Andy Kerr

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

Owyhee Wilderness (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 220-228.

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A magnificent wild river flowing through some of the wildest country in the Lower Forty-Eight.

Location: Malheur County, 40 miles north of McDermitt (Bowden Hills unit); 44 miles
south of Harper (Cedar Mountain unit); 20 miles south-southeast of Harper (Dry Creek unit); 30 miles north-northwest of Jordan Valley (Honeycombs unit); 15 miles northwest of Jordan Valley (Jordan Craters unit); 20 miles north-northwest of Jordan Valley (Mahogany Mountain unit); 6 miles north of Rome (Owyhee Breaks unit); 30 miles northwest of Jordan Valley (Quartz Mountain unit); 30 miles north-northeast of McDermitt (Rattlesnake Canyon unit); 6 miles west of Rome (Saddle Butte unit); 10 miles southeast of Rome (Three Forks unit); 15 miles east-northeast of McDermitt (Upper West Little Owyhee unit); 25 miles east of McDermitt (Willow Creek Butte unit)

Size: 2,130 square miles (1,363,054 acres)

Terrain: Roaring river canyons, desert mountain peaks, big flats, high tablelands, fantastic geologic formations, wide and flat lava flows, and more

Elevation Range: 2,540-6,522 feet

Managing Agency: Vale District BLM

Agency Wilderness Status: 796,065-acre BLM wilderness study area; 405,106 acres recommended (additional wilderness in Idaho and Nevada)

Recreation Map: South Half Malheur Resource Area, North and South Halves, Jordan Resource Area

The Owyhee River drains a huge area—parts of Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. The mouth of the Owyhee River is at a confluence with the Snake River. (The Oregon-Idaho line heads due south from the mouth, explaining why there is a small part of Oregon east of the Snake River.) Moving upstream through some serious agriculture, the river is dammed by the Owyhee Dam. South of the res- ervoir, the river is a river again, and a wild one at that.

At Three Forks the North Fork and the Middle Fork join the mainstem (mistakenly called by some the South Fork). Upstream from Three Forks the West Little Owyhee River joins the mainstem. Continuing up the mainstem into Idaho, the East Fork and the South Fork converge to create the mainstem. A tributary of the South Fork is the Little Owyhee River (sometimes called the East Little Owyhee River). Confused yet?

Within the proposed wilderness are most of the Upper West Little Owyhee and Owyhee National Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The Owyhee country was even more wild before the Owyhee Dam cut off the magnificent salmon runs. According to the Oregon Biodiversity Project's Oregon's Living Landscape: 

Runs of spring and fall chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha spp.) once traveled up the Owyhee River as far as Nevada. These hardy fish averaged only 10-14 pounds, far smaller than the huge salmon that spawned in the Columbia River system, but they endured a longer and more arduous
journey to their spawning grounds.

In some years the vagaries of precipitation in the ecoregion's arid environment left insufficient water for both the salmon's upstream passage and their spawning habitat. But in good years, input of thousands of salmon in the upper reaches of these desert rivers resulted in local abundance for many other species offish and wildlife. Local Paiute tribes also benefited from the successful fish runs.

These salmon were central to a complex food web of predators and prey, scavengers, and other fish that all depended on the annual salmon runs. With the eradication of the salmon, many of these other species similarly declined or disappeared altogether. [1]

The biodiversity values of the region are well recognized. The Oregon Biodiversity Project has identified four conservation opportunity areas: Crooked Creek–Alvord Basin, Dry Creek, Middle Owyhee River, and the Upper Owyhee River.

The proposed Owyhee Wilderness has thirteen units: Bowden Hills, Cedar Mountain, Quartz Mountain, Dry Creek, Honeycombs, Jordan Craters, Mahogany Mountain, Owyhee Breaks, Rattlesnake Canyon, Saddle Butte, Three Forks, Up- per West Little Owyhee, and Willow Creek Butte. Adjacent wildlands in Idaho and Nevada are also proposed for wilderness designation.

