Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

With spring well under way and bird migration in full swing, Malheur Refuge would normally be heading into its busiest time of the year. During the COVID-19 health crisis, however, stay-at-home orders and nationwide closures of public spaces have kept most visitors indoors. As restrictions on travel and outdoor recreation are slowly scaled back, more people are keen to get out of their homes and enjoy the springtime scenery and wildlife.

Malheur Refuge has remained open to the public but the majority of its visitor-use facilities, such as the Refuge Visitor Center, Museum, Nature Center & Store and restrooms at Headquarters, were closed out of concern for public safety, says Brett Dean, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Law Enforcement Officer.

Dean is seeing more and more visitors on the Refuge as spring arrives to Harney Basin. He says that while it may seem as though staff are absent from the Refuge (as was the case during the last government shutdown), essential employees are very much hard at work through this crisis, ensuring that Refuge habitats are maintained, wildlife are monitored, and public safety is attended to.

“We’re out there patrolling, making sure folks are following the rules, writing citations if necessary,” Dean says. While there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in recreation violations, Dean says that one perennial issue is Refuge visitors trespassing into areas closed to the public. “We see a lot of people trying to get past those signs to get closer to birds and other wildlife for photos. We understand the urge, but those signs are there to protect wildlife and we ask that visitors respect that.”

Another recent issue was visitors camping on the Refuge, which is strictly prohibited. Dean suspects that since most parks and campgrounds have been closed during the health crisis (including Page Springs Campground, a BLM site just outside of the Refuge), visitors wanting to camp in the area decided to try staying on the Refuge.

Outside of those violations, Dean says that the majority of visitors respect the Refuge and practice responsible recreation: obeying signs and closures, packing out trash, and being respectful to wildlife and other visitors.

“Refuges are great places to experience nature and get away from home, especially in these current times, and we want to support that,” Dean says. “We just ask that visitors follow the rules. And most people do.”