John Day Fossil Beds: A Study (Preliminary)
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The single most important feature that attracts notice to the area—especially for scientific research—is the presence of a great number of flora and fauna fossils found in the John Day geologic formation. The fossils have been exposed by the down-cutting erosive action of the John Day River and by geologic folding and faulting.

The river flows westerly to the vicinity of the existing Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park. At that point, it abruptly turns northward and follows that direction to its confluence with the Columbia 15 miles upstream from the city of The Dalles, Oregon. The sources of the John Day are in the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, to the south and east of the study area. Some 8,500 square miles are drained by the John Day; the upstream half comprises the area of investigation by the study team. The river varies in elevation from 800 feet above sea level at its mouth to 9,000 feet in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area of the Malheur National Forest. At its lower elevations, the basin receives but a minimum amount of rainfall and is semi-arid, supporting a sagebrush type of vegetation; the higher elevations, with more abundant rainfall, are covered with ponderosa pine, mostly within the national forests.


The population of Oregon, according to 1960 census figures, was 1,769,000; it is now an estimated 2 million. Predictions for the 1975 population are 2,415,000. The 1960 population of Wheeler County was 2,722, with a 1975 prediction of 1,520. Grant County in 1960 was 7,726 and is estimated at 7,180 in 1975. Thus, while population trends indicate a slow but steady growth for the State as a whole, predictions for the two counties anticipate a continuing decrease over the same period of time. Canyon City, the county seat of Grant County and situated about 40 miles east of the Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park, has a population of 654. It was a "gold rush" town in the 1860's and the county government was established there at that time. Fossil, with a population of 672, is the county seat of Wheeler County, 65 miles north and west of the main unit of the State park. The town of John Day, population 1,520, is on U.S. Highway 26 and 40 miles east of the State park. Mitchell, with a population of 240, is 30 miles to the west while Prineville, population 3,650, is 80 miles to the west and outside the John Day basin. Both towns are on U.S. 26.


North-south U.S. Highway 395 and east-west U.S. Highway 26 are the two major travel arteries through the area. Other roads are State highways.

The majority of Oregon's population is in the western one-third of the State and the major highways serve that population. On the coast, U.S. Highway 101 carries a great number of vacationers to the coastal recreation areas. U.S. 5 and 99 are the north-south routes on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and pass through Eugene and Portland. U.S. Highway 97 is the north-south route on the east side of the Cascades through Klamath Falls and Bend. Route 395, the only other north-south road in Oregon, crosses the town of John Day and the study area. This highway comes from the south along the California-Nevada border and Reno and continues north through Pendleton, Oregon and the Spokane, Washington vicinity. U.S. Highway 95 cuts across the south-west corner of Oregon from California north into Idaho. The greatest portion of north-south traffic uses the highways to the west; U.S. 395 through the study area has very little through traffic, since most north-south Idaho traffic uses U.S. 95. Portions of 395 are snowbound in winter and the sections in California are closed to traffic for long periods of time, thus decreasing the popularity of travel on this road.

East-west traffic from the direction of Boise, Idaho uses U.S. 30 through Pendleton along the Columbia River Valley to Portland. This highway is being constructed to Federal Interstate Highway standards and redesignated I-80-N. Seventy miles south of the study area, U.S. Highway 20 goes through Burns from Boise, Idaho, to Bend. Faster through-traffic is attracted to this route in preference to U.S. 26 through the study area because it is straighter and flatter. The latter highway is a more scenic drive and is not conducive to high-speed travel.

State Highway Department traffic flow surveys show a daily vehicle count of 500 coming from any distance beyond the study area. Of this count, 10 percent was out-of-State, but obviously not all of these were vacationers or potential visitors. The number of "in-State" vehicles that carried vacationers or tourists is not delineated on the survey maps.

