More about the Northern Basin and Range ecoregion
The Northern Basin and Range ecoregion is sagebrush country. It is Oregon’s slice of the Old West, with rich ranching and farming traditions.
The Northern Basin and Range ecoregion covers the southeastern portion of the state, from Burns south to the Nevada border and from Christmas Valley east to Idaho. The name describes the landscape: numerous flat basins separated by isolated mountain ranges. Several important mountains are fault blocks, with gradual slopes on one side and steep basalt rims and cliffs on the other side. The Owyhee Uplands consists of a broad plateau cut by deep river canyons. Elevations range from 2,070 feet near the Snake River to more than 9,700 feet on Steens Mountain. In the rain shadow of the Cascades Mountains, the Basin and Range is Oregon’s driest ecoregion and marked by extreme ranges of daily and seasonal temperatures. Much of the ecoregion receives less than 15 inches of precipitation per year, although mountain peaks receive higher amounts, 30-40 inches per year. The extreme southeastern corner of the state has desert-like conditions, with an annual precipitation of only 8-12 inches. Runoff from precipitation and mountain snowpack often flows into low, flat playas where it forms seasonal shallow lakes and marshes. Most of these basins contained large deep lakes during the late Pleistocene, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. As these lakes, which don’t drain to the ocean, dried through evaporation, they left salt and mineral deposits that formed alkali flats. They are extremely important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds due to the rich source of invertebrate prey.
Sagebrush communities dominate the landscape. Due to the limited availability of water, sagebrush is usually widely spaced and associated with an understory of forbs and perennial bunchgrasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue. Isolated mountain ranges have few forests or woodlands, with rare white fir stands in Steens Mountain and Hart Mountain. However, aspen and mountain mahogany are more widespread. For example, the Trout Creeks, Steens Mountain, Pueblo Mountains, Oregon Canyon Mountain, and Mahogany Mountains are excellent sites for finding both mahogany and aspen. In the southern portion of the ecoregion, there are vast areas of desert shrubland, called salt-desert scrub, dominated by spiny, salt tolerant shrubs. Throughout the ecoregion, soils are typically rocky and thin, low in organic matter, and high in minerals.
The Basin and Range is sparsely inhabited, but the local communities have vibrant cultural traditions. The largest community is Ontario with more than 11,000 people. Other communities include Nyssa, Vale, Burns and Lakeview, with 2,400 to 3,100 people each. Land ownership is mostly federal primarily administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Livestock and agriculture are the foundations of the regional economy. Food processing is important in Malheur County. Recreation is a seasonal component of local economies, particularly Harney County. Hunting is particularly important, but wildlife viewing, white-water rafting, and camping are popular. Historically, lumber processing and harvesting from the nearby Blue Mountains was an economic basis of some local communities, particularly for Burns. However, these industries have declined with lower harvests from neighboring federal forests.