Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge Overview
" . . . where the sheep and the pronghorns play"
If you like isolation, you will like Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. It is especially liked by pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and sage grouse, four major wildlife inhabitants of this sprawling refuge.
A 251,000-acre piece of the high desert in southern Oregon, Hart Mountain NAR sits atop a ridge that rises an abrupt 3,000 feet on its west side and then slopes gently eastward. With no electric service and a 65-mile drive to the closest major town, the refuge is, nevertheless, a destination point for thousands of visitors each year. The remoteness affords no relief from having to cope with human-caused problems. (Map of the Refuge)
One of the earliest and most consequential of these problems was the hunting to near extinction of the pronghorn by western settlers around the turn of the century. By the 1930s local residents took up the pronghorn's cause and urged federal support for its protection. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by establishing the refuge by executive order in 1936 as a range and breeding ground for antelope and other wildlife.
As many as 1,900 pronghorns are now in the Hart Mountain NAR. Many of them migrate to winter in Sheldon NWR, some 20 miles south in northwestern Nevada and established at the same time as Hart Mountain.
Both Sheldon and Hart Mountain lie in the vast region that was once the natural habitat of the pronghorn. Regulated antelope hunting was allowed on the refuge for the first time beginning in 1968, after populations had been restored.
Most of the Hart Mountain refuge is made up of public land withdrawn from other use by virtue of the Executive Order and of private land purchases, including 51,000 acres purchased with money from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.
Sharp observers may also see California bighorn sheep on the steep slopes and cliffs of the refuge's western escarpment. Original herds of this native species were gone from Oregon by 1915 as a result of competition with livestock for forage, over hunting, and human encroachment. In 1954, a herd of 20 sheep was successfully reintroduced to the protection of the refuge and is maintained at its current estimated population of 500 through hunting and transplanting individuals to establish populations in other historic ranges of Oregon and Nevada.
The refuge now has about a third as many mule deer (an estimated 800 to 1,000) as it did at the time it was established. Populations of sage grouse have declined as well from a peak of 8,750 in the 1940s to 800 to 1,000 currently.
Refuge managers will tell you that wildlife management is a misnomer: Wildlife management is more accurately the management of habitat because the condition of the habitat is what determines the type, quantity, and health of wildlife.
Hart Mountain NAR's habitat was in trouble, and extensive inventorying proved it. Unnaturally high amounts of sagebrush and invasion of juniper had crowded out the grasses that typified the Great Basin ecosystem of which the refuge is a part. And serious vegetation losses had occurred along the critically important habitat of 150 miles of refuge streams. Estimates were that the refuge degradation cut wildlife carrying capacity in half and put remaining wildlife at risk.
The prime cause? Amidst strong protestations from cattle interests, the consensus among wildlife biologists was that livestock grazing was at cross purposes with refuge objectives. The controlled grazing of domestic livestock had been specifically chosen in a 1970 refuge management plan as the principal method to be used for restoring the overgrazed refuge and emulating the natural succession of plant growth. Experience was now showing, however, that this method was not working.
Plant succession was limited. Shrub growth was thickening, grasses and flowering plants were becoming scarce, and forage for native animals and suitable nesting sites for the sage grouse were thereby being reduced.
The domestic livestock also removed stream bank vegetation, causing erosion that further inhibited scarce riparian growth. A further result was the loss of needed animal cover and the shade that helped moderate water temperatures important to native trout.
A New Plan
In a lengthy and detailed planning process beginning in 1989. A new resource management plan and environmental impact document were produced and approved in August 1994 (fall 1993 Refuge Reporter, p.7).
The plan allows the continuation of limited hunting and fishing, horseback riding, and hiking. Although it calls for the closing of 181 miles of roads in the interest of habitat and animal protection, 162 miles will remain open to visitors either year-long or seasonally.
The plan also calls for the elimination of domestic livestock grazing for a rest period of 15 years (its most controversial component), the use of periodic controlled fires for shrub control, and the removal of remaining feral horses. Although grazing had been suspended since 1990 because of a severe drought, there had been few prescribed burns and wild fires had been quickly and routinely extinguished.
For many people in eastern Oregon, says refuge recreation planner Ruth Anne Miller, grazing represents an essential part of their history, economy, and culture. That could account for the reaction from the Lake County Board of Commissioners, who oppose the grazing hiatus. To underscore that opposition, the commissioners issued demands for full payment of past revenue-sharing shortfalls (summer 1995 Refuge Reporter, p.10) and the upgrading to county standards of the public road through the refuge to Frenchglen.
