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Hart Mountain Refuge manager likes wide open spaces

Brian Allen at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is distant from population, relatively little visited with far more pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, mule deer and other wildlife than people. Except for refuge headquarters, there are few signs of development on its rugged, expansive landscape.

For Brian Allen, that’s perfect.

“I’ve had an affinity for working in remote, rural landscapes,” explains Allen, who fulfilled a long-held desire when he took over as the refuge manager last October. “The vastness of open space and the lack of people is something that is attractive to me. The most profound feeling that I’ve had is I made a really good decision to be here.”

Allen, 59, lives at the small refuge headquarters complex, nearly 65 miles from Lakeview and 25 miles from the tiny community of Plush. Hart Mountain is a place he visited 20 years ago and, as he tells, “It immediately landed on my wish list of places to live and work.”

In the months since arriving at Hart Mountain, Allen has explored many of the hidden nooks and crannies at the refuge and adjacent lands. Along with the open spaces, he quickly became impressed with the wildlife, including pronghorn antelope that frequent the area near park headquarters.

Overseeing and implementing programs designed to protect and enhance wildlife are part of the goal at Hart Mountain, which spans 278,000 acres and was established as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge in 1936 as a preserve for then declining populations of pronghorn. In recent years, however, concerns have built over the sharp declines in California bighorn sheep. Current estimates put their numbers at 48 in 2020, down from the 149 counted in 2017.

Working with the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a short- and long-range management Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan announced last December is ready for implementation. According to FWS studies, the declines stem from “high cougar predation and declining habitat quality.” In coordination with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other groups, the short-term goal is to kill cougars in bighorn habitat to allow bighorn populations to recover while the long-term goal is improving bighorn range lands by expanding and enhancing habitat.

“Our goal,” Allen says, “is to save the populations of bighorn sheep on the refuge.”

Another issue involves making improvements to the Post Meadows Campground and close the Guano Creek Campground. Although the Hot Springs Campground, which is near a wall-enclosed hot springs and receives by far the most use, Post Meadows and Guano Creek are lesser used. Plans call for installing a vault toilet, repairing existing horse corrals, and expanding and designating campsites at Post Meadows. The Guano Creek Campground, which is close to Guano Creek, is one of the refuge’s few riparian areas.

“It’s something we see it as necessary to repair that riparian habitat,” he says.

Allen and refuge staff also are continuing efforts to improve the visitor experience. Because of limited staff and the distance from cities, the refuge relies on help from volunteers to staff the much improved visitor center and to assist with, for example, annual sage grouse lek counts. Efforts are mostly coordinated with The Friends of Hart Mountain, who normally spend nights at a refuge complex dorm, along with other groups.

Volunteers are also helping to restore a historic Civilian Conservation Corps building, which is being developed into an interpretive center, at the Camp Hart Mountain Campground.

While the refuge’s main attraction is soaking in the 8-by-10-foot rock-enclosed hot spring, Allen has been taking advantage of hiking — “I prefer cross county” — to places like Warner Mountain, the Barnhardi Cabin, Petroglyph Lake, DeGarmo Canyon and Notch, and overlooks that peer down to the Warner Wetlands. He and most visitors also enjoy viewing and taking photos of some of the more than the refuge’s 300-plus wildlife species.

During his years with F&WS as a temporary and, for the past 24 years as a permanent employee, Allen has worked at such refuges as Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals, San Francisco Bay, Mid-Columbia River, Fish Springs in Utah and, before coming to Hart Mountain, Benton Lake in Montana as a wildlife biologist and manager.

Now, after being smitten by Hart Mountain 20 years ago, he’s at a place he terms “a good place to round things out.”

Hart Mountain and its surrounding high desert environment is something he believes must be experienced.

“You can look at a map, but you can’t experience or appreciate the vastness of the landscape until you stand there and look at it. It just jumps out. It’s a very majestic landscape.”

For information about the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge visit its website at www.fws.gov/refuge/Hart_Mountain.