LAKEVIEW, Ore. - David Dobkin crouches in an expanse of low sagebrush and admires clumps of grasses and forbs. It is morning on this sweep of high desert that stretches east from the rising fault-block mountain that gives Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge its name. Umbrella-shaped canopies of mountain mahogany grow from the mountain's outcrops and ridges. Juniper punctuates the foothills, groves of aspen spill from draws, streams tumble from hidden springs.
To the west, out of
sight, lies the Warner Lakes Basin, a world of pothole lakes and
long vistas made famous in William Kittredge's elegiac book, Hole
in the Sky. To the east across 30 miles of desert is Steens
Mountain, with its spectacular U-shaped valleys and summer
wildflowers. Along the roadway, exotic yellow and purple blooms
invade disturbed ground. But away from the road, grasses and sedges
are making a comeback.
It has been seven years
since cows grazed this country, and the land shows
Under a 1994 management plan, Hart Mountain
Refuge will remain cow-free until the year 2009. The question that
haunts Dobkin is whether this respite will end before scientific
lessons have been learned - and before the land itself has healed.
"That ticking clock is
precisely why I'd like to see the refuge dedicated to restoration
of these high desert ecosystems," he says.
on this promising June day in 1997, 12 years seems a long way off.
Milkvetch, showy white phlox and yellow hawksbeard, all choice
foods for pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, grow between clumps
of low sage. Shafts of desert buckwheat poke through the dirt.
Waist-high grasses - Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass and
bottlebrush squirreltail, favored by jackrabbits and other small
mammals - rustle in the morning breeze.
streams and near springs, young aspen are in full leaf.
Streambanks, trampled to hardpan by cattle hooves, are beginning to
Dobkin, an ecologist of international
stature, has studied this country's resurrection (see story, page
8). He can't contain his excitement.
"This is the result of
existing plants being released from severe grazing impacts and
growing more robustly," he says. "It just looks spectacular. This
is getting close to what these landscapes used to look like."
In fact, it was the abundance of grasses and
forbs in the 19th century that led to a tragic misunderstanding,
Dobkin says. "The early ranchers saw these tall grasses and said,
"This looks like great cow country." They didn't understand that
this kind of plant community couldn't survive with intensive
To the untrained eye, sagebrush is
sagebrush. Dobkin sees subtle differences among low sage, basin big
sage, mountain big sage and silver sage. In this low-sage
community, badger burrows have aerated the soil. It's sandy and
more receptive to native plants.
What happens in
the desert has far-reaching consequences for wildlife, plants and
insects. Take bees, for instance. "This is one of the last places
with an intact native bee community," Dobkin says. "Most
agricultural areas lose their native pollinators to pesticides."
The Hart Mountain-Warner Valley region covers a
broad swath of southeastern Oregon's basin and range country. It is
exhilaratingly wild country, and remote even from the remote timber
and ranching towns of Lake County, Ore.
278,000-acre Hart Mountain Refuge and its sister, Sheldon National
Wildlife Refuge, a 575,000-acre expanse of desert across the state
line in northwestern Nevada, together make up the largest chunk of
cow-free land in the entire Great Basin.
cows were barred, the two desert refuges have become vast, open-air
laboratories. As native plants, chewed down by cows or crowded out
by alien weeds, make a comeback, so do the birds that frequent the
moist oases around streams and springs. Dobkin's research at Hart
Mountain has documented that birds closely associated with wetlands
are returning to once-desolate streambanks because sedges and
grasses now invite insects and provide cover.
1991, under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Dobkin began a project to track the recovery of streamside
vegetation and the return of birds to the refuge. He established
research plots along a stream where cows had been fenced out since
1958, as well as in areas that had been heavily grazed until
In one study plot, grasses made a dramatic
return after just three years without cows and with two years of
heavy precipitation. By 1993, Dobkin was seeing Canada geese,
American wigeon and sora, a wading bird that frequents wetlands. By
1994, he was spotting green-winged teal, gadwall and Wilson's
phalarope. In an article written for the journal Conservation
Biology, he concluded that with the absence of cows, and the two
wet years, the water table had risen and the riparian zone had
widened on both sides of the stream channel, inviting wetland birds
But not all creatures on the refuge
are flourishing. Some species, including the pronghorn antelope for
which the refuge was established, are in
"Habitat is in the
best condition that it has been in since the establishment of the
refuge," says refuge manager Mike Nunn. "Unfortunately, our
monitoring of wildlife populations does not indicate similar
improvement for many species." Not only pronghorn, but bighorn
sheep, rabbit and small-rodent populations are down. Sage grouse
and mule deer are at low levels when compared to the recent
It seems counterintuitive that pronghorn
would be in trouble now, after cows have been banished and
prescribed fire is restoring the forbs the antelope favor. The Hart
Mountain experiment seems to be teaching another lesson: Natural
systems don't always respond predictably.
possible, says Nunn, that the refuge has not been rested long
enough to allow the expected response from wildlife. "It's also
possible that this ecosystem is so out of balance from over a
century of human influence that some wildlife-population management
activities may be needed to give species such as pronghorn the
freedom to realize their reproductive potential."
Translated from bureaucratic language, what
Nunn is talking about is predator control, a contentious
In 1996, he announced that the agency
would begin shooting coyotes from planes to save newborn
pronghorns, which were being killed by the animals at an alarming
rate. The announcement brought condemnation not only from
conservationists and animal-rights groups but from pronghorn
biologists as well. Nunn was forced to backtrack (see story page
Controversy is not new to Hart Mountain.
The removal of cows from the refuge took five years and came at a
high political cost: The Lake County commissioners at one point
threatened to block the main access route to the
But three years later the controversy
has largely died down. Of the four ranchers who held grazing
permits on the refuge, one has since died. His property, the McKee
Ranch, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, which sold 759
acres to the Fish and Wildlife Service last March for eventual
inclusion in the refuge. A Lakeview-based grazing association
purchased the vast MC Ranch, 185,000 acres of private land and
900,000 acres of federal grazing leases; it provides alternative
forage for the livestock of Lake County
Some ranchers remain bitter, but that
bitterness has lessened with time, says Lakeview Mayor Orval
Layton. "New managers have come in. (Refuge manager) Mike Nunn met
with the county commissioners and they had a fair exchange of
ideas." The work of restoring the land - and restoring community
relations - has begun. Yet even now, Nunn says with a smile, when
ranchers visit the refuge, most see not an ecosystem on the rebound
but "wasted feed."
Great Basin we never knew
geographical zone known as the Great Basin covers portions of five
states. What we see, as we drive across it at 80 miles an hour, is
a sea of sagebrush and bare ground, broken by narrow streamside
corridors of sedge and willow. This is the image most people
conjure up, Dobkin says, "in the rare instances when the public
thinks about the Intermountain West at all."
Range ecologists know a different landscape is possible: In a few
places where cows and sheep have been excluded, the Great Basin
blooms with bunchgrasses, sedges and flowering shrubs, and broad
bands of lush vegetation mark stream channels.
Our conception of this region, Dobkin says, has been distorted by
130 years of intensive livestock grazing, which has altered
everything from the condition of stream banks to the depth of the
water table to the health of the soil and its plant and animal
"We have lost
from our collective consciousness what these landscapes looked like
before fire suppression and grazing in the Intermountain West," he
In time, if ecological restoration is
given a chance, the Hart Mountain Refuge may fill the gaps in our
understanding, demonstrating on a grand scale what a healthy Great
Basin looks like, and how native wildlife populations establish a
predator-prey balance in this harsh land.
present, about 1,800 pronghorn antelope and as many as 1,000 mule
deer roam the refuge. About 500 bighorn sheep, from a population
reintroduced in 1956, inhabit the sheer western escarpment of Hart
Mountain, which runs in a north-south direction for more than 20
miles. When habitat is favorable, as many as 100 species of
songbirds live in the aspen and willow draws of the refuge. Redband
trout and endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout swim in its narrow
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt
carved the refuge from the public domain in 1936, he dedicated its
lonely reaches as a range and breeding ground for antelope and
But almost from its inception,
the refuge was managed more like a ranch. Most of its funds went to
manage livestock, and many of the water sources within its
boundaries were controlled by owners of private inholdings.
It was only in the late 1970s that The Nature
Conservancy was able to buy out more than 10,000 acres of
inholdings and sell those properties to the refuge as federal funds
became available to buy them.