They threatened to close the main access road to the refuge from the west if their demands were not met. Drawing on the diplomatic skills that refuge officials must often rely on, complex manager Mike Nunn defused the situation with marginal road improvements and a mutual understanding that revenue sharing was a matter that only the Congress could address.
Had the plan and environmental impact process not proceeded, the refuge would have had to deal with another issue. Several Oregon-based environmental organizations filed suit in 1991 against the refuge, alleging that livestock grazing was not permissible unless it was found to be compatible with refuge purposes. They asked the court to enjoin the refuge from allowing grazing and to order the preparation of compatibility determinations. The grazing permittees intervened on the side of the refuge.
By then, however, grazing had been suspended and the planning process started, so court action was subsequently averted. All parties agreed to the dismissal of the suit as well as to the completion of the new management plan and environmental studies.
Order of the Antelope?
This remote refuge has also had other experiences in dealing with emotional issues. A notable one had to do with the Order of the Antelope. What started in the early 1930s as celebrations of good wildlife management ended in the 1980s, according to one local writer, as something that could be considered to be close to mass orgies.
Meeting at a former camp called the "Blue Sky Hotel" in the ponderosa pine area on the refuge, members of the order would gather annually for three days for what appeared to be only a lively social event.
When the order's use permit expired in 1978, the appropriateness and continuation of its presence on the refuge were reconsidered. The conclusion was that the meetings were not refuge related and were ordered to be stopped. In response to extreme objections from the public and the media, however, the ban was rescinded, but not without some provisions laid down including removal from the refuge of all garbage generated at order meetings, controlled attendance and drinking at the meetings, and a 1982 deadline for removal of the Blue Sky Hotel and other adjacent buildings.
The date came and went with no removal, and even the patience of the governor of Oregon finally wore so thin that she requested that the order's camp be gotten rid of. The camp was finally removed in 1992.
Refuge manager Daniel Alonso says the Order of the Antelope was not all trouble, however, because its assistance was invaluable to him in getting rid of fences that are hazardous to pronghorns and providing the refuge with a new custom-made entrance sign that stands along the road that climbs the west side of Hart Mountain leading to the refuge.
The Order of the Antelope also constructed the 60-year-old bathhouse at Hot Springs that is, peculiar as it might seem for a refuge, one of the most popular attractions, albeit one that occasionally requires Alonso's law-enforcement powers to maintain order. The water bubbling from the springs has a year-round temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit and is the source of Rock Creek. The roofless bathhouse is limited to day use only, and a 20-minute time limit during busy periods. It is located near the Hot Springs Campground, which is along Rock Creek in a grove of aspens and willows that typify the growth along streams.
The campground is an area for unregulated primitive camping and has no facilities except pit toilets. It is slated for minimal improvements in the approved refuge plan. The Guano Creek Campground for hunters is seasonal and is planned for closure. The development of one campground for horseback riders and two other primitive campgrounds is being studied (see Map).
Manager Alonso provides virtual 24-hour presence by residing on the refuge, assisted by only two other permanent employees, a biologist and a maintenance worker. Some of his many duties can be unpredictable, including mounting his horse from time to time to search for lost persons on the expansive and isolated refuge.
How Isolated Is It?
It is so isolated, in fact, that he must keep a generator running to supply the small headquarters compound with power. A few years ago he used a finicky radio-telephone powered by the generator to stay in touch with the outside world. But that has now been replaced with a reliable cellular phone.
He is currently poised to undertake an emergency coyote-control program by aerial shooting because of the predation of newly born pronghorn fawns. The survival rate has plummeted from an average of 43 fawns per 100 does to fewer than 1. The strong local support for predator control is in stark contrast to the deep community antagonism that he and former complex manager Barry Reiswig experienced when proposing grazing controls. But Alonso says that community resentment has subsided and that he is now a welcomed speaker at local meetings and events.
Alonso reports to the refuge complex manager stationed 65 miles away in Lakeview, where a small staff provides a pool of support services for both Hart Mountain and Sheldon.
Visiting Hart Mountain NAR is an impressive experience because of its isolation and expansiveness. Catching sight of pronghorns racing across a sagebrush slope, hearing a sage grouse in the early morning, or seeing the mountains and basins under a light snow may be some of the rewards of ones visit. A future visit, however, is sure to become even more rewarding as habitat restoration takes effect. But more important, some 300 documented wildlife species at the refuge will receive the priority attention that is expected on national wildlife refuges. For that we can thank the refuge professionals who spend their time in defending the wildlife they care for.
When is an Antelope not an Antelope?
When it is a pronghorn. The antelopes at the National Antelope Refuge are actually pronghorns, a family of ungulates (a hoofed animal) that are related but are not part of the true family of antelopes found in Asia and Africa. The pronghorn is found only in North America. Like antelopes, both sexes of pronghorns have horns consisting of a horny sheath and bony core. But unlike antelopes, their horns have a single branch (or prong), and the sheath is lost once a year.
