Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Additions (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 116-119.

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A "hotspot" of species endemism and complete protection of the entire range of the Hart Mountain pronghorn herd.

Location: Lake and Harney Counties, centered 12 miles northeast of Adel

Size: 553 square miles (353,768 acres); existing refuge: 375 square miles (240,000 acres)

Terrain: Lakes and wetlands, high and low rims, rolling hills, and stream canyons

Elevation Range: 3,200-8,017 feet Managing Agencies: Lakeview District BLM (present); Fish and
Wildlife Service (proposed)

Recreation Map: Northeast and Southeast Quarters, North and South Halves Lakeview Resource Area, Lakeview District BLM

The expansion of the Hart Mountain Refuge would include two very distinct landscapes: the lakes, dunes, and playa ecosystem of the northern Warner Valley and the sagebrush steppe between Hart Mountain and the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

"[The Hart Mountain Conservation Opportunity Area] is an extraordinary landscape with high ecological integrity," notes the Oregon Biodiversity Project. [1] (Much of the proposed refuge addition is also described under the Bighorn Wil- derness and Pronghorn Wilderness.) The proposed addition is one contiguous unit, but of two distinct characterizations.

Between the Refuges

One of the largest herds of pronghorn in Oregon summers on Hart Mountain and often winters in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The herd sometimes chooses to winter in the Catlow Valley or at Oregon End Table, depending on the severity of the winter.

This proposed addition is to ensure that the entire "biological unit" of the pronghorn herd will be protected. It also includes numerous sage grouse leks.

The proposed addition (which also includes additional wildlands in Nevada) includes habitat for forty-six species at risk in either Oregon or Nevada: thirteen birds, four fish, eight mammals, one amphibian, one invertebrate, and nineteen plants. It would also include increasingly rare examples of three natural plant communities: basin big sagebrush/needle and thread grass, silver sagebrush/ wildrye, and winterfat/Sandherg's bluegrass flat.

Northern Warner Valley

"The Warner Valley includes a major wetland complex and extensive salt desert scrub," notes the Oregon Biodiversity Project. "The valley's lakes, springs, and streams provide habitat for a number of rare fish, and its wetlands are among the region's most significant for migratory birds. It is also considered a chotspot' of species rarity and endemism on a regional scale." [2]

The Warner Valley is comparable to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in its importance to migratory birds. The spring migrations of egrets, white peli- cans, geese, ducks, and many other kinds of birds are quite impressive.

Inclusion of the northern Warner Valley into the national wildlife refuge system would also aid the recovery of the endangered Warner sucker.

Three people are most responsible for the conservation of Hart Mountain: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established the refuge; Ira Gabrielson of the U.S. Biological Survey (now Fish and Wildlife Service), who convinced him to do it (and later to issue an improved executive order putting wildlife ahead of livestock); and Barry Reiswig, the former refuge manager, who finally stood up to local (conflicts of) interests and said that livestock on the refuge was harmful to wildlife and therefore contrary to the executive order that established it.

"The current mandated 15-year exclusion of livestock from the Hart Mountain refuge presents a unique opportunity to explore strategies to restore native plant and animal communities at landscape levels," says the Oregon Biodiversity Project. [3]

Habitat recovery is quite evident. Rock and Guano Creeks, the main all-year watercourses, are sporting improving riparian cover. In the uplands, baby aspen are back.

Sage grouse are not yet rebounding with the absence of livestock. Scientists suspect drought to be the major continuous and unchangeable factor in varying sage grouse numbers. As we enter a wetter cycle, sage grouse numbers may in- crease. Another way to look at it: if the livestock hadn't been removed, sage grouse numbers on the refuge would have declined dramatically as they have in most other places where livestock continue to graze.

Reiswig's successor has apparently decided to make his legacy the slaughter of coyotes on the refuge in the name of increasing pronghorn fawn survival. Such wildlife management—though possibly well intentioned for pronghorn—disregards wildlife science, which says it is unnecessary and counterproductive for the health of the pronghorn herd (see Natural History chapter).

Though Roosevelt called it a national antelope refuge, the language of the executive order speaks to other "nonpredatory" wildlife (it was 1936). Subse- quent congressional direction mandates a whole-ecosystem approach to refuge management.

What to Do

Hart Mountain has always been a magnificent place to visit, but even more so since 1993, when livestock grazing ended (until at least 2008, when it will resume, only over the conservation movement's collective dead body).

Starting with a full tank of gas, take a couple of days and drive from Adel to Frenchglen. Drive north toward Plush and along the proposed Fish Creek Rim Wilderness. From Plush continue northeasterly to the refuge headquarters (see the Campbell Lake exploration).

After you fantasize about living in the stone house for three seasons (forget winter), visit the little museum and interpretive center (write disparaging com- ments about coyote killing in the visitor's book) and grab a copy of the refuge brochure. Hot Springs Campground to the south is a great, and the only spot to car camp.

South of Hot Springs Campground is a true wonder: the Blue Sky Hotel, a relic ponderosa pine forest on upper Guano Creek. The closest pine forest is about 25 miles away in the North Warner Mountains. Insanely, the U.S. Army established a winter camp here in 1866-1867 (at 6,250 feet elevation) and cut down most of the original old-growth trees trying to keep warm. They moved the camp the next spring to a lower elevation. A few original big yellow-bellies still exist, and the replacement stand is coming along nicely. Blue Sky is an alternative way to the summit of Warner Peak (follow ways and jeep trails, or hike cross-country).

Backpacking permits are required on the refuge.

1. Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 130.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid 132