Setting Aside Land For Wildlife

William Finley photo of American White Pelicans on Malheur Lake in 1908

This is historic ground for the bird man. In the early seventies the well-known ornithologist, the late Captain Charles Bendire, was stationed at Camp Harney on the southern slope of the Blue Mountains, straight across the valley from where we stood. He gave us the first account of the bird-life in this region. He saw the wonderful sights of the nesting multitudes. He told of the colonies of white herons [great egrets] that lived in the willows along the lower Silvies River. ~ William Finley, Trail of the Plume-Hunter

In the late 1880’s, plume hunters were decimating North American bird populations in the name of fashion. The hunters were collecting breeding feathers for the hat industry, where the latest fad included wearing part or all of a bird on ladies hats. Shorebirds and colonial nesting birds suffered the most as hunters targeted large flocks, injuring birds indiscriminately and orphaning chicks. In an era when an ounce of breeding feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold, it’s not surprising that plume hunters sought to make a fortune by hunting birds on Malheur Lake.

On a trip to Harney County in 1908 to photograph nesting white herons (later renamed great egrets) on Malheur Lake wildlife photographers William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman learned that most of the white herons had been killed in 1898 by plume hunters. After ten years the white heron population still had not recovered.

In a 1910 Atlantic Monthly article entitled “The Trail of the Plume-Hunter”, William Finley provides a vivid description of their time on Malheur Lake:

1908 - Our longing to visit the Malheur country had at last been gratified...Here we were standing on the high head-land looking out over the land of our quest. Here spread at our feet was a domain for wild fowl unsurpassed in the United States.

The following day we found the biggest colony of gulls and white pelicans I have ever seen. It was the sight of a lifetime. As we approached, out came a small delegation to meet us. When we got up to the colony, the whole city turned out in our honor. I have seen big bird-colonies before, but never one like this. I was so excited I tripped over one of the oars, and fell overboard with three plate-holders [photographic plates for a large format camera] in my hand.

After hunting for seven days we returned to camp for more provisions, and set out to visit another part of the lake. This time we stayed out for nine days, and saw – two white herons! At the time we thought these must be part of a group that nested somewhere about the lake; yet more likely they were a single stray bird that came our way twice. I am satisfied that of the thousands of white herons formerly nesting on Malheur, not a single pair of birds is left.

Outraged by their observations, they presented the situation to fellow members of the Oregon Audubon Society. Facing similar circumstances at Klamath Marsh, the Society pushed for designation of both areas as wildlife refuges. As President of the Society, Finley approached President Theodore Roosevelt with the proposal. Already familiar with Finley and Bohlman because of their involvement in the establishment of Three Arch Rocks Refuge in 1907 on the Oregon Coast, Roosevelt was amenable to Finley’s proposal.

The Lake Malheur Reservation was established on August 18, 1908 by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt set aside unclaimed government lands encompassed by Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The newly established “Lake Malheur Reservation” was the 19th of 51 wildlife refuges created by Roosevelt during his tenure as president. At the time, Malheur was the third refuge in Oregon and one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi.