John Scharff was the first on-site manager at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, arriving in 1935 and staying until he retired 34 years later at age 70. In his early days, Scharff faced the daunting challenge of managing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees at three camps while overseeing the refuge’s vast natural resources. In 1971, he received the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award. The John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival in Burns, OR, has carried his name for almost 30 years.


Scharff managed the construction of several reservoirs at Malheur Refuge to hold water for irrigation, reintroduced trumpeter swans from Red Rocks Lake in Montana, and battled the destructive invasion of non-native carp. He and his wife, Florence, lived in the building that is now the visitor center. Florence Scharff was responsible for the profusion of flowers at the refuge headquarters office. She also planted uncommon trees—horse chestnut, flowering crab and apricot—that now attract hundreds of songbirds and birders, according to Carla Burnside, archaeologist at Malheur Refuge. Burnside says that John Scharff was also known to have raised a large herd of cattle and a variety of orphaned animals, including pronghorn and cranes, on refuge land surrounding his home.


Before Scharff began his long career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he pioneered methods of fire control and game management with the U.S. Forest Service. He belonged to local, state and federal advisory boards for the Bureau of Land Management and the Harney County Stock Growers Association. He lectured frequently at Oregon State University and was the first to bring college students to the refuge for educational purposes.


In 1967, he co-authored Steens Mountain: In Oregon’s High Desert Country with Charles Conkling and E.R. Jackman. A reviewer wrote that the three men “were exposing a love affair they’ve had with the mountain for many years. The final chapter boasts that you can stand atop the 9,670-foot mountain and look into five states. But the meaning is clear that while you are up there and looking at the five states, you may also see all the way to the state of your soul.” Scharff owned land on Steens Mountain that he bequeathed to Oregon State University.