Renewed action in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands

Chukar hunting in the Owyhee Canyonlands.Photo by Sage Brown

Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands represent one of the largest conservation opportunities in the Lower 48.

The Owyhee is an integral part of the sagebrush steppe landscape that supports more than 350 species of fish and wildlife, including genetically pure, interior Redband trout. But it’s not immune to our ever-changing world.

Redband Trout. Photo by Matteo Moretti

The Owyhee has become an increasingly popular area for Oregonians and recreationists alike. Rafters, hunters, anglers, hikers, and OHV users visit the region to spend time along the river and explore the canyonlands. The landscape also supports multigenerational ranching families and has been home to Indigenous people since time immemorial.

The Owyhee faces threats from extractive industries such as lithium mining and is heavily impacted by the effects of climate change including drought. The question these stakeholders face is how to keep the Owyhees as they are for the next generation and those after that. Local community members, hunters, anglers, ranchers, conservationists, tribes, and local, state, and federal governments recognize these challenges and have spent the past decade debating how best to address them.

Oregon’s Owyhee River is a tributary of the Snake River. Photo by Sage Brown

Legislative Approach to Protections

In 2019, Senator Ron Wyden (OR-D) first introduced the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act – a bill that would designate the Owyhee as wilderness. Part of the legislative process included the founding of a “legislative table team” made up of tribes, local ranchers, environmental organizations, and hook and bullet groups, including Trout Unlimited. These stakeholders, along with Senator Wyden, worked together for over a year to develop a refined version of the Owyhee Act and in June of 2023 Senator Wyden reintroduced the legislation as Senate Bill 1890. This bill is supported by the entire legislative table team as well as the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition.

Trout Unlimited fully supports the Owyhee Act and believes that it would protect high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and respect existing uses of public lands. However, TU also recognizes that the legislation faces obstacles to passage in Congress. Even when strong local support exists, Congress can fail to pass legislation.

The Owyhee is a world-renowned brown trout tailwater fishery.

Another Means of Protection

If Congress is unable to act, there is another option for achieving our shared goals for this landscape. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President can provide an equivalent level of protection while accommodating existing uses. A national monument would provide a similar level of protection afforded under the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act, while also respecting the rights and privileges of all stakeholders.

Similar to the Owyhee legislative approach, a national monument designation must include a transparent public process. Trout Unlimited strongly supports the local communities of Malheur County along with the many other stakeholders involved. When created with the input of these groups, a national monument would be an effective tool for protecting the Owyhees and managing fish and wildlife habitat, while also maintaining traditional uses of the land, including grazing.  

Fishing the Lower Owyhee River

It is important to remember that only existing federal public lands can be considered for monument status. State and private lands cannot be considered, and those landowners’ rights would be upheld. To learn more about the benefits and misconceptions of national monuments to fishing, hunting and local economies, read our report here.

Action is Needed No Matter How It Happens

Trout Unlimited is about place, not politics. Legislation and executive branch action are both means to an end, and the end that Oregonians overwhelmingly support is protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands. Accordingly, we will work diligently with Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley, Representative Bentz, President Biden, and local stakeholders in support of both the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act, and, as an alternative, a national monument designation that will provide a similar level of protection. 

The rugged canyons of the Owyhee landscape. Photo by Sage Brown.

The Owyhee Canyonlands is a wild and special place. This landscape and its people are deserving of long-term solutions that uphold existing land uses and ensure future generations of sportsmen and sportswomen can enjoy all it has to offer. So, TU is asking Oregon’s elected officials to pass the Owyhee Act this Congress. If this isn’t possible, then we ask President Biden to designate the Owyhee as a national monument.

Follow along at for updates and to take action when the time comes.