Because of the wealth of natural resources found in Grant County, agriculture, ranching, and timber industries naturally grew with and contributed to the development of the county. In the early days, sheep formed a large part of the agricultural base and the area boasted some of the largest sheep bands in the world, supplying a great volume of wool to, among others, the world-renown Pendleton Wool Works in Pendleton. Cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers were often at odds and physical confrontations were not uncommon. By the 1920 and 1930s, however, cattle ranching became—and continues to be—the dominant sector of the agricultural industry. Crop farming, dairy production and orchards operated on small scales during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but declined during World War II due to changing market and labor pressures. The commercial timber industry in Grant County grew rapidly in the 1920s, and again during and after World War II. Livestock raising and timber harvesting remain important sectors of Grant County’s economy, although the production and profitability of these industries has declined in recent years due mainly to political and expanding-market factors. Two wood-fired co-gen electric plants have been built in the county, one of which continues to operate in Prairie City.
Due mainly to federal land management policies and global market pressures affecting timber and agricultural production and extraction, the county has experienced the second highest unemployment rate in Oregon for more than 30 years. The county has experienced some growth in recreational activities (including hunting) and tourism, as well as cottage industry, but residents have struggled to develop new productive industries and to diversify their economy. Slightly more that a quarter of the county’s workforce is employed by some level of government or public services.
Approximately 63% of the land area of the county is controlled by the Federal Government, most of which is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Grant County contains most of the Malheur National Forest and sections of the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Ochoco National Forests, and has more than of federally-designated Wilderness Areas.
Grant County contains the headwaters of the John Day River, which has more miles of Wild and Scenic River designation than any other river in the United States.
The elevation of the county varies from 1,820 on the John Day River near Kimberly, to at the summit of Strawberry Mountain. The terrain of the county varies from grassland steppes and rangelands in relatively open or rolling hills and valleys, to steep, rugged, rocky high-alpine landscapes. Between these, the county contains heavily timbered land, many rolling hills, canyons and mountainous terrain. Portions of the county are technically high desert, dominated by sagebrush and sparse grasses.
Grant County includes the southern part of the Blue Mountains. One unique characteristic of the typical forestland of the area is the relatively low density of underbrush. Travelers and emigrants of the 1800s remarked that the absences of underbrush, and the wide spacing of the trees, made it possible to drive a wagon and team of horses virtually anywhere the grade would permit. The forested land of the county vary from sparse stands of Western Juniper in more arid, open, or rocky ground, to Sub-Alpine and High-Alpine fir stands in the highest terrain. Other forested areas (mainly above in elevation) are marked by stands of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, White Fir, Western Larch (a deciduous conifer commonly called “Tamarack”), Lodgepole Pine, Spruce stands in some higher elevation sites and a few stands of White Pine, as well as Cottonwood trees along some rivers and streams, and Birch and Quaking Aspen groves, mainly at higher elevations. There is also a rare and isolated stand of Alaskan Yellow Cedar in the Aldrich Mountains. Other flora includes a wide variety of native grasses and wildflowers, huckleberries, wild strawberries, elderberries, several types of edible mushrooms and Oregon Grape, the state plant. Non-native Russian Cheatgrass is also prevalent in many areas of the county.
Grant County is also home to what may be one of the largest living organism in the world, a giant fungus of the species Armillaria ostoyae that lives within the Malheur National Forest. It was found to span 8.9 km² (2,200 acres). Its total mass has been estimated to be between 8,500 and 10,500 tons.
The physical terrain one encounters today is far different than in prehistoric times. Fossil records show that, in the Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, much of the county was an ancient seabed. After emerging, the absence of the Cascade Mountains allowed the region to experience a relatively wet temperate climate. Ancient Tertiary rivers flowed through the area on courses that would be impossible today. During the Cenozoic Era, volcanic activity and extensive lava flows in the region dramatically changed the landscape. The John Day Fault (one of the only major faults in North America to run east-west) runs along the southern edge of the John Day Valley, caused an uplift, forming the Strawberry and Aldrich mountain ranges and the northern boundary of the Great Basin. Relatively recently in geological terms, during the last Ice age and shortly thereafter, large lakes were present in southeastern Oregon. Continual glaciers were still clinging to mountains in the area in the late 1800s, and one small glacier on Strawberry Mountain often remains year-round.
