Posted by: atowhee | October 25, 2021


By late summer this year,  the level of Malheur Lake reached its lowest point of the year. Earlier I had written it was lowest since 1930s. Now I have a description from Rick Vetter who was refuge biologist for some time: “Malheur lake was dry in 1992 and I killed all the carp in the lake and display pond that year and a few years ago it was dry again and all the carp in the lake were killed.”

Official records at the wildlife refuge indicate there was still some standing water in the lakebed every year in the 90s and this century. In other words, we’ve been here before. The carp can survive in streams or even in mud and they have returned and persisted in Malheur Lake and associated waters.

This past summer was hot with two months of daytime highs at 90 degrees or above. The area did not get the 110-degree toppers as we did here in western Oregon, just consistent heat. It was also windy, speeding evaporation. At its lowest Malheur Lake’s surface covered less than 1800 acres. That was September 8th.  Some September storms and early Steen snow brought run-off to raise the lake level modestly since then.  Today a refuge spokesperson said the lake could be back over 3000 acres now.  It would still be quite shallow.
An Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (DOA) water report in 1984* said Malheur Lake had an average annual minimum surface area of 25,000 acres, an average annual maximum of 45,000 acres.  So 2021 saw Malheur drop well below 10% of the surface area once considered the average annual minimum.  Even now it’s at about 12% of that ordinary annual low.  These are no longer ordinary times.  One wet year will not be enough to reverse the drought trend.

When Malheur Lake fills and flows beneath The Narrows (which it did NOT this spring), the overflow creates Mud Lake and, then higher still, it enters Harney Lake bed  Those two “lakes” have been prairie in recent summers. That same DOA report (1984) said, “During extremely dry years, such as 1889, 1924, 1934 and 1977, these lakes have been virtually dry.”  How about baked prairie pasture replete with cows, like now?

Today I spoke with Dr. Teresa Wickes, Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator for Portland Audubon Society.  She lives in Harney County and monitoring the birds there is part of her job.  The drought had effects on birds that may breed at Malheur.  Most Sandhill Crane couples had given up any attempt at nesting by May.  No colts were confirmed to have been born and raised there this year.  There were no confirmed young White Pelicans either, and most potential nest sites would have been easily reached by coyotes because there was not enough water to provide islands.  The same may have been true for Forster’s and Caspian Terns that need islands safe from four-footed predators to breed successfully.  Black Terns did seem to have some breeding success.  They will nest on plant-clogged marshes, e.g. cattail thickets for example.  Franklin’s Gulls may have nested in one suitable location this past summer.  It was not one of the gulls’ usual nesting colonies.  Same for White-faced Ibis—they adapted and did some nesting in a new location.  Many fewer juveniles were seen than in a more normal season.

There was no attempted nesting by Trumpeter Swans.  As recently as a decade ago I could count on seeing swan families in more than one place at Malheur.

Shorebirds: curlew seemed to do fine.  Willets seemed to give up on nesting and large flocks formed early in the summer, as with cranes.  The nesting owl species seemed to have a hard season as well and fewer Long-eared Owl nests were found than usual.  Some water is flowing into Malheur Lake now—long may it continue.

*This report was written during a period of annual flooding, 1982-6.

Here is photi Christopher Fisher sent me from a Road Scholar trip to Malheur in September, 2018. We got to manmade pelican island by air boat. Today a person could walk there.

September, 2018, north end of Boat Launchh Road at Malheur Lake.

Above is image I took in early May of crane trying to nest in temp[orarily flooded field alogn Sodhouse Road. It wouldn’t have been long before that nest was on open, dry ground. Below, the Narrows last spring, dry is dry, my granny always said:

This is where water would flow from Malheur into Mud Lake were there to be such a thing. Hwy 205 on the right.
Some happier moments last May:

Some finer Malheur moments, courtesy Albert Ryckman:


  1. Very sad. Is there no way to tap into irrigation water? Could Portland Audubon or the refuge itself buy water rights as has been done elsewhere?

    Kirby Flanagan 330-903-2578


    • I believe Harney is an area where further wells are prohibited and it might be very hard ti get a local rancher to sell water rights…last May the Silvies River wass already drained dry before entered Malheur Lake, and that was still spring!

  2. Thanks for a terrific article about Malheur – one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t look good for the nesting birds if the summer drought continues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: