Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an oasis in the high desert of southeastern Oregon for the multitude of birds and other wildlife who make it their home. Situated in the wide-open spaces of the Harney Basin on the northern edge of the Great Basin, the Refuge’s 292 square miles feature a diversity of habitat types: vast cattail and bulrush wetlands, lakes, dry alkali playas, ponds, greasewood-covered flats, lush native grass meadows, long corridors of riparian vegetation, and sagebrush-covered hills bordered by basalt rimrock.
The diversity of wildlife habitat found at Malheur Refuge begins in the lowest elevations of the Harney Basin and expands southward along the Donner und Blitzen River to the base of Steens Mountain and northwest into the lower reaches of the Silver Creek drainage.
Three shallow playa lakes—Malheur, Mud and Harney Lake—are located in the lowest portion of this vast basin and receive life-producing water from the surrounding hills and mountains. Most of the water reaching the lakes arrives in the spring as snow melts and flows southward down the Silvies River, northward in the Donner und Blitzen River, and through the Silver Creek drainage from the northwest.
With an average annual precipitation of only nine inches, a drought year can result in extremely dry conditions, reducing the lakes to a mere fraction of their former size or turning them into alkali-covered playas. The area surrounding the lakes is relatively flat, so a one-inch rise in the water level will put almost three square miles of adjacent land underwater.
An extremely abundant year of rain and snow can force water to rise beyond the boundaries of the Refuge to cover surrounding lands—doubling or tripling the size of the marsh. In the mid-1980’s three years of above-normal snowfall forced Malheur Lake beyond the Refuge boundary; the lake grew from 67 square miles to more than 160 square miles. The reverse is also possible: in 1992 Malheur Lake shrank to 200 acres. In wet years, an estimated 25 million migratory birds use the Refuge to feed, breed or rest during migration.
Through collaborative efforts between local ranchers, conservationists, tribal members, private landowners, and state and federal land managers, Malheur Refuge and its partners (including FOMR) established a Comprehensive Conservation Plan in 2013 that benefits both wildlife and the economy.