Wildlife of the Owyhee Canyonlands

Five of our favorite animals that call the Owyhee Canyonlands home. Five more reasons to make sure this habitat is permanently protected.

Greg Burke | Used by permission

In addition to being one of the last places in the lower 48 where someone can still see the Milky Way on a clear night, and the 28 plant species that are found nowhere else in the world, the rugged canyons, sweeping sagebrush grasslands and rushing rivers that make up the 2.5 million acre landscape of the Owyhee Canyonlands provides habitat for more than 200 native species of wildlife. Here are some of my favorites:

Chad Mellison/USFWS | Public Domain

Columbia spotted frog

While these amphibians are not unique to the Owyhee Canyonlands, the Great Basin population range includes eastern Oregon, where spotted frogs live in spring seeps, streams, and areas where there is abundant vegetation. They often migrate short distances along the river’s edge between habitats used for breeding, foraging and hibernation. The species is currently a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with habitat loss, pollution, and disease noted as the largest known threats to these frogs.

Joe Helseth/USFWS | Public Domain

Redband trout

Commonly spotted swimming in the Owyhee river and streams throughout the canyonlands, Redband Trout — a subspecies of rainbow trout — are a hardy desert fish that have evolved to survive the warmer temperatures found in these clear alkaline waters. Although Redband Trout generally remain small, not growing more than 10 inches long, these fish are popular among anglers, with their great willingness to bite on a variety of fishing gear, their impressive fighting ability when hooked and their unique appearance, with a red lateral band and tints of yellow or orange along the belly.

Ann Froschauer/USFWS | Public Domain

Townsend’s big-eared bat

The Owyhees are home to 14 species of bats. While bats in other parts of the world feed on fruit, fish, nectar, or even blood, all Oregon bats keep insects at bay, with a single bat able to catch up to 600 insects every hour. And, like all bats, they play a significant role in pollination. Among the cutest of all bats in Oregon is the Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat. This gray, brown, or black, medium-sized bat has enormous inch-plus long ears. In Oregon, Townsend’s Big-Eared bat is classified as a sensitive species in the “critical” category — vulnerable due to loss and disturbance of roosting and foraging habitat — with its numbers declining sharply across its entire range.

Zachary McCoy/USFWS | Public Domain

California bighorn sheep

In 1965, biologists reintroduced 17 California bighorn sheep to the Owyhee, starting in Leslie Gulch. Now the entire Owyhee River drainage with its rugged, open habitat is home to the largest California bighorn sheep herd in the nation. While spotting a herd is still a rare treat for hikers through the canyonlands, for hunters, the highly sought after challenge is truly one-in-a-lifetime since a hunter can only draw the tag once. In the Owyhee Canyonlands, the steep and rugged mountainous terrain with plentiful vegetation provide the optimal habitat for this California bighorn sheep.

Devlin Holloway | Used by permission

Greater sage-grouse

The Owyhee Canyonlands is a stronghold for the Greater sage-grouse, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pinpointed the Owyhee Canyonlands as one of six areas in the nation critical to the bird’s survival. Every spring, these iconic birds begin a new mating season, where the males, well-known for their intricate plumage, characterized by a fan-shaped tail with elongated, pointed feathers and white puffed-up chests with chestnut-colored air sacs, dance to draw the attention of females. The species plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of its sagebrush habitat by foraging on sagebrush plants and promoting seed dispersal.

Providing habitat for more than 200 species should be reason enough to make sure that this critical landscape is permanently protected, but unfortunately, the threat of development at the Owyhees’ edges still looms, which is why we’re continuing our work to make sure that this amazing landscape and all of the animals that call it home, are protected for future generations.

If you’re familiar with the wildlife of the Owyhee Canyonlands and have a favorite species to highlight or one that you think should have been on this list, please let me know.

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Justin Boyles

Conservation Advocate, Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center

As the Conservation Advocate for Environment Oregon, Justin runs our campaign to Protect Owyhee Canyonlands. Justin has worked on campaigns to protect the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, clean up superfund sites along the Willamette River and promote solar energy in Oregon. In recent years, he was part of the Public Interest Network's Creative and Editorial team where he developed campaign logos and materials connected to dozens of campaigns, turned deep-dive research into digestible interactive features for our websites, and created myriad tools for campaigns to help win real results for the environment and the public interest. Justin lives in Portland with his wife and children where they regularly explore the diversity that Oregon's environment has to offer: From the coast to the high desert and the many amazing rivers, lakes, forests and mountains in between.

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