Blue Mountains (Pacific Northwest)
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Baker City, Oregon with the Blue Mountains in the background, seen from the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center observatory
|Peak||Rock Creek Butte Oregon|
|Elevation||9,106 ft (2,776 m)|
|Area||4,060 sq mi (10,500 km2)|
The Blue Mountains are a mountain range in the western United States, located largely in northeastern Oregon and stretching into southeastern Washington. The range has an area of 4,060 square miles (10,500 km2), stretching east and southeast of Pendleton, Oregon, to the Snake River along the Oregon-Idaho border. The Blue Mountains cover eight counties in Oregon and Washington; they are Union, Umatilla, Grant, Baker, and Wallowa counties in Oregon, and Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield counties in Washington. They are home to the world's largest organism and fungal mycelial mat, the Armillaria ostoyae. The Blue Mountains were so named due to the color of the mountains when seen from a distance.
Geologically, the range is a part of the larger rugged Columbia River Plateau, located in the dry area of Oregon and Washington east of the Cascade Range. The highest peak in the range is Rock Creek Butte in Baker County, Oregon at 9,106 feet (2,776 m), on Elkhorn Ridge.
Other ranges in the Blue Mountains physiographic section include the Wallowa Mountains (the highest peak is Sacajewea at 9,843 feet (3,000 m)), the Elkhorn Mountains (the highest peak is Rock Creek Butte at 9,106 feet (2,776 m)), and the Strawberry Mountains (the highest peak is Strawberry Mountain at 9,042 feet (2,756 m)).
Habitation by Native Americans
The river valleys and lower levels of the range were occupied by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Historic tribes of the region included the Walla Walla, Cayuse people and Umatilla, now acting together as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, located mostly in Umatilla County, Oregon. The southern portion of the Blue Mountains were inhabited by several different bands of the Northern Paiute, a Great Basin culture. Native American tribes originally migrated to the Blue Mountains for hunting and salmon runs. The Natives used to purposefully burn small parts of the forest in order to create pastures to attract game for hunting.
During westward expansion of the United States
In the mid-1800s, the Blue Mountains were a formidable obstacle to settlers traveling on the Oregon Trail and were often the last mountain range American pioneers had to cross before either reaching southeast Washington near Walla Walla or passing down the Columbia River Gorge to the end of the Oregon Trail in the Willamette Valley near Oregon City.
The range is currently traversed by Interstate 84, which crosses the crest of the range at a 4,193 feet (1,278 m) summit, from south-southeast to north-northwest between La Grande and Pendleton. The community of Baker City is located along the south-eastern flank of the range. U.S. Route 26 crosses the southern portion of the range, traversing the Blue Mountain Summit and reaching an elevation of 5,098 feet (1,554 m).
It is also crossed by the Union Pacific Railroad's mainline between Portland, Oregon and Pocatello, Idaho, which crests the summit at Kamela, Oregon. The summit lies on Union Pacific's La Grande Subdivision, which runs between La Grande and Hinkle, the latter of which is the site of a major UP yard.
The Washington Blue Mountains, in 1989, regulated elk hunting with a spike-only general hunting season. This was in response to a decline in the elk population creating a heavy female biased population. By the mid 1990s the area then became known for its mature males and trophy hunting. During winter months elk will prefer to use "moderately steep south slopes" rather than northern slopes because of the southern slopes being warmer and containing less snow.
The public lands in the Blue Mountains are managed not only by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, but also by land owners and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Farmers, ranchers and the tribes have historically worked together to manage the lands they share, or which are abutting each other, since before the United States Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management were created. Now that the agencies have become increasingly stringent and punitive in their management practices, the industries of farming, ranching, and logging have reduced significantly. More and more, corporations who can afford all the licensing, permits, and regulations are buying the few family properties that are remaining.
Much of the range is included in the Malheur National Forest, Umatilla National Forest, and Wallowa–Whitman National Forest. Several wilderness areas encompass remote parts of the range, including the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, the North Fork John Day Wilderness, the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, and the Monument Rock Wilderness, all of which are in Oregon. The Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness sits astride the Oregon–Washington border.
The range is drained by several rivers, including the Grande Ronde and Tucannon, tributaries of the Snake, as well as the forks of the John Day, Umatilla and Walla Walla rivers, tributaries of the Columbia. The southernmost portion of the Blue Mountains is drained by the Silvies River, in the endorheic Harney Basin.
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