Oregon Grasslands Wilderness
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 132-136.
Gentle rolling wide open spaces covered with bunchgrass and with other wonders, big and small.
Location: Lake and Harney counties, 30 miles east of Adel
Size: 870 square miles (556,879 acres)
Terrain: Lots of buttes, rolling hills, and gentle valleys, with many big flats interspersed
with some major mountain peaks
Elevation Range: 4,390-7,918 feet
Managing Agencies: Lakeview and Burns Districts BLM
Agency Wilderness Status: 393,605-acre BLM wilderness study area; 89,608 acres recommended (adjacent
wilderness in Nevada)
Recreation Map: South Half Burns District BLM
These grasslands are a long way from anywhere. For the most part it is classic Basin and Range geology. Both Guano Rim (up to 900 feet high and 12 miles long) and Catlow Rim (up to 1,300 feet high and 15 miles long) are uplifted north-south fault blocks. Both are very pronounced on their west sides and gently give way to valleys to the east. Ancient features such as gravel bars, wave-cut terraces, wave-built terraces, and spits are obvious evidence that a lake existed in Catlow Valley during the Pleistocene epoch.
In between the rims are many ranges of rugged and rolling hills, broad and flat valleys, and relatively deep canyons. Low and high rimrock break up the landscape.
Numerous ephemeral lakebeds are scattered throughout the area, some cov- ered with short vegetation, while others are alkali playas. Very few perennial streams exist.
While much of the geology and landforms of the area are typical, several areas are not.
Lone Mountain north of Hawks Valley stands out. Even from a distance, one is struck by the rock pinnacles of volcanic origin. One can find partially exposed columnar basalt, areas of colorful volcanic soils, and high tablelands incised by rocky draws.
There are very unusual eroded pinnacles in the small draw between the Buck Buttes. One can also find badlands in the area.
Two areas on the northeast side of Long Draw in the Hawk Mountain—Catlow Rim unit contain unique rock formations and include three balanced rocks in one of the more remote draws.
Fish Fin Rim in the northeast corner of the Basque Hills unit is just another rim, but Big Fish Fin is definitely worth seeing. It is easily seen from the road and reached in a 10-minute walk.
While sagebrush—both the common big and low varieties as well as some uncommon ones—dominates the first glance, the relatively undisturbed native bunchgrass in between the sage is a big part of what makes the Oregon Grass- lands special. Because of the lack of surface water and/or livestock water developments, much of the area has been either grazed very lightly or not at all.
Vegetative communities found in the Oregon Grasslands include big sagebrush/ Idaho fescue; low sagebrush/Idaho fescue; low sagebrush/Sandberg's bluegrass; sil-ver sagebrush; black sagebrush; bare playa and playa margin; winterfat; mountain mahogany; bitterbrush-sagebrush/snowberry; Indian ricegrass/needlegrass; big sagebrush/creeping wild ryegrass; big sagebrush/Thurber's needlegrass; aspen groves; willow/grass; and mid- to high-level vernal (spring) ponds.
On the northern edge in the Catlow Valley, salt desert scrub species can be found. Shadscale, greasewood, spiny hopsage, Nuttall's salt brush, and Great Basin wildrye are present.
The variety of soil types in certain small areas results in an array of plants not found in such proximity elsewhere in Oregon.
A recently discovered plant species, Crosby's buckwheat (Erigonum crosbyae), is testimony that all is not known about the vegetation of the Oregon Desert.
Tree species include scattered stands of mountain mahogany and western juniper. There are also some quaking aspen groves.
There are large numbers of sage grouse throughout the proposed wilderness. The Beatys Butte unit has the largest concentration, where 85 percent of the area is year-round habitat. Surveys in the 1980s found sixteen sage grouse strutting grounds, four containing more than thirty birds each. Eighty percent of sage hens nest within 2 miles of a strutting grounds.
Pronghorn are resident throughout the year. The western portion of the area lies within the migration route of the large pronghorn herd that summers on the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and often winters on the Sheldon Na- tional Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The area includes crucial pronghorn winter range and spring kidding grounds. Another large herd migrates from Big Springs Table on the Sheldon Refuge to Oregon End Table.
Small mammals include badger, coyote, bobcat, mountain cottontail, por- cupine, weasel, marmot, black-tailed jackrabbit, least chipmunk, antelope ground squirrel, kangaroo mouse, Great Basin pocket mouse, canyon mouse, bushy-tailed woodrat, small-footed myotis, and long-eared myotis. It is the northern edge of the range of the northern kit fox. The largest predator inhabiting the area is the cougar.
A rare population of white-tailed jackrabbits may inhabit the Bald Mountain unit. The more common jackrabbit is the black-tailed. White-tailed jackrabbits are more restricted to open grassland and don't do well in shrubby areas. Historically there were pygmy rabbits in the area. There have been no recent sightings.
Much of the area is bighorn sheep habitat, and reintroductions are planned.
Of particular interest is the large concentration of raptors. Excellent nesting and feeding habitat can be found throughout the area. One large concentration, not surprisingly, is at Hawk Mountain. Catlow Rim and other large rims also have dense populations. Species include Swainson's hawk, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, and prairie falcon. Peregrine falcon may be reintroduced at Hawk Mountain. Migratory waterfowl use some of the surface water (streams and ephemeral lakes) in the spring.
Archaeological and historic sites are scattered throughout the area, includ- ing large lithic manufacturing and petroglyph sites.
A portion of the proposed wilderness is included in the Oregon Biodiversity Project's Hart Mountain Conservation Opportunity Area.
Of special note is Hawks Valley. In the 1960s, the Great Society extended even to the Oregon Grasslands. BLM planted a 3,800-acre seeding of crested wheatgrass to "improve" the range. To service it was an elaborate network of water tanks and pipelines. An airstrip was graded in Hawks Valley to make it easier to show off. All this was done to avoid reducing livestock to address overgrazing.
The sagebrush that was scraped off and/or sprayed once again dominates Hawks Valley. Old broken and twisted plastic pipe strewn across the landscape is easier to spot than the airstrip. Livestock are still a problem.
The proposal consists of four units—Bald Mountain, Basque Hills, Beatys Butte, and Hawk Mountain–Catlow Rim—and includes five BLM wilderness study areas: Basque Hills, Hawk Mountain, Rincon, Sage Hen Hills, and Spaulding. The total wilderness is much larger because the area abuts additional w-ildlands in the Nevada's Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that Congress designate 277,200 acres as wilderness in eleven units on the Sheldon Refuge. Nevada conservationists are recommend- ing 381,022 acres in ten units of refuge and BLM lands.