Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Lake Abert National Wildlife Refuge (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 121-123.

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Oregon's Mono Lake.

Location: Lake County, 3 miles north-northeast of Valley Falls

Size: 64 square miles (41,154 acres)

Terrain: Flat and quite wet

Elevation Range: 4,255-4,341 feet

Managing Agencies: Lakeview District BLM (present); Fish and Wildlife Service (proposed)

Recreation Map: Southwest Quarter, South Half Lakeview Resource Area, Lakeview District BLM

Brine shrimp (and, oh yeah, alkali flies) are the foundation of Lake Abert's (not Abert Lake!) fantastic biological productivity. Yes, the brine shrimp (and flies) have to eat something, but we don't need to discuss that here.

The brine shrimp handle water much saltier than the ocean as well as with an alkalinity up to a pH of 10. They tough out temperatures below 0 degrees Fahren- heit. When the lake dries out, the shrimp in their cystic form can survive with 2 percent of their normal moisture and can be carried by the wind to other water.

These millions upon millions of brine shrimp (and those alkali flies) make Lake Abert an attractive resting and forage stop for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.

A significant portion of the Pacific Flyway populations of western snowy plover, eared grebe, Wilson's and red-necked phalaropes, and American avocet use Lake Abert.

Phalaropes twirl in the water to bring the brine shrimp to the surface. Up to fifty thousand of the birds have been estimated on the east shore at one time. It is quite a scene when numbers peak in mid-August.

The lake also provides seasonal habitat for 1.5 to 2 percent of the North American population of northern shovelers. It is also a rest stop for Canada geese, ducks, and cranes. The total waterfowl/waterbird use exceeds 3.25 million bird-use days annually.

Fourteen species of special status (various levels of worry and/or protection) are associated with the lake ecosystem: peregrine falcon, bald eagle, western snowy plover, white-faced ibis, loggerhead shrike, pygmy rabbit, Oregon Lakes tui chub, black tern, California bighorn sheep, long-billed curlew, ferruginous hawk, greater sandhill crane, white-tailed antelope squirrel, and white-tailed jackrabbit.

The lake has the third or fourth largest (depending on water conditions) breeding population of western snowy plover anywhere. Lake Abert's breeding population averages four to five times that of the species' entire coastal breeding population. The coastal population is a federally protected threatened species. It shares wintering grounds with the inland populations such as those at Lake Abert, so interchange is probable. The Lake Abert population isn't vulnerable to coastal winter gales or oil spills. However, it is vulnerable to off-road vehicles.

"Lake Abert is an aquatic ecosystem that is exceptionally productive and is comparatively close in functioning to its pristine state," says BLM. At 55 square miles, Lake Abert is what's left of the huge Pleistocene Lake Chewaucan (CHEE-wah-CAN). As the climate warmed and the lake shrank, the resulting water became more concentrated with briny mineral salts. And as the lake has no outlet, the salts continue to concentrate. The lake playa occasionally dries, and the saline dust blows away, making the lake temporarily less salty.

Lake Abert is the largest saline lake in the Pacific Northwest and among the five largest in the Great Basin. Its closest ecological relative is California's Mono Lake. The amount of water inflow also affects lake productivity.

The main source is the Chewaucan River, which enters the lake's south end over a 12-foot ledge— hence that end of the lake is the least alkaline. Some other streams and springs add fresh water at other places around the lake, serving onshore wildlife species from the sagebrush edge. Besides the lake habitat, the shoreline supports wetland, riparian, sagebrush/bunchgrass, and desert scrub communities.

The desert allocarya (Plagiobothrys salsus) is a wildflower that grew at an en- closed spring (to keep livestock out) on the west side of the lake until 1983, when cattle breached the fence and eliminated the entire remnant stand. It continues to live in one location in the Warner Valley and few locations in Nevada. Hopefully, it will be reestablished at the site.

The lake's salinity is too high to support any fish. XL Spring on the north- east edge of the lake is a refuge for the Oregon Lakes tui chub (Gila bicilor oregonensis).

The interface of lake and rim (now bisected by US 395) is an extremely rich cultural and archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Sites and Places.

Threats to the lake's ecosystem integrity include a potential for mining. There is moderate potential for gold, silver, mercury, and uranium. The potential for sodium and other evaporative minerals is high. Some geothermal power potential also exists. BLM cannot permanently withdraw the lands from the mining laws; only an act of Congress can do that.

An ambitious and stupid effort to develop a pumped-storage hydroelectric project has failed for now.

A small brine shrimp harvesting operation (mainly for pet fish food) exists on the lake. As it would be inconsistent with the purposes of a national wildlife ref- uge, the owner should be compensated at fair market value to end the operation.

Recent schemes to industrially harvest vast quantities of brine shrimp eggs are quiescent for now, but such harvesting is still a very serious threat to the lake.

Some key private lands should also be acquired to ensure the integrity of the lake's ecosystem.

What to Do

The best way to enjoy the proposed refuge is a leisurely drive along US 395. The north and south shores are the most productive for birds. Most of the north shore is privately owned. From the few highway parking areas, small watercraft can be lugged for lakeside launching. Birding is excellent from April through October. One's attention will also be focused in the other direction to the in- credible Abert Rim. The stretch from Valley Falls to Alkali Station compares with the Old McKenzie Pass as a highway wilderness experience.