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Malheur Refuge

Restoring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Crane - Scott Carpenter
Sandhill Crane - Scott Carpenter

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in response to rampant plume hunting, which had decimated many colonial nesting birds, most notably egrets. The Audubon Society of Portland (then the Oregon Audubon Society) was instrumental in establishing the refuge, backing the dogged conservation efforts of wildlife photographers William Finley and Herman Bohlman.

Malheur supports remarkable concentrations of wildlife that are attracted to its lush, aquatic habitats in the otherwise arid landscape of southeast Oregon. In total, 320 bird species spend all or part of their life cycle at Malheur, and it is a critical stopover for millions of migrating waterbirds. Because of its significant importance for birds, Malheur has been designated as an Important Bird Area by Audubon and draws avid birders and wildlife enthusiasts from near and far.


Despite its importance to birds and other wildlife, Malheur’s wildlife potential has been severely undermined by invasive species. Carp invaded Malheur around the early 1940s, and by the 1960s they had made their way into nearly all aquatic habitats on the refuge. Carp directly compete with water-dependent birds and have totally stripped aquatic vegetation from most water bodies. Their bottom-feeding behavior has reduced water clarity, which in turn alters invertebrate communities and kills plants by blocking the light they need to grow. Before the carp invasion, 110,000 ducks would hatch on the refuge annually, but now the number stands at only 30,000. Read an OPB report on recent carp removal efforts: "Turning Around Malheur Wildlife Refuge One Carp Carcass At A Time"

In wet meadow habitats, invasive grasses have replaced most of the native bunch grasses due to decades of irrigation and habitat manipulations. Thick stands of introduced plants like reed canary grass provide little benefit to wildlife, and they hurt iconic species like Bobolink and Sandhill Cranes that depend on native plants for foraging habitat.

Restoring Malheur

Invasive carp at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge - USFWS
Invasive carp at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge - USFWS

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began developing a new 15-year management plan for Malheur. The Audubon Society of Portland and a number of other stakeholders contributed to the development of this “Comprehensive Conservation Plan” (CCP). The final version of the CCP was approved in 2013.

The plan calls for an aggressive management regime to significantly limit introduced carp levels – 100 lbs. carp per square acre – to allow Malheur’s aquatic systems to recover and eventually support healthy waterbird and waterfowl populations. The CCP also calls for continued restoration and innovative management of upland habitats to ensure stable and productive native wildlife populations.

Audubon is currently engaged with refuge staff in implementing the CCP by providing technical advice on their inventory and monitoring plans so that wildlife recovery on the refuge can be closely tracked. Audubon has also established an internship program to help support the refuge. Every spring and summer, the intern assists refuge staff in conducting breeding-season bird surveys as well as serving as a refuge ambassador during outreach activities.

We will provide updates on Audubon’s efforts to assist the staff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to successfully implement the CCP. We encourage our membership to visit Malheur for the great birding and wildlife viewing, as well as a firsthand look at a refuge under transformation.

Malheur’s Amazing Birds

In some years, the refuge has supported nearly 50 percent or more of the Pacific Flyway populations of Snow and Ross’s Geese, American Wigeon, and Tundra Swans. Thirty species of waterbirds – including regionally significant numbers of the American White Pelican, Great Egrets, and White-faced Ibis – nest and forage in the refuge. Malheur supports the highest numbers of breeding Greater Sandhill Cranes of any refuge in the western U.S. More than 25 shorebird species rest and refuel here, with migratory numbers qualifying the refuge as a regional Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve. The refuge supports at least 130 songbird species, many of which are identified as priority species by Partners in Flight, and includes the largest local population of Bobolinks in the western U.S.

Additional Information

  1. Hear Portland Audubon Conservation Director talk in depth about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge history, collaborative restoration efforts and occupation on Wild Lense.
  2. Lean more about the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, a cooperative effort to restore Malheur NWR and surrounding private ranch lands to support wildlife.
  3. Download a full color brochure about the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, a collaborative effort to restore Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding ranch lands for wildlife.
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