About Malheur

Refuge History

Malheur Refuge was created in 1908 in direct response to a widespread practice at the time: the decimation of breeding birds for their feathers.

Local Family With Swans

The Making of Malheur Refuge

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.

Refuge Historical Points of Interest

Peter Pearsall Western Meadowlark

Be a Malheur Refuge Advocate.

You can become a Malheur Refuge champion by joining the Friends of Malheur and together we can advocate for a secure and more prosperous future for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and our national wildlife refuge system.