect on the Refuge’s primary mission. Rather, concerns are for global climate change, which has the potential to negatively affect the hydrology of the wetland system. For the last several years, the severe Western drought has reduced the amount of habitat available for fish and for breeding and migrating birds.

For More Information

Audubon Society of Portland. Statement about Malheur NWR.

US Fish & Wildlife Service. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.


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