Other access is almost non-existent. There is no immediate rail service; Pendleton's rail depot is 3 hours by car from the area. Regularly scheduled air travel stops at Pendleton. There is a landing strip at the town of John Day used by small private planes; no commercial airlines land at this strip, although it appears to be large enough to accommodate twin-engined commercial aircraft. The airport also provides a rental automobile to flyers for ground transportation to town and return, but has no rental automobiles for the general public. There is no water access to the area. A Pacific Trailways bus makes one daily trip east and west through the area, but arrival times are before sunrise and quite inconvenient for getting accommodations. The study area is definitely geared to auto and truck travel.


Half of the land in the study area is federally owned and administered either by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. The State of Oregon and the local city and county governments own about 1 percent of the area. The remaining 49 percent is in private ownership. Lands in the Upper John Day Basin are evenly divided between forested and non-forested lands. More than 90 percent of the non-forested area is range land. The remainder is oriented toward stock support crops. The crops are winter feed and summer grazing for cattle, horses, and sheep. There is a considerable lumber industry operating out of the national forests. Other industries are of a very minor nature and primarily support the stock or lumbering enterprises.

The most promising individual sites investigated by the team are administered by the State Parks and Recreation Division, a branch of the State Highway Department. Most of this land is now in State ownership and was acquired from the Federal government through the Bureau of Land Management, which still administers much land in the vicinity.


The climate of the study area varies greatly between seasons, with a marked seasonal variation between the higher and lower elevations. Generally, the summer season is comparatively mild. Throughout the river valley the average summer temperature will range between 55° and 67° F., with occasional periods of short duration between 90° to 110° F. Summers are dry with an average monthly rainfall of .51 inches from July through September. Generally the spring seasons are quite cold and wet with warm, drying weather not prevalent until late May or early June. Fall is extremely pleasant with warm sunny days and crisp cool nights.

In the forests surrounding the valleys, cooler summer temperatures are prevalent. The average temperature in the higher elevations is between 45° and 55° F. and occasionally above 100° F. Hot days are less frequent at this elevation than in the lower basins. Like the valley areas, summer precipitation is sparse with only a small amount of rainfall during afternoon thunderstorms. Climatic conditions during the spring and fall are similar to those of the valley areas.

The cooler temperatures prevalent in the higher forested areas provide excellent relief for the warmer adjacent valley areas.


Because of the elevation and climatic differences of the study area, there is a distinct variation in the vegetative cover. Four vegetative life zones occur in the area:

1. Upper Sonoran: This zone includes the valley areas along the John Day River and its tributaries. It is characterized by vegetative associations of bunchgrass, rabbit brush, sagebrush, and chess or "cheat" grass with scattered juniper trees and cottonwood thickets.

2. Transition: The majority of the forest lands within the study unit are in this zone, which is characterized by associations of ponderosa pine, natural grassland, sagebrush, and bitterbrush.

3. Canadian: This zone covers the broad higher parts of the mountains of the area, The associations include grass- and shrub-covered open ridge tops within the steep slopes and canyon bottoms thickly forested with Douglas-fir, western larch, true fir and lodgepole pine.

4. Hudsonian: This zone exists but is very limited in the study area as it is only found around the highest peaks. It is characterized by associations of white bark pine and dwarf cedar, which occurs near timberline.


Animal, bird, and fish life will probably continue to be one of the primary resources in the area, Mule deer and elk are abundant and deer are now the primary big game species. Black bears are native inhabitants of the general area. Predators find ample food supply in the large rabbit and rodent population. Bird life of all kinds is abundant, with many different species of game bird in evidence. Common among the game birds of the area are the California quail, Chikar partridge, and dove. Less common but plentiful are the ring-necked pheasant, Hungarian partridge, mountain quail, wild turkey and several species of grouse. The water fowl population in the area is cyclic and limited during periods of migration by a shortage of flyway water, caused by the extremely cold temperatures prevalent throughout winter months.

The John Day River and its tributaries are important producers of salmon and steelhead. These two species of game fish are plentiful and several species of trout also are found in the streams and lakes of the area.

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Last Updated: 07-May-2007