April 26, 2001 11:00 pm
Buena Vista overlook presents a sweeping view of the wildlife refuge. (Photo/MIKE HIGHBERGER).
Buena Vista overlook presents a sweeping view of the wildlife refuge. (Photo/MIKE HIGHBERGER).

by Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Daybreak. Oregons high desert. The eastern sky unfolds in one slow blink, and from beneath a brow of shaggy red clouds comes a pale gaze of light. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge rouses, its voice vibrating with the chirps and warbles and whistles of birds.

In spring, this wetland is a world of wings and water, where a sagebrush ocean sprawls toward a basalt-broken horizon, and a journey through the heart of it has been the stuff of adventure for countless explorers especially for those who have seen its birds.

The sedges were full of birds, the tules were full of birds, the skies were full of birds, wrote a man who traveled through the region in the early years of the 20th century. I was beside myself at the sight at the sound at the thought that such wildlife could still be anywhere upon the face of the earth.

Covering almost 290 square miles, including most of the Blitzen River Valley, Malheur is a major nesting, feeding and staging area for more than 300 species of birds along the Pacific Flyway. And the story of the refuge and how it came to be follows numerous characters through many stages: Northern Paiutes, fur trappers, gold miners, soldiers, cattlemen. By the time things calmed down, Pete French, one of the first Californians to buy up Oregon real estate, owned 132,000 acres of the Blitzen Valley.

Starting with his arrival in 1872 and lasting until his shooting death in 1897, French worked his P-Ranch into a cattle empire that stretched from the snow fields of Steens Mountain to the shores of Malheur Lake. Along the way French dredged, drained and dammed the land, turning marshes and ponds into hayfields and pastures. Soon herds of cattle replaced flocks of waterfowl.

He had grain growing where the ducks and geese once fed, The Oregonian reported, and the fields he had taken from the aquatic birds were yielding 10,000 tons of hay each autumn.

Frenchs empire thrived in the age of Oregons old West, a time of cattle drives, Indian wars and land feuds. But as the West settled down and homesteaders replaced cattle kings, it became the time of the plume hunter men who slaughtered swans, egrets, grebes and other birds for their feathers, which were used to decorate womens hats. The trumpeter swan was hit especially hard.

A swan seen at any time of the year in most parts of the United States is the signal for every man with a gun to pursue it, wrote one ornithologist of the time, and the trumpetings that were once heard over the breadth of a great continent will soon be heard no more.

Other pressures on the birds came from the settlers who killed them for food and diverted their water for irrigation. As a result, the marshes began to wither and the birds to vanish. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to establish the Lake Malheur Reservation in 1908. Through the years, as ranchers and settlers quit the desert, more land was added to the refuge, the habitat was restored, and the birds including the swans returned.

For what Pete French sought to take from the ducks and the geese, the swans and pelicans, the herons, egrets and the many other aquatic birds, now has been restored, The Oregonian reported. Swamp again is swamp. Lake is lake. Yet those swamps and lakes are the work of refuge managers, not Mother Nature.

Because its part of the Great Basin, the streams of the Malheur Refuge have no outlet to the sea; they flow into a low basin, form shallow lakes, and then begin to evaporate. As a result, water levels fluctuate widely. With enough snowfall, Harney and Malheur Lakes flow together to form a shallow inland sea of over 140 square miles. But in dry years, that changes.

(Malheur Lake) has ranged from 60,000 to 500 acres in size, says a 1963 issue of the Burns Time-Herald. Even during years of high water, its deepest parts rarely exceeded six feet, but in years of drought, such as occurred in the early 1930s, it was possible to drive a car across the dry lake bed.

To stabilize the water supply, over 100 miles of dikes and 200 miles of canals control stream flows and pond levels to meet the birds nesting and feeding needs. The result is a refuge system famous for the numbers and diversity of its wildlife.

These are not your common backyard feeder kinds of birds, says a woman peering through a pair of binoculars at one of the refuges numerous marshes.

Shes right, for this is the home of grebes, curlews and avocets, of egrets, herons and ibis, of tundra swans, sandhill cranes and snow geese so many birds of so many species that at times the air and the water swirl and shimmer with the flutter of wings and the gabble of voices. And because this place is for the birds, much of the refuge is closed to the public, especially during the nesting season.

One route, however, remains open throughout most of the year: the Center Patrol Road, a 42 mile stretch of gravel that runs the length of the Blitzen Valley, through the grasslands and past the waterways that lie between refuge headquarters and the town of Frenchglen.

When traveling the road, the refuge managers recommend that you go slowly. When you stop, turn off your engine and get out of your car; free yourself from that machine. Listen to the refuge sounds the birds, water, wind, leaves, rustling grasses, insects; REALLY LISTEN! Watch the horizon, look for movements near water, smell the sage. Feel the weather. Its time to become a part of your world.

If you follow this advice in spring, youll probably find that this world has the feel of forever to it, reaching far beyond the Indians, the trappers, the cowboys, the soldiers and the settlers who were once part of the Blitzen River Valley.

Its one of those places where time

doesnt matter, says the woman with the binoculars, now watching a white spangled cloud of snow geese whirl across a blue sky. After all, these birds have been making this migration forever.



For more information, call refuge headquarters at 541-493-2612.


From Burns, drive two miles east on Highway 78 and turn south on Highway 205. At approximately milepost 25, the highway begins running parallel to the refuge, and road signs show the entry points.

The best wide-angle view of the refuge is from Buena Vista Station.


The largest concentration of waterfowl comes in March and April; shorebirds and songbirds peak in mid-May.


Camping is permitted at four sites adjacent to the refuge.


Pete French was shot and killed by Ed Oliver, a homesteader who had a running feud with French. The jury in the 1898 trial acquitted Oliver of the murder charge, saying he had killed in self-defense.

Some of Mark Highbergers travel articles are collected in his book Exploring Oregon, which is available at local bookstores.