The geology of Grant County is rich, including one of the largest fossil concentrations in North America: The John Day Fossil Beds, which the U.S. Congress designated as a National Monument in 1974. Valuable metals, including gold, silver, platinum group elements, chrome, copper and cobalt, are found in the region. It was this mineral wealth, and the development of gold mines in particular, that spurred the permanent settlement of the area. Large zones of serpentine, a very ancient metamorphic rock (among the oldest on earth), dating from the early Mesozoic (Triassic) Era, are found in numerous locations. Strawberry Mountain (an extinct volcano), the Granite peaks and boulders of the Elkhorn Mountains, and numerous rim rocks, lava flows and Basalt outcrops are evidence of the historic volcanic activity in the region. Hydrothermal resources are still present, with a number of hot and warm springs.
The remnants of ferns, semi-tropical and temperate deciduous forests, shellfish, saber-toothed tigers, extinct horse and camel species, and giant sloth, among other extinct species found in the John Day Fossil Beds, are a reminder that the flora and fauna of the region has changed significantly over the millennia. While deer, elk, pronghorn, cougar, bear and upland game bird populations thrive today, some of these animals were remarkably scarce 200 years ago. Explorers and trappers traveling through the region in the early 1800s remarked on the scarcity of game animals and their ability (or inability, as he case were) to find food.
Native fish in the region include several trout species; warm water fish such as Bass and Perch are found in the lower John Day River; and migratory Salmon and Steelhead are found in the county seasonally. While Salmon and Steelhead returns to the John Day Basin experienced a sharp decline during the past 50 years, mainly due to the construction of large dams on the Columbia River, the major watercourses of John Day Basin remain free of physical obstructions, and the numbers of returning Salmon and Steelhead have improved in recent years, marking some of the best fish runs recorded in the past half-century. Most of Grant County is drained by the four forks of the John Day River, all of which have their headwaters in the county. The John Day River system drains some . It is the third longest free-flowing river in the “lower 48” and has more miles of federal “Wild and Scenic River” designation than any other river in the United States. The river system in Grant County includes the upper of the Main Stem, all of the of the North Fork, all of the Middle Fork, and all of the South Fork of the John Day River. From Grant County, the lower John Day River flows another to its confluence with the Columbia River. The southeastern corner of the county includes the headwaters of the Malheur and Little Malheur rivers, which find their way to the Snake River. The southern part of Grant County includes the northern-most reaches of the Great Basin, including the Silvies River watershed, which flows south into Harney Lake in the High Desert of Eastern Oregon. A small area in the southwestern corner of Grant County is in the Crooked River and Des Chutes River watersheds.
Grant County is an arid to temperate region, with average annual precipitation ranging from near Picture Gorge, to over in the Strawberry Mountains. Annual precipitation in the valleys averages between 12 and , while the uplands or highlands of the county average between 16 and . Grant County averages between 40 and 60 days each year that see more than of precipitation. A great deal of the county’s precipitation comes in the form of winter snow in the mountains. This snow pack is vital to recharge aquifers, resulting in spring run-off, and in-stream flows of water throughout the year.
Average temperatures in the county range from the warmest community, Monument, with average daily highs/lows of 90°/50 °F in July and 42°/22 °F in January; to the coolest community, Seneca, with average daily highs/lows of 80°/38 °F in July and 33°/8 °F in January. Extreme temperatures in the county show 30-year highs/lows of: 103°/-37 °F at Austin; 112°/-23 °F at John Day; 108°/-25 °F at Long Creek; 112°/-26 °F at Monument; and 100°/-48 °F at Seneca.
