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Lakes Basin Wildlife Refuges

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order that created the first National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) at Pelican Island along Florida's central Atlantic coast. Since then, more than 20 million acres of refuge land have been added to the system across the country. In Oregon, 17 National Wildlife Refuges exist, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Two refuges exist within the Lakes Basin, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

The Hart Mountain Antelope refuge, northeast of Paisley, Oregon, was set aside in the 1930s for the conservation of pronghorn antelope. The pronghorn, which are not true antelope, are the only surviving species within a larger family of antelope-like animals that thrived in Oregon during the Pleistocene. The range of the pronghorn extends from western Canada to Mexico. Pronghorns in Oregon prefer the dry shrublands and high desert of the southeastern part of the state.

Although originally created to protect pronghorn, the 278,000-acre refuge is home to more than 300 species of wildlife, including California bighorn sheep, mule deer, sage grouse, and redband trout. The refuge is open to visitors, who can enjoy spectacular views of the Warner Valley Wetland complex. Because the refuge does not allow grazing within its boundaries, visitors are able to experience pristine sagebrush habitat undisturbed by development or agriculture.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge protects 187,000 acres of wetland in southeastern Oregon's high desert. Called "one of the crown jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Malheur NWR hosts more than 320 bird species and 58 species of mammal, including several endangered species like the Snowy plover. Created in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, the refuge encompasses 757 square miles in central Harney County, extending from Steens Mountain in the southeast to the edge of the Crooked River in the northwest. The town of Burns is located on the refuge as are two lakes, Harney Lake and Malheur Lake that are integral to the survival of the wetland complex. Currently separated by sand dunes, these lakes occasionally extend into one another, forming one large body of water. In drier years, both lakes become marshes. The lakes receive water from the Silvies River from the north and the Donner und Blitzen River from the south.

Land Management within the Refuges

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is tasked with maintaining wildlife habitat and crop and rangeland within the refuges. Water management is an important task within the refuge, as it supports not only a large number of fish, wildlife, and bird species, but many ranches and farms. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use a series of dams, canals, levees, and ditches to ensure that nesting waterfowl receive an adequate supply of water during their breeding season in the spring. Refuge managers also raise and lower water levels to improve marsh soils, stimulate the growth of marsh plants, and control carp, which destroy plants needed by nesting birds. In drier areas, managers mow, graze, or burn meadows to ensure some land remains open for grazing geese, cranes, and elk.

Riparian areas, or stream edges, provide cover for spawning fish, and are an important habitat for nesting birds and other species. Willow is one main tree species that is found in riparian areas, and refuge managers plant willows to ensure that the health of streamside habitats are maintained. In upland areas, managers conduct controlled burns to encourage the growth of native plants like sagebrush, greasewood, and wild rye. These plants are forage for deer and antelope, and provide valuable habitat for nesting duck, pheasants, and the rare sage grouse.

The fight against invasive plants is a continuous challenge throughout Oregon. Within Malheur NWR, for example, managers remove pepperweed to prevent the species from outcompeting native plants. In order to monitor the success of these land management strategies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees conduct wildlife surveys. These surveys provide data to wildlife managers on bird populations, rates of nest success, predator numbers, and hunter success. The job of a manager within the Malheur NWR is often challenging. In 1999, a non-profit organization, Malheur Wildlife Associates, was formed to assist the refuge with wildlife conservation and public education. The organization is involved with several ongoing projects within the refuge, including maintaining a native-plant nursery, creating talking trails, and removing obsolete barbed wire fences. Partnerships such as these ensure that Malheur NWR continues to provide its services to both humans and wildlife.

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Authored by Caitlin Bell, Science Writer, Oregon Explorer