Blue Mountains

Lower Grande Ronde
The Lower Grande Ronde River in Oregon's Blue Mountains Ecoregion. Photo Credit: Keith Kohl, ODFW


At 23,984 square miles, the Blue Mountains ecoregion is the largest ecoregion in Oregon. Although named for its largest mountain range, the Blue Mountains ecoregion is a diverse complex of mountain ranges, valleys, and plateaus that extends beyond Oregon into the states of Idaho and Washington. This ecoregion contains deep rock-walled canyons, glacially-cut gorges, sagebrush steppe, juniper woodlands, mountain lakes, forests, and meadows. Broad alluvial-floored river valleys support ranches surrounded by irrigated hay meadows and wheat fields. The climate varies over broad temperature and precipitation ranges because of elevational differences. Overall, the ecoregion has short, dry summers and long, cold winters. Because much of the precipitation falls as snow, snow melt gives life to the rivers and irrigated areas.

Wood products and cattle production dominate the economy of the ecoregion, but dryland wheat and alfalfa are important in the river valleys. The ecoregion supports some of the finest big game hunting in the state and attracts tourists year-round, offering scenic lakes and rivers, geologic features, and alpine areas. It includes the Prineville-Bend-Redmond area, one of the fastest growing areas in the state, along with the cities of La Grande, Baker, Enterprise, and John Day.


Important Industries

Agriculture, livestock (e.g., beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, poultry, hogs), forest products, manufacturing, recreation (e.g., hunting, fishing, skiing, camping)

Major Crops

Wheat, alfalfa, potatoes, onions, sugar beets, carrots, field corn, mint

Important Nature-based Recreational Areas

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Hell’s Canyon National Recreational Area and Hell’s Canyon Wilderness, Wallowa Lake, Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, John Day and Grande Ronde Rivers, Lake Billy Chinook, Smith Rock, and wilderness areas (especially Eagle Cap, Strawberry Mountain, North Fork John Day, and Wenaha-Tucannon Wildernesses)


1,000 feet (Snake River) – 9,838 feet (Sacajawea Peak)

Important Rivers

Deschutes, Grande Ronde, Imnaha, John Day, Malheur, Powder, Silvies, Snake, Umatilla, Wallowa

Ecologically Outstanding Areas

Malheur headwaters, Bear Valley, and the Umatilla-Walla Walla headwaters

Conservation Issues and Priorities

While the Blue Mountains ecoregion contains some of the largest intact native grasslands in the state and several large areas managed for conservation values, habitats have been impacted by interrelated changes in ecological processes due to fire suppression, selective harvest practices, and unsustainable grazing. These changes have increased vulnerability of forests to insects, disease, and uncharacteristically severe wildfire. Similarly, these changes have led to increased invasive species and increased vulnerability to wildfire in sagebrush shrublands and steppe.

Habitat loss has been the most severe in lower elevation valley bottom habitats, such as riparian areas, wetlands, and shrublands, where native vegetation has been converted to agricultural uses. These low-elevation habitats are highly fragmented. Therefore, maintaining connectivity and corridors for wildlife is especially important in these areas. Increasing recreational pressure and invasive species can potentially impact all habitats in this ecoregion.

Key Conservation Issues (KCIs) of particular concern in the Blue Mountains ecoregion include Disruption of Disturbance Regimes (fire), Land Use Changes, Water Quality and Quantity, and Invasive Species. In addition to the statewide issues, uncontrolled off-highway recreational vehicle use and unregulated horse herds are of increasing concern in this ecoregion.

The Middle Fork John Day River in Oregon's Blue Mountain Ecoregion.
Photo Credit: USFS. The Middle Fork John Day River in Oregon’s Blue Mountains ecoregion.


Limiting Factors and Recommended Approaches

Limiting Factor:

Altered Fire Regimes

In ponderosa pine habitat types, fire suppression and past forest practices have resulted in young, dense mixed-species stands where open, park-like stands of ponderosa pine once dominated. Increasingly dominated by smaller Douglas-firs and true firs, the forests are at greater risk of severe wildfire, disease, and damage by insects. Dense understories and insect-killed trees make it difficult to reintroduce natural fire regimes because hazardous fuel levels increase the risk of stand-replacing fires. Efforts to reduce fire danger and improve forest health may help to restore habitats but require careful planning to provide sufficient habitat features that are important to wildlife (e.g., snags, downed logs, hiding cover). Similarly, wildfire reforestation efforts should be carefully planned to create stands with tree diversity, understory vegetation, and natural forest openings.

Recommended Approach

Use an integrated approach to forest health issues that considers historical conditions, wildlife conservation, natural fire intervals, and silvicultural techniques. Encourage forest management at a broad scale to address limiting factors. Implement fuel reduction projects to reduce the risk of forest-destroying wildfires, considering site-specific conditions and goals. Fuel reduction strategies need to consider the habitat structures that are important to wildlife, such as snags and downed logs, and make an effort to maintain them. Reintroduce fire where feasible; prioritize sites and applications. Carefully planned prescribed burns enhance quality of forage and cover for wintering deer and elk. Maintain important wildlife habitat features, such as snags and logs, at a level to sustain wood-dependent species. Monitor forest health initiatives, and use adaptive management techniques to ensure efforts are meeting habitat restoration and wildfire prevention objectives with minimal impacts on wildlife.

Limiting Factor:

Low-Elevation Sites Vulnerable

Although a large number of acres in this ecoregion are managed for wildlife and recreational values, these areas are primarily limited to higher mountain forests and alpine areas, or steep canyonlands. Lower elevation vegetation types, such as valley bottom grasslands, riparian areas, wetlands, and shrublands, are mostly on private lands. Most remnant low-elevation native habitats occur as fragmented patches with poor connectivity.

