Malheur Refuge was created in 1908 in direct response to a widespread practice at the time: the decimation of breeding birds for their feathers. In the late 1800s, “plume hunters” eager to harvest colorful and elaborate breeding plumage wiped out entire colonies of waterbirds, killing and plucking the adults and leaving their eggs and chicks to perish. The plumes were considered high fashion in the millinery trade, adorning hats and other couture articles of the era. In those days, an ounce of breeding feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold; it’s no surprise that plume hunters sought to “make a killing” by targeting the many thousands of birds breeding at Malheur Lake.
One of the most persecuted species was the great egret. In the decades leading up to the establishment of Malheur Refuge, thousands of great egrets nested in colonies along the lake shore. By the time wildlife photographers William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman visited Malheur Lake in 1908, nearly all of these birds had been killed by plume hunters. The photographers failed to find a single pair of egrets after weeks of searching.
Dismayed by what they saw, Finley and Bohlman petitioned to stop the slaughter of birds at Malheur Lake and its environs. Their photographs and testimony caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who quickly moved to formally protect these critical breeding areas from further depredation.
On August 18, 1908, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the “Lake Malheur Reservation” in southeast Oregon. The reservation set aside more than 80,000 acres of land surrounding Mud, Harney and Malheur Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” It was the 19th Wildlife Refuge established by President Roosevelt; he would establish 51 in all during his presidency.
This was the third Refuge in Oregon at the time, and one of only six Refuges west of the Mississippi. In 1935 the reserve became known as Malheur Migratory Bird Refuge, and would eventually grow to encompass 187,756 acres.
Nearly ten million years ago, tectonic faults and regional uplifting began the formation of Steens Mountain on the south side of the Harney Basin. Eventually rising 9,700 feet above the surrounding valleys, Steens Mountain developed a vast ice field covering the upper reaches of the mountain around one million years ago. More recent glaciers carved the spectacular U-shaped gorges on the flanks of the mountain. As the glaciers slowly moved downhill, their weight and movement ground the rock below into a fine powder, or loess.
This loess was captured in the numerous streams flowing from beneath the glaciers and carried down the Donner und Blitzen River and other creeks on the western flank of the mountain to be deposited on the floodplain of the Blitzen Valley. Turbulent downslope winds pushed these deposits of loess around the valley floor, eventually forming a series of low, vegetation covered dunes at the south end of the river valley.
The gradual western slope of Steens Mountain boasts an impressive 75-square-kilometer contiguous area above 8,000 feet in elevation–unique among ranges in southeast Oregon. This enormous sheet collects precipitation flowing eastward from the Pacific, up to 28 inches per year at the highest elevations. Further enhancing this effect is the fact that the northwest Great Basin experiences more winter precipitation and lower average temperatures than the rest of the Great Basin. Thus Steens acts as an enormous winter reservoir for the surrounding lowlands: Snowpack on Steens translates to life-giving water on the Refuge, even through the hottest months of summer.