The proposed wilderness includes seventeen wilderness study areas: Bowden Hills, Blue Canyon, Clarks Butte, Cedar Creek, Dry Creek, Dry Creek Buttes, Owyhee Breaks, Upper Leslie Gulch, Slocum Creek, Honeycombs, Wild Horse Basin, Saddle Butte, Jordan Craters, Lower Owyhee Canyon, Upper West Little Owyhee, Lookout Butte, and Owyhee Canyon.

The most popular way to explore the Owyhee country is by river. The easi- est river trip is Rome to Owyhee Reservoir. Take-out is either at Birch Creek Ranch (a very steep road out, which can he impassable in rain) or Leslie Gulch (bring a motor or get towed through the reservoir). The segment from Three Forks to Rome is quite exciting, perhaps too exciting for some. Starting in Idaho on ei- ther the South Fork or East Fork, one can float—early in the spring when enough water is present—downstream to Three Forks. Guided trips are available for all sections. (See Recommended Reading.)

Bowden Hills Unit

Sublime, the Bowden Hills are not. The wilderness values of this unit are very important to the native flora and fauna, but humans won't likely appreciate it, unless on a vision quest.

But what solitude! As BLM notes, "There is nothing in the area to attract or concentrate visitors."
The unit is characterized by rolling hills. Some rimrock is exposed, giving a little visual variety. There are no perennial water sources.

The Bowden Hills lies in the Crooked Creek—Alvord Basin Conservation Opportunity Area.

Most of the unit is composed of equal parts of Wyoming big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass, black sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass, and shadscale/Indian ricegrass. The remainder is divided between the black sagebrush/bottlebrush squirreltail community and the low sagebrush/Sandberg's needlegrass commu- nity. A little Great Basin wildrye can also be found.

Black sage (Artemisia arbuscula nova) is a subspecies of dwarf or low sage-brush. The unit is the northernmost extent of the range of black sage. Extensive patches can be found in the northern end of the unit because of unusual associations of poor soils and exposure.

Pronghorn prefer the low sage both because of nutritional value and because it doesn't get in the way of seeing predators.

About fifty each of mule deer and pronghorn summer in the unit. In the winter, deer numbers rise to about two hundred and pronghorn to between two hundred and four hundred.

The rims provide excellent habitat for raptors, including golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, northern harrier, turkey vulture, great horned owl, and burrowing owl. The rimrock and talus slopes are home to woodrats, bats, and bobcats. Other mammals include black-tailed jackrabbits, mountain cottontails, deer mice, and pocket gophers.

Other birds include the mourning dove, western meadowlark, Say's phoebe, loggerhead shrike, common nighthawk, and raven.

Reptiles include the side-blotched lizard, western fence lizard, sagebrush lizard, desert collared lizard, Great Basin western rattlesnake, gopher snake, and yellow-bellied racer. Likely also are the western whiptail lizard, short-horned lizard, and the desert striped whipsnake.

There is one extensive prehistoric site.

Cedar Mountain and Quartz Mountain Units

The misnamed Cedar Mountain should have been more properly called Juniper Mountain. Juniper is far less abundant in the Owyhee Uplands than any other Oregon Desert ecoregion, but what's the originality in that? A dense juniper stand covers the summit and gives way to Wyoming big sagebrush and understory grasses and fortis as one moves downslope. This juniper stand is isolated from others by at least 10 miles; hence it is an "island ecosystem." Rocky Mountain elk are expanding into the unit.

Compared with its surroundings, the Quartz Mountain unit is less interesting topographically, geologically, aesthetically, and recreationally. It can't all be outstanding. Something has to make the rest look good. Nonetheless, the area is generally wild, quite remote, and integral to the wilderness proposal.

Dry Creek Unit

The year-round water of Dry Creek supports redband trout and has numerous small waterfalls. The unit is also excellent reptile habitat. Pronghorn and mule deer are evident. Much of the vegetation is pristine because of natural topographic defenses against livestock. Mock orange, willow, rushes, and sedges are unusual for their abundance.

Dry Creek Canyon is both remote and beautiful. It has a diverse topography with steep walls, meanders, and angular ridges. The numerous gulches and ravines create a complex pattern of twisting drainages, including badlands, spires, and deeply eroding slopes.

The layered cliffs of basalt and other formations contribute to the great variety of landforms and their vivid color combinations. Because of unusual soils, the clay cliff ash deposits and other areas support either practically no vegetation or very rare species. For botanical types, it is a great place to see shadscales and buckwheats.

Honeycombs Unit

When you first see the Honeycombs, if you didn't know better, you'd think you were in Southern Utah.
Only covering about 12,000 acres, the Honeycombs are extremely scenic steep-walled canyons with sculpted, multicolored rock formations. The thick deposits of volcanic tuff have been cut by numerous and mostly intermittent streams. The result is impressive: a very broken surface of ridges, hills, and drain- ages, often adorned with outcrops and pinnacles.

The vegetation is mostly classic sagebrush steppe, but salt desert scrub along the reservoir includes greasewood, spiny hopsage, and shadscale. A few junipers can be found.

Bighorn sheep are the most noticeable wildlife species.

Jordan Craters Unit

The Jordan Craters unit of the proposed Owyhee Wilderness includes the undeveloped portions of the proposed national monument by the same name. See Jordan Craters National Monument for more details.

Mahogany Mountain Unit

At 6,522 feet, Mahogany Mountain is the highest point in the Owyhee Uplands. Unfortunately, most of it is private land. The mountain is an extinct volcanic caldera. Volcanic tuff deposits 2,000 feet thick have been cut with intermittent streams, leaving outcrops and spires

The unit is very steep: 85 percent of the slopes exceed 25 percent, says BLM.

The mountain has two dense groves of curlleaf mountain mahogany and in fact is the largest contiguous stand of mountain mahogany in western North America (mostly privately owned).

The predominantly sagebrush steppe ecosystem has pockets of juniper and also a small relic stand of four-hundred-year-old ponderosa pine. Located in the Dago Gulch drainage, the species is little known elsewhere in the Owyhee Uplands.

California bighorn sheep are common in the area, as increasingly are Rocky Mountain elk. Uncommon are five plant species of very special interest. Two are found only in Leslie Gulch.

Owyhee Breaks Unit

The topographic and geologic diversity reaches out and grabs you: cliffs, out- crops, steep bluffs, dramatic erosional features, twisting gulches, deep river canyons, razorback ridges, breaks, badlands, dissected ridges, colorful sedimentary rock spires, buttes, tablelands, plateaus, wind- and water-sculpted formations, palisades, talus slopes, and barren soils. One does not tire of the expansive panoramas overlooking the river and off into the distance.

Salt desert scrub communities can be found alongside the more typical sagebrush with bluebunch wheatgrass, bottlebrush squirreltail, Sandberg's bluegrass, Thurber's needlegrass, and Indian ricegrass understory species. Shadscale and greasewood are also known here. Western juniper can be found in certain draws like Birch Creek. The common riparian species along the streams include alder, currant, mock orange, clematis, willow, hackberry (an unusual species for the desert and sometimes occurring here in groves), chokecherry, sedges, and grasses.

Because of the river and diverse habitats, wildlife abounds. Twenty to thirty bald eagles use the river regularly. Rocky Mountain elk are moving into the area. There is a high density of raptors. The river supports Canada geese and several duck species. It is too warm for rainbow trout, but channel catfish, black bull- head, yellow perch, whitefish, and small-mouth bass have been caught.

Numerous archaeological sites have been inventoried in the unit.

Last, but not least, some of the oldest packrat middens (nests) yet discov- ered in the Intermountain sagebrush province are found here, offering a scientific record of use going hack thirty thousand years.

Rattlesnake Canyon Unit

This outlier unit of the proposed wilderness serves as an important wild island connector between the greater Owyhee and greater Steens-Alvord wildlands. The canyon itself is quite dramatic, scenic, and geologically interesting. Above the canyon are broad rolling flats of sagebrush and grass.