Recommended Approach

Because important low-elevation habitats are primarily privately-owned, working with private landowners and local governments on voluntary cooperative approaches to improve habitat is the key to long-term conservation using tools such as financial incentives, regulatory assurance agreements, and conservation easements. Where feasible, maintain and restore habitats using a landscape approach to increase connectivity between habitat patches.

The Zumwalt Prairie in the Blue Mountains Ecoregion.
Photo Credit: Martin Nugent, ODFW. The Zumwalt Prairie in the Blue Mountains ecoregion.

Limiting Factor:

Development and Increased Growth

The western portion of the Blue Mountains includes the Madras, Redmond, Prineville, and eastern Bend area, one of the fastest growing regions of the state. Rapid conversion to urban uses threatens habitats and traditional land uses such as agriculture. Impacts to mule deer winter range are of particular concern. Northeast Oregon is increasingly popular with vacationers, and habitat fragmentation due to rural development is a concern in some areas.

Recommended Approach

As in low-elevation habitats, cooperative approaches with private landowners are critical. Work with community leaders and agency partners to ensure planned, efficient growth. Support and implement existing land use regulations to preserve farmland and rangeland, open spaces, recreation areas, and natural habitats.


Limiting Factor:

Recreational Vehicle Use

Use by off-highway vehicles (OHVs) has increased dramatically in recent years. When limited and controlled, OHV use can be compatible with wildlife conservation. However, unlimited and uncontrolled use can impact riparian, aquatic, and other sensitive habitats, spread invasive plant seeds, increase fire danger, and affect wildlife behavior and distribution, especially during critical breeding and wintering periods. Also, use of forest roads can affect wildlife behavior and distribution, depending on road type and traffic levels.

Recommended Approach

Work cooperatively with land managers and OHV groups to direct use to maintained trails in low-impact areas and minimize growth of OHV use. Conduct research on effects of OHVs on wildlife behavior and populations (e.g., research conducted at Starkey Experimental Forest, U.S. Forest Service (USFS)). Support efforts to control OHV use on public lands, particularly in highly sensitive habitats, and restore damaged areas. For example, the USFS is looking into closing some non-priority forest roads. Encourage development and use of designated roads and trails, maintain hiding cover along open roads, and/or seasonally-close roads during sensitive periods, such as calving or wintering.

The Buckhorn Lookout in the Blue Mountains Ecoregion.
Photo Credit: Martin Nugent, ODFW. The Buckhorn Lookout in the Blue Mountains ecoregion.

Limiting Factor:

Water Distribution in Arid Areas and Wildlife Entrapment in Water Developments

In arid areas, water availability can limit animal distribution. Water developments established for cattle, deer, and elk can significantly benefit birds, bats, and small mammals. However, some types of these facilities, particularly water developments for livestock, can have unintentional hazards. These hazards include over-hanging wires that act as trip lines for bats, steep side walls that act as entrapments under low water conditions, or unstable perches that cause animals to fall into the water. If an escape ramp is not provided, small animals cannot escape and will drown.

Recommended Approach

Continue current efforts to provide water for wildlife in arid areas. Continue current design of big game and game bird “guzzlers” that accommodate a variety species, and retrofit older models where appropriate to make them compatible with newer design standards. Use and maintain escape devices on water developments where animals can become trapped. Remove obstacles that could be hazardous to wildlife from existing developments.

Water tank escape ramps help birds, bats, and other small wildlife to climb out and avoid drowning.
Photo Credit: NRCS. Water tank escape ramps help birds, bats, and other small wildlife to climb out and avoid drowning.

Limiting Factor:

Unregulated Horse Herds Disturb Wildlife and Compete for Water and Other Resources

Oregon’s herds of wild horses are a well-recognized feature on rangeland, but the herds require intensive management attention, including resource-intensive adoption and translocation programs allowed under the Wild Horse & Burro Act (BLM 1971). Unregulated horse herds negatively impact native vegetation, compete with wildlife for water and food, and disrupt habitat use by wildlife. Currently, this issue is limited to a small but important part of the Blue Mountains ecoregion in the Murderers Creek area.

Recommended Approach

Promote dialogue between wildlife managers, land owners, and land managers to develop management plans based on common priorities. Promote outreach to explain the issue to the public. Use opinion polling results to inform management decisions and help agencies balance multiple priorities.

Limiting Factor:

Invasive Species

Invasive plants and animals disrupt and degrade native communities, diminish populations of at-risk native species, and threaten the economic productivity of resource lands. Invasive plants, particularly noxious weeds, have been on the increase during the last 30 years. While not as disruptive, invasive animals have caused problems for native wildlife species and have become a nuisance and impacted people economically.

Recommended Approach

Emphasize prevention, risk assessment, early detection, and quick control to prevent new invasive species from becoming fully established. Use multiple site-appropriate tools (e.g., mechanical, chemical, biological) to control the most damaging invasive species. Prioritize efforts to focus on key invasive species in high priority areas, particularly where Strategy Habitats and Strategy Species occur. Cooperate with partners through habitat programs to reduce noxious weeds and other invasive species and to educate people about invasive species issues. Promote the use of native plants for restoration and revegetation. At some sites in sagebrush communities, it may be desirable to use “assisted succession” strategies, using low seed rates of non-invasive non-native plants in conjunction with native plant seeds as an intermediate step in rehabilitating disturbances.

Strategy Species

Conservation Opportunity Areas