Andy Kerr

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

Malheur Canyons Wilderness (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 209-213.

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Eighteen wild refugia, each worthy of wilderness designation on its own.

Location: Grant, Harney, and Malheur Counties, centered 30 miles northeast of Burns (five forest ecotone units, three Castle Rock units, two Upper Bully Creek units); 10 miles southwest of Ironside (Ironside Mountain unit); 15 miles south-southwest of Harper (Cottonwood unit); 10 miles west-south- west of Juntura (Middle River unit); 5 miles west of Westfall (Westfall Highlands unit); 15 miles east of Crane (Coleman Creek unit); 32 miles east-northeast of New Princeton (north of Crowley; Star Mountain unit); 5 miles southwest of Drewsey (two Stinkingwater Mountains units)

Size: 512 square miles (328,186 acres)

Terrain: Forested headwaters to rugged desert rocky canyons to open rolling hills

Elevation Range: 2,680-7,811 feet

Managing Agencies: Burns and Vale Districts BLM

Agency Wilderness Status: 76,900-acre BLM wilderness study area; 45,650 acres recommended

Recreation Maps: North and South Halves, Malheur Resource Area, Vale District BLM; Northeast Quarter, Burns District BLM

An extremely diverse set of units comprise this proposed wilderness. From lovely forested headwaters, through the ecotone transition from forest to sagebrush steppe, to some very stark and beautiful canyons, these units are related ecologically and serve as the anchors of biodiversity of the Malheur River Basin.

The wildlife is as diverse as the landscape. Of greatest concern is the fate of the redband trout, for which several of the proposed wilderness units serve as refugia or repopulation habitats.

Pacific salmon once spawned in the Malheur River Basin, but dams on the Snake River downstream presently prevent it.

The proposed wilderness is comprised of seven BLM wilderness study ar- eas: Malheur River—Bluebucket Creek, Beaver Dam Creek, Castle Rock, Camp Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Gold Creek, and Sperry Creek.

The area is best categorized in ten separate regions: Castle Rock, Coleman Creek, Cottonwood, the Forest Ecotone, Ironside Mountain, Middle River, Stinkingwater Mountains, Star Mountain, Upper Bully Creek, and Westfall Highlands. Several of the units are actually in the Blue Mountains ecoregions (see map).

Castle Rock Region: Castle Rock, Jerry Canyon, and lost Creek Spring Units

Interspersed among the bluebunch wheatgrass, mountain big sagebrush, and Idaho fescue are significant stands of western juniper, mountain mahogany, Douglas-fir, and ponderosa pine. Mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, and sage grouse are common.

Castle Rock is the neck of an extinct volcano and reaches 6,780 feet in elevation. It last erupted 15 million years ago. One of the most prominent landmarks in the desert, it can be seen from much of the Malheur and adjoining basins. It served as a vision quest site for the Northern Paiutes.

Coleman Creek Unit

Coleman Creek arises in the south end of the Stinkingwater Mountains. It soon forms into a magnificent canyon lined with quaking aspen, willows, western juniper, and mountain mahogany. Redband trout have a stronghold here, and elk and deer are abundant.

Cottonwood Unit

Comprised of four major creek drainages (Camp Creek, Gold Creek, Sperry Creek, and Cottonwood Creek), this is a very steep and rugged area. It is a pure sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Most streams flow into Cottonwood Creek. The average slope ranges from 25 to 90 percent. Impressive basaltic canyons dissect tablelands covered with low sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass or big sagebrush/ Idaho fescue communities. The tablelands are rich in wild onion, violet, daisy fleabane, phlox, clover, and buckwheat.

Numerous pockets of riparian vegetation are scattered through the canyon bottoms with willows, golden currant, bittercherry, wild rose, sedges, and rushes. Pockets of Great Basin wildrye may be found on the side slopes.

The unit is also home to Rocky Mountain elk and pronghorn. It has some crucial mule deer winter range and outstanding sage grouse and raptor habitat, including habitat for golden eagles, prairie falcons, turkey vultures, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and great horned owls.

Several archaeological sites exist.

Forest Ecotone Region: North Fork, Upper River, Pine Creek, Otis Creek, and Birch Creek Units

These units are generally high tablelands cut deeply by streams with canyons averaging 600 to 1,000 feet deep. Adjacent (as well as additional wilderness units) lands on the Malheur National Forest upstream are heavily forested. Cliffs and talus slopes are common to the area. Blue, ruffed, and sage grouse can he found here. The streams are home to significant numbers of redband trout.