Saddle Butte Unit

The Saddle Butte Lava Field is south of Saddle Butte, a prominent landmark visible from OR 78. It is a very large and flat flow that forms rough-surfaced ridges, numerous hillocks, and depressions. An extensive system of lava tube caves is also present.

Vegetation is primarily big sagebrush and bunchgrass.

Permanent water is almost nonexistent. Only Tub Spring on the ephemeral Ryegrass Creek can be counted on.
Seven hundred pronghorn make this one of the most important game ranges in southeast Oregon. Coyotes, mule deer, and mourning doves are also com- mon. The breaks, caves, and collapsed lava tubes provide habitat for desert woodrats, yellow-bellied marmots, and bobcats. The area is also the northern- most range of the northern kit fox.

At least four species of bats have been observed, including the threatened Townsend's big-eared bat (Plecotus townsendii). Of Oregon bats, this medium- sized (more than 1 inch long) gray to brown bat is most associated with caves. It will quickly vacate a roost if disturbed.

An extensive system of lava tubes winds through the Saddle Butte Lava Field. Twenty-two uncollapsed segments have been discovered.

BLM has designated a 7,040-acre area of critical environmental concern that includes 8 to 10 miles of lava tubes.

Geologically, lava tubes are formed quickly. As molten lava flows from a vent across the ground, a faster-moving current develops inside the flow, not unlike a swifter channel of current in a wide river. The outer portion flows slower be- cause it is much cooler (though still molten). As the flow begins to solidify, the hotter lava inside continues to flow A lava tube is created when the still molten lava drains out of the emerging lining of the soon-to-be lava tube. The lining can be a few inches to several feet thick. Where erosion, especially freezing and thawing, creates a small hole in the ceiling, a skylight is formed. Often the collapsed area is large enough to expose two cave openings.

The caves are of great educational and scientific interest as they provide a habitat of constant humidity and temperature, which promotes the growth of mosses and ferns uncommon to the dry climate.

Three Forks Unit

Most of the Three Forks unit is unending plateau and gently rolling hills. Sev- eral lake playas break up the vegetation and scenery. It is the vastness of the expanse that one cannot forget.

The plateau is unending except for numerous deeply carved and massive river canyons, be they trickling streams or rushing rivers. The reddish brown cliffs of the mainstem Owyhee Canyon rise hundreds of feet above the water. Brilliant green, yellow, and orange microflora covering the walls add to this palette of nature. Deep green communities of vegetation can be seen at seeps and springs. Diversely eroded spires add to the geologic mix.

Charismatic fauna include cougar, bobcat, river otter, and bighorn sheep.

Upper West tittle Owyhee Unit

"Some of the state's most extensive wildlands," says the Oregon Biodiversity Project. "Portions of the Upper West Little Owyhee have never been grazed and support virtually pristine native vegetation." [2]

The unit is dissected by a national wild and scenic river, with vertical cliffs, prominent rimrock, and very steep slopes that rise to several hundred feet above the canyon bottom. Reds, browns, greens, and tans color the canyon landscape.

In places, the canyon narrows so the stream is forced through very constricted gaps. The unit has the largest concentrations of sage grouse and white-tailed jack- rabbits in Malheur County. Raptors found here include kestrel, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, and golden eagles. The river is quite seasonal as it has no snowpack or major springs at its source.

It runs high in the spring, and barely at all in the fall. Water is left in deep, clear, cool pools as the flow recedes in the late summer.

Scattered groves of aspen, mahogany, and willow are found in the canyons, with sagebrush on the plateaus, including the Owyhee sagebrush (Artemesia papposa), rare in Oregon, but more common elsewhere.

Willow Creek Butte Unit

Recreationally speaking, compared to the Owyhee River and tributaries in the vicinity, the Willow Creek unit is a yawner. It has gently rolling hills and flats of sagebrush steppe. Nonetheless, it is good for wildlife. If you want solitude, even in your car, this is the place. Very few come this way.

1. Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 139.

2. Ibid 143.