The handsome pronghorns are striking in their light brown coats with white underparts, two white throat stripes and a white rump, and black horns. Standing about three feet in shoulder height, adult pronghorns weigh around 100 pounds and can live to 14 years.
Pronghorns are unusually alert to danger and can always be seen on the lookout, often posting sentinels among their bands. The swiftest of all North American mammals, pronghorns have been clocked going 60 miles per hour, easily out pacing their enemy the coyote, except those few times when several coyotes can drive one to exhaustion.
The usual litter of two fawns develops rapidly and can run 20 miles per hour within a day or two of birth.
Some authorities believe that pronghorns were once as plentiful as bison in the American west. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, they were nearly extirpated because of hunting. The comeback of pronghorns is another remarkable success of wildlife protection in the United States through the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Succession is Both Good and Necessary
When biologists talk about plant succession, they are referring to the natural tendency for plant species to change over time through a series of stages. In upland areas at Hart Mountain NAR, grasses and other nonwoody vegetation characterize the habitat in the early stage of succession.
In the next stage, known as midsuccession, shrubs such as sagebrush begin to grow and early stage plants begin to compete for space and light.
Late succession occurs as shrubs become mature, commonly joined by young junipers. Junipers grow in abundance during very late succession if nothing happens to start the succession over.
What is best for refuge wildlife is a diversity of succession stages, the condition that prevailed before settlement and the one targeted by the new refuge plan.
Nature achieves that diversity chiefly through periodic wildfires by eliminating the above-ground parts of plants, allowing early succession to start again. But fire suppression has prevented that needed disturbance, and cattle grazing has not been effective in stemming the high shrub succession nor resuscitating the scarce grasses. That is why controlled burning and a 15-year grazing hiatus are the central thrust of the new refuge resource plan.
Bearing in mind that all animals are incapable of manufacturing food and are totally dependent on plants for food, appropriate management of the plant habitat at Hart Mountain NAR for refuge wildlife needs to be highest priority.
What to do & How to Get There
Spring through summer are the best times to visit Hart Mountain NAR, but remember there can be snow as late as the first week in June. Concentrations of pronghorn occur in summer and fall. They can be seen around refuge headquarters and most anywhere else on the refuge, although most are south and east of Lookout Point in the flat country.
Binoculars or a spotting scope are a must for seeing bighorn sheep from either the base of Hart Mountain on the way into the refuge from the west or from Flook Knoll, eight miles east of headquarters. Refuge staff says the best way to see them, however, is to take day-long hikes into one of the canyons from the base of the mountain.
Sage grouse are best seen along meadow edges and along Skyline Trail (road) or before summer sunset or sunrise around the natural springs. Birding spots are in the Hot Springs Campground area and the isolated ponderosa pine stand in the Blue Sky area.
Visitors should check with staff either in Lakeview or at the refuge for where most recent sightings of all wildlife have been. The public use leaflet, available at the visitor room, lists all visitor regulations.
There are no hiking trails, but the graded roads and jeep trails can be either walked or driven. Graded roads, which go to the northern boundary (Frenchglen Road), the Hot Springs Campground, and Blue Sky, are open year-round, except the latter, which is closed in the winter and spring. All vehicles are restricted to roads.
The refuge is open to off-road horseback riding and backpacking. Free back-country permits are required for all overnight stays. The permits are self-issued at the Visitor Room at the refuge Headquarters (open 24 hours a day), where there is also a restroom.
Fishing is allowed in accord with refuge regulations in Warner Pond, Rock Creek, and Guano Creek except during droughts. Seasonal hunting is permitted for partridge, quail, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. Rock collecting is permitted with a seven-pound limit per person, but digging and blasting are prohibited.
Hot Springs Campground will accommodate tenters and small to medium motor homes. No water or other services are provided, and sites are unmarked.
Sheldon NWR is located 90 miles away in northwest Nevada and can be reached via OR/NV-140, which runs through the refuge between Denio, NV, and just north of Lakeview, OR. The Contact Station is intermittently staffed, but there is an information kiosk.
From Lakeview, where complex office is located in the Post Office Building, US-395 north, right on OR-140 east for 19 miles, left at refuge sign through Plush, and right at sign to refuge. (The view of Warner Valley on the road up the mountain escarpment is quite dramatic.) From Malheur NWR, west from Frenchglen on 36-mile gravel road.
For more information, contact:
Sheldon-Hart Mountain NWR
Post Office Box 111
Lakeview, OR 97630
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication