George M. Benson: Refuge Protector


George M. Benson: Refuge Protector

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of George Benson courtesy of USFWS

Refuge Headquarters is often the first stop for visitors to Malheur Refuge, and for good reason: The Visitor Center and Nature Store are located here, and wildlife-watching opportunities abound on the surrounding property. Many Headquarters visitors also make their way to the small museum, which houses interpretive exhibits and nearly 200 mounted specimens of birds, mammals and other wildlife. Astute visitors will notice a plaque dedicating the museum to an influential figure in the Refuge’s history: George Benson.

George M. Benson served as a game warden under the Bureau of Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees management of National Wildlife Refuges, among much else) in Harney County, beginning in 1918. Preferring the title of “refuge protector,” Benson enforced hunting and trapping laws at what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

Benson also banded many waterfowl at Malheur Refuge, including swans, canvasbacks, redheads, mallards, and pintails. He often enlisted the help of local children for his banding projects; their collective efforts helped the Bureau of Biological Survey determine bird population trends on Malheur and Harney lakes. Benson’s love of birds eventually introduced him to taxidermy, and many of his well-preserved specimens are on display in the Refuge Headquarters.

In 1921 Benson discovered the remains of several bison along the eastern shore of Malheur Lake. Scientists across the country were intrigued by his find, and subsequent excavation at the site revealed an entire herd of bison that had become mired in mud, likely while attempting to drink from the receding lake.

With his wife, Ethel, Benson eventually moved into an old ranch house that once stood in a cottonwood grove south of the lakes. The small stone building that remains in the shade of these cottonwoods was first a well house in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was planting willows and excavating what would eventually become Benson Pond. The building then served as a hunter check station in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Benson Pond today, look for resident great horned owls beneath the giant willows along the dike. In spring and summer, the trees around the first bridge are a good spot to study up to six swallow species as they alternately perch and feed nearby. In summer, search the exposed branches for roosting common nighthawks, which perch parallel to the branches. The pond itself is a good place to see swans. During spring and fall migrations, tundra swans use the Refuge as a refueling stop, and resident trumpeter swans typically nest here, protected by the tall cattails and tules.

The George M. Benson Memorial Museum at Headquarters, dedicated in 1953 to Benson for his many years of service to the Refuge, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.


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