Notes on the Harney Basin

Harney Basin (via Wikipedia)

Harney Basin (via Wikipedia)

The Harney Basin is the northernmost sector of the Great Basin, the area of the West whose rivers don’t run to an ocean. The Harney Basin is a large piece of southeastern Oregon, bounded on the north by the Blue Mountains and on the south by Steens Mountain. The Silvies River drains the south slopes of the Blues into Harney Basin; the Donner und Blitzen River drains the northerly slopes of Steens Mountain into the Basin. Like the Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake, there are lakes and playas on the Harney Basin floor, and like a lot a of ancient lake bottoms, the valley floor is dead flat.

Harney Basin is the home of Malheur Lake and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, although the Malheur River hasn’t drained the Harney Basin since the last Ice Age. It’s high desert; most of the precipitation falls as snow. But, especially in Spring bird migration, it’s a critical stopping spot for Intermountain Flyway. And, of course, a birder magnet.

From Boise, you take U.S. 20 west, across Drinking Water Pass and Stinkingwater Pass to the high desert. The area has been profoundly altered by humans. The Donner und Blitzen River has been straightened, and irrigation ditches provide water to a considerable portion of the desert. The amount of water varies greatly from year to year. Mostly, it’s grazed for cattle or planted for crops to feed cattle through the winter. Like many other places in the West, land use disputes are all about water. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupies only a small portion of Harney Basin. But it is controversial because it centers on Donned und Blitzen River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls that water.

Much of the native sagebrush steppe and marshlands have been drained for pasture and hay. Cattle graze on Refuge land. Apparently not as many cattle or as long as the local ranchers would like.

Donner und Blitzen River and Buena Vista Ponds, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Donner und Blitzen River and Buena Vista Ponds, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Taller shrubs border the river channels; you can see they are unnaturally straight lines among the flooded fields of the valley floor.

It’s not just the hydrology that’s changed. Humas have introduced species into the environment. Those include Ring-necked Pheasants.

Ring-ncked Pheasant Cock, Malheur Nat'l Wildlife Refuge

Ring-necked Pheasant Cock, Malheur Nat’l Wildlife Refuge

Ring-necked Pheasant Hen, Malheur Nat'l Wildlife Refuge

Ring-necked Pheasant Hen, Malheur Nat’l Wildlife Refuge

Fish species have been introduced as well. But it’s the cattle that have changed the habitat the most. Cattle graze selectively. The vegetation is seriously altered as a result. Greater Sage Grouse, for example, are pretty uncommon, even though the area is part of the sage brush steppe.

But despite all the alteration, the migratory birds still arrive, fuel up and rest for the next leg north or south.