A Brief History of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

by Ted Beringer

In light of the recent armed breach and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by men attempting to have the arson sentences eliminated for two other men who started fires on federal land, it is useful to review the history of this refuge. It is also important to understand that a recent Comprehensive Conservation Plan has been implemented in 2014 with public input from everyone who wished to voice an opinion. This process was initiated in 2008. Today through some distorted sense of logic, armed men have decided to coopt the refuge for their own personal vendetta.

Archeological research shows that people were using the area now managed by the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 9,800 years ago. The Northern Paiute Indians hunted and fished on this land for more than 1300 years. During their 1804 Corps of Discovery Expedition, Louis & Clark were told of the Paiute by the Shoshone they met on the expedition. In 1826, fur trappers from the Hudson Bay Company told of seeing the Paiute camping along Malheur Lake.

In 1836 the first migrant wagon train began using the Oregon Trail that had been previously built by trappers and traders for horseback travel. But by 1842–1843, the Oregon Trail was teeming with European settlers from the east. However the Oregon Territory was not formed until 1848, two years after Britain and the United States agreed to territorial boundaries of the disputed land along the 49th parallel. This land had been jointly occupied by Great Britain and the United States since 1818.

To promote more settlement in land that would eventually become Oregon, Washington, Idaho and a portion of Wyoming, the United States Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 (a precursor to the Homestead Act of 1862). To make room for the expected influx of settlers, the native Indian population was forced to relocate to small Indian reservations in Oregon. In 1859 Oregon became a state.

After passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, the arrival of European settlers accelerated further. Large cattle operations and dairies were created by enterprising homesteaders taking advantage of various federal programs. The Union Pacific Railroad laid tracks to make it easier to transport cattle and dairy products to other parts of the country like Chicago’s meat packing plants. The cultural and historical life of the Northern Paiute who had lived there for centuries was gradually disrupted by the influx of homesteaders and the environmental deterioration that followed. Diseases like smallpox further decimated the Paiute who had no immunity to combat the disease. The Federal Government tried to convince the Paiute to congregate on the Burns Paiute Indian Reservation around 1868 but this was not an adequate substitute for what they had given up. The Burns Paiute Indian Reservation was progressively reduced in size over time to a scant few thousand acres.

Then In 1870 an ornithologist and army Captain named Charles Bendire who was stationed at Camp Harney in Oregon entered the scene. Soldiers stationed at Camp Harney were ordered to quell Indian raids by the Northern Paiute who they eventually subjugated into signing a treaty that moved them onto a reservation north of Malheur Lake in 1872. While stationed there, Captain Bendire wrote an account of the throngs of birds in the region including great colonies of white herons (now referred to as Great Egrets) that lived along the lower Silvies River among the willows. The Silvies River forks and ends in Lake Malheur. However in the 1880s fashion conscious women desired the breeding plumage of the Great egret to adorn their hats. Hunters satisfied the demand but decimated the population of Great egrets at Malheur Lake in doing so.

By the turn of the century, two members of the Oregon Audubon Society, William L. Finely and Herman T. Bohlman, who were visiting the area and expecting the Great Egret population to have recovered, realized that not a single nesting pair of egrets could be found there. Finely (then president of the Oregon Audubon Society) approached President Theodore Roosevelt with a proposal to protect these birds and the great numbers of other bird species there. In 1908 by executive order, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside unclaimed government lands in the area as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds by establishing the Lake Malheur Reservation, the forerunner of the current Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It is important to understand none of this land had been claimed by homesteaders under the federal programs that had been created to attract them.

Then in 1935, a lengthy severe drought in the area combined with the grip of the Great Depression made the land surrounding the Malheur Wildlife Refuge less productive for the cattle & dairy investments. Two large ranches, one owned by Louis Swift (owner of Swift Packing Company in Chicago), sold their land to the U.S. government. Much of this land was added to the Malheur Refuge. Also in 1935 a 65,000 acre parcel of the Blitzen Valley was purchased to safeguard water rights for the Malheur Reservation to help maintain water levels in the reserve required by waterfowl. Also in 1935, two years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the CCC made major improvements to the infrastructure of the Malheur Reserve including constructing its roads. The CCC camps were located near the headquarters of today’s refuge. Today the refuge provides a crucial opportunity along the Pacific Flyway for tired migratory birds to rest. It provides excellent breeding and nesting habitat for 320 species of birds and as well as habitat for 58 species of mammals. Thousands of people annually visit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to experience its spectacular array of wildlife.