By the late 1980s,
more than a century of grazing by cattle from surrounding ranches,
compounded by several years of drought, had turned the refuge into
a danger zone for wildlife. Cows, up to 4,000 during the April to
October grazing season, had trampled springs and streambanks,
transformed grasslands to sagebrush, and grazed young aspen and
willow shoots to the nub.
In 1989, when Barry
Reiswig, a courageous and outspoken U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
manager, took over Hart Mountain, he saw at once that change was
needed. At the time, grazing occurred on about 150,000 acres,
two-thirds of the Hart Mountain Refuge, with cattle rotated through
more than two dozen fenced pastures. On the arid refuge, it takes
an average of 17 acres to support one cow for a
But before the refuge was created, even
more livestock - as many as 50,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle - grazed
the open range each year.
refuge neighbor said it was just a race to the mountain to see who
could get to the grass first," Reiswig recalls. Formal programs to
regulate grazing didn't begin until the 1970s, after the first
management plan for the refuge was adopted.
1991, forage had become so poor and water so scarce that Reiswig
told ranchers they would have to find somewhere else to graze their
cattle that year. Continued drought kept the cows off in 1992 and
Meanwhile, Reiswig rounded up a team of
biologists, and they began the first-ever refuge inventory, looking
at what wildlife need to survive.
impact was evident: At the head of one creek, a herd of 600 cattle
had destroyed a spring, toppled trees and nearly killed several
willow and aspen groves.
An aerial survey
revealed that 59 of the 76 waterholes and springs were bone dry.
Though pronghorn don't eat grass and therefore don't compete
directly with cattle for forage in normal years, they compete for
both forage and water in dry years. Even bighorn sheep were
beginning to suffer from drought; a survey found underweight lambs
and reduced rates of horn growth among adult sheep, a sign of
Range specialists found that 93
percent of meadows on the refuge had lowered water tables. More
than half of all stream headwater areas lacked the aspen and willow
cover songbirds need. Streams ran dangerously warm, threatening the
survival of redband and Lahontan cutthroat trout. Upland areas,
which make up 95 percent of the refuge, were covered with
unnaturally dense stands of juniper. Instead of diverse vegetation,
unbroken expanses of sagebrush, habitat suitable only for mule deer
and a few hardy birds, blanketed the refuge.
studies also showed that most streams on the refuge were
"entrenched," that is, running several feet below the banks, and
most of the shrubs along their banks were "pedestaled," a condition
in which the bottom leaves are browsed off.
Wilderness Society and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, irate
over the condition of the refuge as revealed by leaked memos and
news accounts, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, demanding an end to all
livestock grazing there.
Meanwhile, the Lake
County Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to draft its own
refuge-management proposal. That proposal, a year in preparation,
called for reducing grazing on the refuge by nearly 80 percent and
contained detailed prescriptions for grazing on each refuge unit.
It endorsed traditional hunting and fishing access, called for
prescribed fire only when grazing would not serve the same purpose,
and urged refuge managers to consider predator control as well as
intensive management of water and habitat to increase deer and
When the biologists'
assessment of Hart Mountain was completed, Reiswig's team wrote a
draft environmental impact statement laying out alternatives for
the refuge. Reading the writing on the wall, Lake County's
committee wrote to Reiswig in October of 1993, urging him to
consider the refuge's
"Upon creation of the
Hart Mountain Refuge, grazing was a part of the original plan and
agreed to by the United States government and local interests,"
they wrote. "We believe this indicates there is an unwritten
agreement that grazing would continue on the Hart Mountain Refuge
in perpetuity ... Without this agreement the refuge would never
have been created."
Nevertheless, in July 1994,
regional Fish and Wildlife Service Director Marvin Plenert chose an
alternative that called for removing cows for 15 years; he
validated the findings of Reiswig's team, confirming that the
refuge was dangerously overgrazed.
