Mammals of Malheur

Written by Peter Pearsall

The unique wetland oasis of Malheur Refuge, surrounded by the sagebrush and juniper desert characteristic of the northern Great Basin, is well known for its migratory bird life. While a few of those bird species live year-round at the Refuge, most move on as seasons change. By contrast, nearly all of the mammals occurring at Malheur Refuge stay put all year. Smaller mammals hibernate or otherwise go into torpor, while others weather the frigid winters by layering up under fat and fur and being resourceful.

Distinctive mammalian habitats on the Refuge include large freshwater marshes containing extensive stands of emergent aquatic vegetation; riparian areas bordering streams and canals; irrigated meadows; semi-arid grassland desert areas dominated by sagebrush and greasewood; and basaltic rimrocks.

Some sixty mammal species call Malheur Refuge home. There are, for instance, at least 13 species of bats, as well as 25 different rodent species. But the mammals that capture visitors’ attention most readily tend to be the large ones: deer, coyotes, bobcats, pronghorn. Highlighted here are a few of our favorites.

Mule Deer

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Nearly every terrestrial habitat type at the Refuge is used by these widespread ungulates. Mule deer possess the keen senses required to avoid predation: acute hearing and sense of smell, as well as large eyes with a wide field of view. During the winter rut, bucks clash antlers to compete for breeding partners; these antlers are shed every spring to regrow in full by late summer.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Kay Steele

The cunning and adaptable coyote is also widespread at Malheur Refuge. These omnivores consume a wide variety of plants and animals, allowing them to flourish in a variety of settings, from remote high desert to dense urban sprawl. The quiet mornings and evenings at the Refuge are often punctuated by yips and howls of these highly intelligent, social canids.

American Badger

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

These large, stocky members of the mustelid family are usually nocturnal, using their massive claws to unearth burrowing prey such as ground squirrels and other rodents. Amazingly, badgers and coyotes are known to sometimes hunt burrowing mammals together! The coyote will chase down prey if it runs, while the badger will dig after prey if it heads underground into its burrow systems.

River Otter

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Sleek, powerful and playful, river otters are adapted to life in water, equipped with webbed hind feet and thick insulating fur. Related to badgers and weasels, otters prey on a variety of creatures including fish, crustaceans, and the occasional bird or small mammal.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Black-tailed jackrabbits (along with true rabbits) belong to the mammalian order Lagomorpha, a classification that sets them apart from other groups of small mammals such as rodents and shrews. While both rabbits and jackrabbits sport long ears and long hind legs, jackrabbits tend to be larger, with longer ears and limbs. In the heat of summer at Malheur Refuge, jackrabbits conserve energy by resting during the day and being active by night; this behavior switches over in the winter.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Kay Steele

Pronghorn are capable of sustained sprints topping 50 miles per hour, making them the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. It’s thought that this impressive speed—which far outpaces any extant North American predator—is a vestigial trait that arose during the Pleistocene, when cheetah-like cats roamed North America’s grasslands and preyed on pronghorn. Read more about pronghorn in our blog post here.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Dan Streiffert

The bobcat is one of two felids native to Malheur Refuge–the other being the mountain lion. Both are shy, solitary and mostly active at night, so sightings at the Refuge are uncommon to rare. Occasionally visitors are treated to the sight of a bobcat padding silently down a Refuge road, availing itself of a well-groomed trail as any sensible creature would.

Intern collecting vegetation samples in wide open field of sedges and grass well over 4 feet tall.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Written by Ryan Robles/ Photos by Ryan Robles & Brianna Goehring

“Oh, the places you’ll go,”(Dr. Suess, 1990). This quote often crosses my mind when I look back on my journey through the field of natural resources and conservation. Just last year I was the Refuge’s Vegetation Inventory and Monitoring Intern, where I got the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a myriad of projects.

These projects ranged from studying aquatic vegetation, to bird impoundment surveys. Overall, the experience was one I will never forget and it solidified my interest in pursuing a science related career involving conservation. Once I went back to school in the fall, my search for the next step arose. Later in the year I heard about the monitoring projects the High Desert Partnership (HDP) was going to be working on in the coming summer, some of these projects taking place on the Refuge. Having piqued my interest I quickly applied and soon got an interview. Thanks to my past experience working in the field and the courses I was taking at Burns High School, I was hired along with four other local graduates. But as this year’s challenges arose early in the spring I wasn’t sure if there would be a chance to return to working in the field.

Thankfully, HDP was able to continue working despite the issues at hand and pretty soon the field season began. After a short introduction to the job, we began our first major project in the Pueblo Mountains.

This remote mountain range in southern Oregon holds some extremely valuable sagebrush steppe habitat. The project revolved around a newly created firebreak along one of the roads that goes through this pristine area. Since the area is prone to wildfire, the firebreak serves as a way to
ensure habitat remains for the wildlife living in the area. Our job was to monitor what the vegetative response to the firebreak was. We did this by gathering data such as plant composition, shrub density, and various other procedures at ten predetermined plots over the course of two weeks.

After finishing this set of work, we quickly shifted gears into our next project that would take place near Warm Springs Reservoir. This project was led by the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station and we assisted them in the colossal task of collecting data. This project dealt with fuel composition and how susceptible each type of fuel class is to wildfire.

There were 16 different fuel classifications that were determined by a variety of factors revolving around the types of vegetation present such as grasses, forbs, shrubs, and in what quantity these were in. For every fuel class we needed to gather data on 10 predetermined plots. Each plot involved clipping, plant composition, and picture taking. However I was only able to work on this project for a couple of weeks because soon the crew split up to work on both this project as well as on the refuge.

While some of the crew remained working with the research station on fuel class and eventually joined the rest of us at the refuge. The remainder of the crew including myself became involved with working on the refuge vegetation monitoring project. The refuge has a vast array of wet meadows that serve as wonderful habitat for wildlife. In order to keep tabs on the health of these meadows, a series of exclosures have been put up to ensure some small pieces of the land remain untouched by any treatments that the area undergoes. Our monitoring protocol had us record data inside and outside of these exclosures so that we could compare the data and see if the treatments are doing their job.

The protocol involved having us complete tasks such as clipping, plant composition, and pictures. Each day brought on new challenges, one day we could walk from the road to the plot in the matter of a minute, while the next could have us traversing a quarter of a mile through bulrush and cattails that were ten feet tall.

Overall, returning to the refuge was a delightful experience, having a solid standing on the layout of the refuge in addition to having experience with the vegetation enabled me to have the opportunity to practice skills I had already learned, while also building on new ones. Skills such as plant identification, navigating to plots, and working independently will all come in handy in the future. While I had only briefly dealt with wet meadow vegetation last year, and focused more on aquatic vegetation, coming back and being able to apply what I already knew as well as learning about another aspect of natural resources, such as wet meadows and sagebrush steppe was a very fruitful experience. With this I know the work I have been able to take part in these past few years will help me achieve my goals of working in the field of science and conservation.

As I now go on into my freshman year at the University of Idaho to study wildlife biology, I know these experiences have influenced me heavily and will continue to benefit me for years to come.

Becoming Birds: Decolonizing Eco-Literacy

Forward & Article Written by Teresa Wicks

In early September 2020, a series of wildfires ignited throughout Oregon and the Northwest. Many of these fires were ignited by powerlines, downed by a sustained high wind event. These winds, as winds often do, gave these fires a tremendous amount of power. Causing the destruction of many small, rural towns in Oregon, and some not-so-rural towns in Jackson and Clackamas Counties. These fires created controversy, some unfounded and driven by partisan winds, some important, but difficult debate around the idea of why we’re seeing increasingly large, hot fires burning in Oregon’s forests and grasslands. 

The question of why is complex, and complexity does not always make a compelling answer. This complexity can be summarized with three main thoughts. First, fire-scar data from Oregon’s forests show that large, stand-replacing fires are part of our forest history. After these fires, habitat is created for many bird species, particularly cavity nesting birds, grasses grew in abundance, and many shrubs and trees that prefer sunlight to thrive (for example huckleberries) could grow. 

Second, colonization of the west led to a history of fire suppression. Settlers saw Native use of fire as destructive. A waste of resources. Native Nations were prohibited from practicing their cultures and ceremonies until into the 1970s. For fire dependent cultures, such as the Karuk of northern CA and the Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley this included ceremonial burning in their forests and oak woodlands. The cessation of Native forest management led to increased tree density, encroachment of pines into oak woodlands and meadows/grasslands, and increased shrub density. Western management of forests further increased stand density, removed snags from forests, and in many cases increased the amount of woody debris in forests.

Third, climate change is creating decreased snowpack, prolonged drought, and a problematic mix of increased shrub growth, followed by increased shrub death. The increasing amount of fuel in Oregon’s ecosystems has continued, exponentially, for decades. Because wind tends to dry things out, the high winds, very likely pre-dried already parched fuels for fires, creating an unstoppably fast spread.

When we consider these three things: historic fire regime, a shift in forest management from Native ceremonial burning to western fire suppression, and the effects of climate change on fuel accumulation in Oregon’s landscapes, we have a perfect storm. Now more than ever, we need to turn to the peoples that managed our ecosystems since time immemorial. We need to listen to Native voices and include them in land management decisions. One excellent example of this is the US Forest Service and the Karuk Nation’s partnership. The work the Karuk have done in restoring their culture, fighting for the Klamath, and working to restore their forests is truly inspiring. 

We have suppressed our way into a tinderbox and the best way forward, the way to avoid fires that sear forest soils sterile and decimate Oregon’s rural communities, is by reintroducing fire to our fire-dependent ecosystems. This will take time and planning, and likely the thinning of forests pre-burn. Above all, it will take the inclusion of the peoples and Nations whose lands we live on, who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial. 

Becoming Birds: Decolonizing

Herd of over 12 mule deer are huddled together tightly with tall, dormant vegetation surrounding them. All of the deer are looking directly at you.

Malheur & Me: A Truly Magical Place

Written by Joan Amero/ Photos by Joan Amero

My first visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was in 1986.  I went out early one morning to do some exploring on my own and I saw a kit fox, an animal I had never encountered before.   It was then and there that I knew I was in a magical place.  Thus began my love of and for the Refuge.

Over the years, I have continued to visit the refuge at least twice a year.  Moving to Central Oregon from the Willamette Valley four years ago has made the trip even easier.  

Malheur provides me with a sense of peace and wonder.  It heightens my senses.  I become more observant.  I stop and listen more carefully.  I watch for small movements.  I rejoice in the different textures and colors around me.  I gaze in amazement at the variations of light during one single day.  I gaze at the magnificent clouds above the wide-open spaces. I have favorite places that I visit every time; they feel like old friends I am dropping in on to see how they are doing.  

Malheur has helped me become a better photographer.  I am able to look at places from a different perspective.  I notice small things as well as the larger landscape.  From the smallest birds flitting about in the trees to the hawks gracefully soaring in the skies above, there is movement everywhere.  I’m always delighted to watch a coyote jump to the top of hay bales to survey the hunting grounds.  By being quiet and still, mule deer will stop and watch me with curiosity.  

In a field of farm equipment and stacks of bailed hay, a lone coyote surveys stands on a short stack of bailed hay and looks over the field.

I am always respectful of all inhabitants of the refuge; I never want to frighten or startle an animal or bird.  I tread lightly and quietly.   In return, I have been witness to so many wonderful scenes.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit their home.

This year COVID curtailed my travels.  I stayed home from mid-February until the week after Labor Day when I ventured over to Malheur from Sisters.  It was wonderful to be back in this beautiful place that brings me so much joy.  I felt like I could breathe more easily.  For the first time in a while, I felt relaxed.  I am partial to visiting during the haying season so that I can watch Northern Harriers and coyotes hunting the fields.  On every visit I see something new. 

I have visited many wildlife refuges all over the United States over the years. While all of them have something interesting about them, Malheur is one of a handful of places that draws me back again and again.  

I believe that it is imperative to support the places that we love.  We have to work together to protect these special lands.  We can never take places like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for granted.  It is a privilege to wander this beautiful land that we must never take for granted.

Welcome Alan and Sheran to FOMR Board!

Friends of Malheur Refuge’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce the addition of Alan Contreras and Sheran Wright to its roster. Both are longstanding members of Oregon’s birding community and bring a diverse set of skills and experience to the board.

Alan Contreras is a fourth-generation Oregonian born in Tillamook County. A birder from the age of 11, Alan first visited Harney County in 1969. He has made biannual trips to the Refuge for the past 50 years.

From 2011-2012 Alan served on FOMR’s board while also serving on the board of the Great Basin Society, which operates the Malheur Field Station. “I’ve been a part of the interest groups at Malheur Refuge for quite a while now,” he says.

Alan is semi-retired from a career in higher-education oversight, mostly for the state of Oregon. He is also a writer and editor, notably serving as the editor of “Edge of Awe”, a collection of writings on Malheur Refuge and Harney County from birders, naturalists and other high-desert devotees.

Alan is looking forward to bringing more of Oregon’s birding community into the FOMR fold. “The Refuge is going through a number of transitions now; membership is healthy but we can do better,” he says. “Neither Sheran or I are biologists; neither will we be doing any trail maintenance or tree planting because we’re older—but we do know lots of contacts in the Oregon birding community and we look forward to finding more ways to involve them.”

In 1981 Sheran Wright moved to Oregon from the eastern U.S. and took her first birding trip in August 1983 to Tillamook County, with the Portland Audubon Society. “We saw more than 200 species on that trip, and I was hooked,” she says.

Sheran first visited Malheur Refuge in the spring of 1984, staying at the Malheur Field Station. She’s been back almost every spring and fall, staying a week or more each time. A retired federal labor investigator, Sheran has served on the boards of the Great Basin Society and the Oregon Birding Association (OBA). For years she’s helped organize OBA trips to Malheur Refuge.

Sheran was urged to join FOMR’s board by Alan Contreras. “I thought about it: I’ve been visiting the Refuge for 36 years, I have an ongoing interest in several conservation issues here, such as tree cover and birder access…I was happy to be recommended to the board and look forward to getting more involved here,” she says.

Congratulations, Alan and Sheran! The FOMR Board is fortunate to have them.