Hart Mountain NAR

Greater Sage-Grouse; Photo: USFWS

As part of our Wingtips series on places where stamp dollars have been invested, we move to Region 1 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a region that covers Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the Pacific Islands.

The Greater Sage-Grouse, currently a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is much in the spotlight these days. The issue impacts Region 1, of course, and the USFWS faces a court-mandated deadline – due in one year – to make a final decision regarding the status of this species. The complexity of efforts to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse and the tangle of competing interests are deftly summarized in a recent issue of the Birding Community E-Bulletin.

Perhaps it's not surprising that one of the bird's strongholds is the high desert of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon, our next stop on the circuit of Refuges acquired with the help of MBCF dollars. It's a happy accident that this Region 1 refuge – originally designated for the protection of Pronghorn, commonly called antelope – also provides a haven for the grouse, as well as other species of interest. Bird species vary according to seasons, with heavy migrations of waterfowl and waterbirds occurring during spring and fall, in the Warner Valley, partially included in the refuge.

The property lies in south central Oregon across a massive fault block ridge (similar to the topography of the Grand Tetons) where, from a valley wetland, a series of cliffs ascend steeply up the western slope of the mountain. Warner Peak tops out at 8,100 feet. On the eastern side of the mountain, more gentle rolling hills descend to sagebrush steppe. The diversity of habitat, even though water is a scarce resource (12 inches of annual rainfall), supports 330 species of wildlife. Key species safeguarded by the refuge include Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Pygmy Rabbit, and the local Rainbow Trout subspecies, Oncorhynchus mykiss newberrii.

Funding from the MBCF purchased 54,837 acres of Hart Mountain's (established 1936) total of just under 271 thousand acres. That's 20 percent of the refuge.

Curiously, it's not only birds that migrate to and from the Refuge, but also the Pronghorn, which winters in Nevada's nearby Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.

Invasive plants are an important management concern for the refuge. Staff have used fire and cutting to control species such as Western Juniper, Canada Thistle, and Cheatgrass. These more aggressive plants (natives and non-natives alike) crowd out the sagebrush, and that's bad news for the sage-grouse.

Unique recreational activities suggested for the Refuge include rockhounding and off-road horseback riding. The roads and jeep trails are the only maintained paths available to hikers; cross-country walkers are advised to follow game trails. The Friends of Hart Mountain NAR have created a fund to acquire in-holdings; currently there are 55 parcels totaling 6,000 acres that the Friends would like to secure. Volunteers from the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Friends of Nevada Wilderness provide boots-on-the-ground management. Mark Brown hosts a photo gallery, and photos are also at the Friends site. The petroglyph series is particularly interesting.

Hart Mountain was a favorite of Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote these often-quoted words about the place in My Wilderness: The Pacific West (1960):

I always feel sad leaving Hart Mountain. Yet after I travel a few hours and turn to see its great bulk against a southern sky my heart rejoices…. [In this refuge is] life teeming throughout all the life zones that lead from the desert to alpine meadows.

  Those who visit Hart Mountain next century will know that we were faithful life tenants, that we did not entirely despoil the earth which we left them. We will make the tradition of conservation as much a part of their inheritance as the land itself.

This profile of a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System first appeared in the 4 September 2014 issue of Wingtips.