the team had concluded that grazing was preventing the refuge from
reaching its potential as habitat for pronghorn, bighorn sheep,
mule deer, sage grouse, Catlow redband trout, and many other
species. "Even with an intensive restoration program, all refuge
habitats will not be returned to their potential within 15 years,"
they warned in their final report. "Improved soil productivity and
restored native plant communities may require a century or more to
The decision infuriated Lake County
ranchers, who believed the Fish and Wildlife Service had given
their proposal short shrift. And so, on Oct. 5, 1994, the Lake
County Commission passed an ordinance forbidding the Fish and
Wildlife Service to add to its holdings in Lake County, and
threatening to deny access to the refuge by county road unless the
agency made back payments it allegedly owed the county under the
Refuge Revenue Sharing Act. The ordinance also ordered the agency
to upgrade the rough dirt road across the refuge to county
Mike Nunn remembers that meeting
because it was his first day managing the Hart Mountain Refuge. A
former game manager, Nunn is comfortable working closely with
ranchers and hunters, so he was expected to soothe tensions between
the feds and the community after Reiswig's departure for a new
But Reiswig had ruffled feathers
even beyond the ranching community. On one memorable occasion, he
had evicted members of the private, all-male club known as the
Order of the Antelope from refuge property. The Order raised money
for refuge programs, and each July its members had gathered to
drink, grill steaks and carouse in a rare grove of ponderosa pine
known as the Blue Sky Hotel. With members all over the state, the
Order responded to the eviction by raising money to buy a private
inholding within the refuge boundary, where the parties continue to
"Barry (Reiswig) set
himself up as the buffer between his staff and the community," says
Susan Saul, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman. "He took the
heat. He would step up and say, "I'm the target, I'm the
responsible decision-maker." He had been that lightning rod, and we
needed to move beyond that contentious political environment."
Mike Nunn took a different approach, Saul
added. "The county threatened to dig a big trench and block the
road to the refuge. Nunn had to go work with the commissioners and
develop a different relationship with them."
Cows went quietly
contrast to the furor over Hart Mountain, the removal of cows from
the adjacent Sheldon Refuge, which Reiswig also managed, was swift,
clean and non-controversial.
In 1990, Reiswig
had begun work on an ecological-restoration plan. Hearings were
held in Reno, Nev., and Cedarville, Calif. As at Hart Mountain,
drought was taking its toll; one year in the early 1990s, Reiswig
recalls, conditions were so dry that the Nevada refuge didn't even
"green up" in the spring.
Ranchers who grazed
cows at Sheldon quickly foresaw the outcome and went to federal
officials, asking to be bought out. Unlike the Hart Mountain
Refuge, which had the discretion to grant or withhold special-use
grazing permits from year to year, the Sheldon Refuge was created
under an Executive Order that gave the Bureau of Land Management
responsibility for managing grazing there under the Taylor Grazing
"Everyone from family
ranchers to super-wealthy property owners to the grazing
association - they all agreed to sell," Reiswig
When it became clear that the ranchers
were willing sellers, the Mellon Foundation, using the Conservation
Fund as its intermediary, offered to buy their permits, negotiating
with each rancher separately and in secret. After the purchases
were made, the foundation turned over the permits to the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service.
Once the cows were gone -
along with Reiswig - Nunn and his staff faced the challenge of
beginning to repair the damage at both refuges.
Among other things, that meant bringing back fire. Historically,
lightning ignited the grasses of the Great Basin regularly in late
spring and summer. But the elimination of grasses by grazing cows
reduced the frequency and size of natural fires and allowed
sagebrush and juniper to take over the high
The new management plan calls for
burning up to 15 percent of the Hart Mountain Refuge - more than
40,000 acres - to encourage regeneration of grasses and forbs.
Prescribed fire is targeted to areas where cows have eliminated
much of the fuel that feeds natural fire. Since 1991, about 9,300
acres have been burned at Hart Mountain, and 15,000 acres at
Sheldon. In most burned areas, grasses, shrubs, forbs and sedges
But fire in the desert is
tricky. In 1985, a fire set by refuge staff got out of control and
burned thousands of acres. Charred ground still marks where it
rampaged across the basin.
another wild card. This introduced species thrives in overgrazed
areas and now dominates nearly 100 million acres in the
Intermountain West. It burns every three to five years, while the
normal fire regime in the Great Basin is every 25 to 80
"We can't simply use
fire as a panacea because of the dominance of cheatgrass," Dobkin
Wildlife monitoring is another task that
keeps the refuge complex staff busy. Thirteen staff members and
several seasonal workers track the population size, reproduction
rate and distribution of bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes,
pronghorn, sage grouse, songbirds, small mammals and fish. When
time and funding permit, they also seed native plants, plant
willows along streams, close roads, remove fences, and build check
dams on streams where cows' hooves have trampled the banks so
severely that nature alone can't repair the
The time is
Information on the now-cowless refuges will
pile up, but will it tell us anything valuable?