Ironside Mountain Unit

A prominent landmark visible from US 26, Ironside Mountain is the tallest point in the proposed wilderness. It is on the edge of two conservation opportunity areas identified by the Oregon Biodiversity Project: Malheur River Headwaters and Bully Creek.

Middle River Unit

The main feature is the Malheur River, which flows through this unit of rolling hills, high plateaus, and broad, flat expanses. Scattered juniper are found among the big and low sagebrush. The unit includes crucial deer winter range and year- round pronghorn habitat. The flats atop Upton Mountain, because of its defen- sive topography, have never been grazed by livestock.

Stinkingwater Mountains Region: Stinkingwater Mountains and Bartlett Mountain Units

The Stinkingwater Mountains are characterized by steep uplift and faulted volcanics that form rock outcroppings. Stiff sage, western juniper, and big sagebrush are the dominant vegetation. Sage grouse, pronghorn, and mule deer are the most common wildlife species. Teepee rings have been discovered.

Star Mountain Unit

The Bureau of Land Management first proposed Star Mountain as a wilderness study area and then caved in to local pressure. "The unit is generally free of the imprints of man's work but does not offer outstanding opportunities for soli- tude and primitive recreation," noted the agency. BLM did allow that the area had "geological and ecological features that are of scientific, educational and scenic value."

But under BLM's rules, unless the primitive recreation or the solitude was "outstanding," the area was dropped from further consideration. Star Mountain was marked down because the recreation was only "moderate," as most slopes were "exposed to a full view from the majority of the unit." It also lost points in the solitude category because only the northwest slope is "sparsely covered with juniper trees," and the "remainder of the unit has little vegetative screening" for the visitor. Only the Crowley Creek drainage provides adequate "topographic screening."

The greatest loss of wilderness-quality land in the Oregon BLM wilderness review process was lands that the agency determined to be generally natural, but not "outstanding" enough in terms of primitive recreation and/or solitude.

BLM hypothesized a Star Mountain being overrun with visitors who couldn't stay out of each other's sight because the country was too open. The heaviest period of recreation use is hunting season, and even then one need not fear being overrun.

Nonetheless, wildlife like Star Mountain. It is important pronghorn habitat and also supports mule deer. High up the mountain, the sparse western juniper (also on the south-facing slope) provides a habitat type sparse in the Owyhee Uplands. Sage grouse also inhabit the area.

Crowley and Little Crowley Creeks have willow and aspen in the draws. Most of the area is covered with sagebrush, bunchgrass, and juniper. The very rare and endangered Barren Valley collomia (Collomia renacta), a forb, is found here and in only a few other sites.

Star Mountain is out in the middle of nowhere and is little known and even less visited. The Oregon Official State Map only grants it 5,500 feet of elevation, though it is actually 6,037 feet at the summit. It provides an important ecologi- cal link between the larger wildlands of the proposed Malheur and Owyhee Wildernesses.

Upper Bully Creek Region: Beaver DamCreek and Clover Creek Units

Both units are in the Bully Creek Conservation Opportunity Area, as identified by the Oregon Biodiversity Project. It was recognized for its extensive mosaics of aspen groves, big sagebrush, mountain mahogany, western juniper, and ponderosa pine habitats. It contains a significant example of big sagebrush commu- nities with squaw apple and Thurber's needlegrass." [1]

The unusually diverse combination of habitats support species ranging from woodland-nesting goshawks to sage grouse, pronghorn, deer and elk," notes the Oregon Biodiversity Project.' The juniper/steppe woodland is an ecotone be- tween ponderosa pine forest and the sagebrush steppe and is of limited extent in Oregon.

Westfall Highlands Unit

The western portion of the Westfall Highlands unit is comprised of steep buttes covered with western juniper, quaking aspen, and mountain mahogany that give way eastward to broad expanses of open sagebrush grasslands dissected by Cottonwood Creek. At first glance, one's attention focuses on the long view of the vastness of the landscape. The medium view can be rather monotonous. Take the time to look closely. One can find much, including the delicate mariposa lily.

The area is known for its stiff sage, which grows in the most harsh soil con- ditions, including near superficial bedrock. In its old age, stiff sage can take on a bonsai-like appearance.

"The unit offers considerable zoological study opportunities, geologic and botanical interest, scenic vistas, and some cultural and historic sites," notes the BLM, which then dropped it from further wilderness consideration.

1. Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 145.