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Marvelous Malheur: Animals and Ecosystems

Category: General Article

Back to Landmark Place: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

GPS Coordinates: 43.271371, -118.838131

One winter, when Alice Ellshoff still lived on the edge of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the pond near her home froze over. Only two small holes at opposite ends provided access through the ice sheet to the water below. One morning, Alice watched in amazement as a pair of river otters emerged from one hole, chased each other across the icy skin to plunge down the second hole, only to reemerge at the first and repeat the process over and over again. Although Alice and her husband have since moved to Bend, Oregon, it was experiences like this one that keeps them coming back to Malheur despite the 155 mile (249.4 km) drive.

“I’ve had so many wonderful experiences here,” Alice told the Oceanscape Network when we visited the refuge in the summer of 2016. From tiny songbirds to massive bull elk, Alice says the variety of wildlife experiences one can have at the refuge is due to its size and complexity of ecosystems.

Located on the boundary between the Basin and Range and High Lava Plains physiographic regions, different parts of the refuge can vary greatly in temperature, precipitation, climate and wildlife. Large animals such as elk and cougar may be frequent interlopers from nearby Steens Mountain while Malheur Lake, which can vary in size from 80,000 to 4,000 acres based on snowpack melt, attracts tens of thousands of migrating birds.

“The variety of ecosystems is truly one of my favorite things about Malheur,” said Alice. “We have lakes that are deep enough to keep the pelicans and diving ducks happy, but we have a shallows for the dabbling ducks and the beautiful long legged wading birds. We have a wet meadows that the sandhill cranes love and dry uplands where the Long-billed Curlews and hawks nest. We have white alkali playas where the little snowy plovers nest. We also have large animals like the pronghorn, elk and mule deer. We have cougars as well but they are very solitary and so you don’t often see them and they don’t present a big danger here.”

Perhaps less visible than the mammals and birds, but no less important, are twelve native fish species and a variety of amphibians and reptiles which can include bull snakes, garter snakes and the Western rattlesnake.

The remoteness of Malheur doesn’t seem to deter visitors anxious to enjoy both its stark beauty and abundant wildlife. Tens of thousands of tourists come each year just for birding alone. Others can enjoy the refuge for its hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and photography opportunities. To learn more about the refuge, visit the official website.

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