Dobkin is convinced that Nunn and his federal bosses are throwing
away an unprecedented opportunity to chart the restoration of an
overgrazed Great Basin landscape.
He says, for
instance, that the subtlest and most profound impact of livestock
grazing may have been the destruction of a bumpy ground cover known
as the cryptobiotic crust. This crust, made up of tiny plants,
holds the soil in place, retains moisture and helps species
germinate. When cows graze, their hooves destroy the
"By losing that crust
we have lost the topsoil," Dobkin says. - 'Can we get it back?" and
"How do we get it back?" are unanswered questions."
Published research on cryptobiotic crusts is
relatively new, and no studies are planned at Hart
"If you're trying to
understand something about restoration, and you don't capture
what's happening in the first two decades after livestock removal,
you're missing those critical early responses," Dobkin
"We desperately need
information on how these ecosystems respond in the absence of
livestock in order to understand how they work. You can't do that
when livestock are still a part of the system, because their impact
alters everything. Here's an opportunity that has never presented
itself at this spatial and temporal scale before."
Bill Pyle, who served as staff biologist for
the Hart Mountain and Sheldon refuges under Reiswig, concurs.
"There's no other place in the northern Great Basin quite like it.
There is a tremendous amount that can be learned, for example, by
exclusion of grazing in whole watersheds. The value of those two
refuges has increased because of the institutional changes that
have occurred. Down the line, we'll be asking, "What have we
While the Bureau of Land
Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the former National
Biological Service have all ranked research at Hart Mountain as a
high priority, money for research projects that don't involve some
pending lawsuit or endangered species crisis has dried up, says
Eric Campbell, Oregon wildlife-program manager for the Bureau of
Alan Sands, former national
upland game bird biologist for the BLM, now a Boise-based staff
member for The Nature Conservancy, recalls a meeting he and Dobkin
helped organize with federal biologists in early 1995. The two laid
out a vision for a coordinated research project to study songbirds,
sage grouse, big game and other wildlife species of the Great
Basin, not only at Hart Mountain and Sheldon but on adjacent BLM
lands, where cows are still present. After all, as he pointed out,
BLM land is where most of the habitat
"I was looking for
agencies to coordinate their efforts," he said. "It went nowhere."
The most ambitious research project on the
refuge to date has been Dobkin's work on the restoration of
streambank and meadow vegetation and the return of native bird
species to these desert oases between 1991 and 1994. Funding for
Dobkin's research dried up after 1994, and he has been unable to do
any field work since.
Other research projects -
on sage grouse, small mammals and pronghorn fawn survival - are
under way on the refuge. But Nunn's assistant, Ron Cole, says he
needs partners to help him win federal matching funds for 20 or
more projects the refuge would like to
"I need an Oregon
Natural Desert Association, I need an Oregon Natural Resources
Council, I need an Oregon Hunters Association to step forward,"
Cole says. "We have feral horses on Hart Mountain that are causing
riparian damage, but because of legal constraints we cannot use
motorized vehicles to round them up. We need funding to get those
feral horses removed."
Nunn is not the reformer
Barry Reiswig was, but he has won praise from the Oregon Natural
Desert Association, a Bend-based conservation group, for pulling
off a land swap that will protect 20,000 acres of heavily grazed
wildlife habitat and 12 miles of a fragile trout stream on BLM land
south of the Hart Mountain refuge boundary.
Under the swap, the land will be managed by the Fish and Wildlife
Service as an addition to the refuge, and livestock will be
removed. In exchange, the BLM will assume management of Shirk
Ranch, an isolated refuge outpost, which will continue to be
grazed. "You could never have gotten the county or the ranchers to
talk to you about this three years ago," Cole
From his current post as manager of the
National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Barry Reiswig looks back
on his confrontation with the Oregon ranchers with some
"I hated to get
into an adverse situation with the folks there, but you really
don't need cows to manage the Great Basin desert, especially on a
national wildlife refuge," he says. "We had to break that old
system in which the livestock industry dominated the management of
The cows are gone. The desert
is blooming. The birds are returning, though the antelope
population is crashing (see story above). Two wildlife refuges
finally have a chance to allow wildness to work itself out. If we
allow ourselves to ask the right questions, we might just learn
what it all means.
Durbin writes in Portland, Oregon.