Grant County enjoys a great deal of sunshine, with an estimated 200 days of clear sunny or mostly sunny days, or an estimated 300 days of clear sunny, mostly sunny, or partly sunny days each year. The county experiences an estimated 65 days of overcast skies, with about 165 days of partly to mostly cloudy days annually.
As of the census of 2000, there were 7,935 people, 3,246 households, and 2,233 families residing in the county. The population density was 2 people per square mile (1/km²). There were 4,004 housing units at an average density of 1 per square mile (0/km²). The racial makeup of the county was 95.69% White, 0.10% Black or African American, 1.60% Native American, 0.19% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 0.68% from other races, and 1.70% from two or more races. 2.05% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 17.5% were of English, 17.1% German, 14.3% American and 9.0% Irish ancestry according to Census 2000.
There were 3,246 households out of which 30.10% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.90% were married couples living together, 7.90% had a female householder with no husband present, and 31.20% were non-families. 27.10% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.39 and the average family size was 2.89.
In the county, the population was spread out with 25.80% under the age of 18, 5.60% from 18 to 24, 24.00% from 25 to 44, 27.90% from 45 to 64, and 16.80% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42 years. For every 100 females there were 99.30 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 97.10 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $32,560, and the median income for a family was $37,159. Males had a median income of $31,843 versus $22,253 for females. The per capita income for the county was $16,794. About 11.20% of families and 13.70% of the population were below the poverty line, including 16.60% of those under age 18 and 10.20% of those age 65 or over.
While the over all numbers indicate that Grant County’s population remained close to the same between 1990 and 2000, a closer examination of the demographics of the county show that, generally: all residents aged 10 years; a larger percentage of the population was middle aged, or older; young adults (18-30) made up a sharply smaller percentage of the population; and fewer school aged children resided in Grant County in 2000, as compared to 1990 (public school enrollment between 1993 and 2003 declined by about 22%). This can be attributed to a general trend of working families moving out of the area and older or retired people moving into the area.
2000 U.S. Census statistics for Grant County show that the total workforce for Grant County was 3,800, or 62% of the total population over age 16. These people were employed as follows:
56.9% private wage/salaried positions; 14.7% private self-employed (not incorporated business); 0.8% private unpaid family workers; 27.6% public employees (municipal, county, state, federal governments);
By industry: 20.6% education, health, social services; 17.3% agriculture, forestry, mining; 10.0% manufacturing; 9.8% retail trade; 7.6% arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodations, and food; 6.9% public administration; 6.5% construction; 5.9% other services; 5.1% transportation, warehousing, utilities; 4.1% professional, administrative, and waste management; 3.1% finance, insurance, real estate, leasing; 1.7% information; 1.5% wholesale trade;
After gold was discovered in 1862 on Whiskey Flat, it has been estimated that within ten days 1,000 miners were camped along Canyon Creek. This increased population created a need for county government. Grant County’s government operates in accordance with the Oregon Constitution which was ratified by the People of Oregon in November 1857, and the revised Statutes of Oregon. It employs the old-western county government system: the County Court, with a County Judge and two Commissioners. While the County Court no longer exercises much judicial authority, it serves as the executive branch of county government. There are no parishes or villages in Grant County, and while the term “town” is often used locally to describe one of the incorporated cities, surveyed townships have nothing to do with political divisions or organization in Oregon.
The third man to serve as County Judge of Grant County was Cincinnatus Hiner “Joaquin” Miller (1837-1913), the noted poet, playwright, and western naturalist, called the "Poet of the Sierras" and the "Byron of the Rockies.”
The county seat is Canyon City, which served as the chief community of the county for many years. In 1864, when the county was organized, Canyon City is said to have boasted the largest population of any community in Oregon. Mining and ranching, along with timber and then the service and public works that followed, brought people into the area and communities grew around the natural centers of industry and agriculture. Since the 1930s, the city of John Day has served as the main economic center of the county, and boasts the largest population.