A high view with wild flowers from the Minam River property near the Eagle Cap Wilderness, photo by David Jensen, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

ODFW announces public lands expansion

Minam River Wildlife Area acquisition complete, adding 15,573 acres in Oregon landscape-scale conservation  

MISSOULA, Mont. — The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Manulife Investment Management Timber and Agriculture Inc. (Manulife) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have announced what they are calling “a major conservation victory for elk, mule deer and other wildlife, fish, hunters, anglers, hikers and public access.”

The three organizations and other partners, including the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS), have completed a two-phase project that conserves and opens access to a combined 15,573 acres of wildlife and riparian habitat, now part of the Minam River Wildlife Area, in northeast Oregon. 

It is 30 miles from La Grande in Union and Wallowa Counties and accessible off Highway 82 and the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. A proposed trailhead near the highway will flow south through the project area and connect with the Eagle Cap Wilderness. 

Combined with the 361,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness and Minam State Recreation Area, it now forms a block of public land larger than Yellowstone National Park. The project also improves hunting and recreational access to 6,000 acres of USFS and Bureau of Land Management lands. 

“ODFW has pursued this property since the 1960s and finally, an opportunity came along to protect this large swath of diverse habitat that benefits so many fish and wildlife species,” said Curt Melcher, ODFW director. “This is an extremely significant acquisition that would not have been possible without the leadership and major funding from USDA Forest Legacy Program and RMEF, as well as a strong partnership with Manulife and additional funding from federal excise taxes on hunting equipment.” 

A 2021 report named the Minam River as the second-most ecologically important river in the state because of its water quality, recreational value and ability to support rare or at-risk species. The project area improves habitat connectivity and supplies critical winter range for up to 1,200 elk, serves as transitional and migration range for elk, mule deer and other species, and includes 114 miles of riparian habitat that benefits Snake River spring/summer run Chinook salmon (federal and state threatened), Snake River Basin Steelhead (federal threatened), Grande Ronde bull trout (federal threatened) and Pacific lamprey (state sensitive). In addition, ODFW and tribal co-managers documented coho salmon redds in the Minam River in 2021, after a 40-year absence. 

Oregonians and visitors to the state also gain permanent public access to an area of high recreational value that is planned to be open April 1-Nov. 30 annually (a closure Dec. 1-March 31 protects big game on their winter range). Recreation opportunities include hunting, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, horseback riding, kayaking and other activities.  

The collaborative partnership completed phase-one of the project in 2021. 

An on-site celebration is tentatively scheduled for June 20-22, 2024.