Habitat Piles in Action: Central Washington Project Studies Wildlife Behavior

Habitat piles like this one provide benefits to numerous species. (Photo by Ken Bevis/DNR)

By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Food, water, cover — the three core needs for wildlife to survive and succeed on any given home range.

In forest management we seldom attempt to address food, assuming that our wildlife will be able to exist with the plants or prey species that naturally occur. Water is sometimes provided with streams, puddles or ponds, but also is usually not directly addressed for wildlife. Both of these factors are usually adequate on most forest lands for wildlife to exist.

Cover, however, is sometimes a limiting factor. Particularly in scenarios where fuel reduction is an objective. It is also something easily addressed by providing hiding places for wildlife to rest and reproduce. But what type of structures makes good cover? Examples include: Hollow logs or trees; dense shrubs and shrub clumps; clumps in tree crowns, such as mistletoe brooms; down wood; concentrations of down wood and branches; and piles of forestry generated materials

Let’s look at piles.

I like to say there are three basic kinds of piles:

  1. Slash piles – unconsolidated debris from logging or land clearing, with big chunks, stumps and dirt all jumble together, often in huge piles and burned in winter.
  2. Brush piles – generally small diameter branches and pieces of discarded vegetation, tossed randomly into a pile with intention of disposal via chipping, burning or simple decomposition.
  3. Habitat piles – material deliberately arranged to optimize habitat availability for local wildlife, and positioned on the land with intention of retention for wildlife long term.

So what is a habitat pile?

Simply stated, habitat piles consist of big material crisscrossed or carefully arranged on the lower levels forming a core that provides cavities and openings, with smaller material piled on the top to form a roof.

Sometimes dens are created inside of piles too. Imagine what sort of a cave would be the right size for a rabbit, bobcat, coyote, raccoon or porcupine. Lay the base layer of logs in such a way to create a cavern in the middle. Perhaps dig a hole to help them get started before lying the wood. Put a solid layer of smaller diameter pieces over the cavity as a roof. Layer with small branches, but leave an outside entrance, maybe somewhat hidden. It can be surprising what will use these den sites.

Logs can be piled in linear arrangements to provide hiding places for snakes and small mammals, fully in contact with the soil. Others are arranged on top of these lowest levels to create overhead cover.

Small animals, including mammals such as deer mice; reptiles, such as fence lizards; and amphibians, such as salamanders, can greatly benefit from strategically placed piles.

Tyler Larsen has been working with habitat piles on a private forest near Cle Elum for the past three years. They were included deliberately in a fuels reduction project sponsored by DNR and coordinated by the venerable forestry consultant, Phil Hess.

There are lots of anecdotal accounts of wildlife using piles, but we asked how this use could be systematically documented. Tyler and his team (including his colleague and friend, Adam Hess) are working on a research project, using trail cameras pointed at constructed Habitat Piles to document use. It is an experimental design created with the help of retired U.S. Forest Service scientist, Dr. Peter Singleton. The research uses paired sets of cameras; one set of cameras on a habitat pile, another in a parallel location, not on a pile. The results have been remarkable, showing high wildlife use of these structures. Species using these piles include ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, a flying squirrel, snakes, many birds including juncos and white crowned sparrows, deer, and many others.  Larsen and Hess are working on a research publication to describe the results of this work.

Incorporating habitat piles into fuels reduction projects, and in thinnings or other activities generating woody material, can provide habitat complexity to support wildlife in nearly any setting.

I sent him a set of questions in preparation for this article. Larsen offered these thoughts on his habitat pile project. Thanks to Tyler for his good work. Stay tuned for the research results.

Send me good photos of your habitat piles!

A marmot is caught on a trail camera taking advantage of a habitat pile. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Larsen)

Habitat Pile Thoughts

Tyler Larsen, forest health scientist, central Washington

What are some design elements of your piles?

When I design a pile, I try to integrate as much complexity as I can. I have a feeling for which animals in our area use our piles the most, so I try to accommodate them. Having a variety of opening and chamber sizes will allow a greater diversity of species to benefit from the pile. I try to overcome my human desire for neatness and symmetry and make a complex and haphazard – but structurally sound – pile.

Habitat piles can be constructed with a specific species in mind. We have multiple populations of breeding frogs and salamanders with little cover around their ponds. So, with the advice of a biologist who has had success with this, we created piles to benefit amphibians. We did this by burying habitat piles about three feet underground, then building another pile on top of them, making sure to leave underground access points. Being underground will help with moisture retention throughout the year and hopefully help reduce temperature extremes.

Like most habitat piles, they begin with a base of logs cut to a manageable length. I’ll toss these into a pile, letting them fall where they may, while making sure they don’t roll away or collapse. I like to make piles at least six feet across and three to four feet high. A crucial element of the pile is a layer of slash on top. This will better insulate the pile, providing better thermal cover, while also sheltering the animals from predators and the elements. Smaller branches sticking up from the top provide perches for birds. I also like to incorporate snags or large shrubs within the pile to add structure and complexity.

The most important element in creating habitat piles in my opinion is placement, but I’ll get to that later.

What wildlife species have you observed using your piles?

Using our cameras, we have observed at least 20 species using our piles. The main users are small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels, mice, marmots, and skunks. We have observed a variety of birds perching on the piles such as: western tanagers, American kestrels, white-crowned sparrows, Townsend’s solitaires, spotted towhees and hairy woodpeckers. Another common occupant is the western fence lizard, we regularly see them basking on the logs within the piles.

Other animals use piles in ways that I hadn’t thought of before. Larger mammals can take advantage of the protection of the piles. We see that deer and elk bed down next to them. Whether they provide a wind break, or just a sense of security, deer seem to like them. They also promote shrub growth within and in the shade of the piles, which we have observed deer taking advantage of.

What suggestions can you make to landowners for the most effective habitat piles?

Building habitat piles is more of an art than a science. There are no set rules, and even a few logs on the ground can provide habitat value for some species. Be creative and make piles that you think look good and seem like they would be a good place for a critter to hide. Think about the species in your forest and what their sizes are. Small animals like to be in spaces that they can fit into, but their predators cannot. Also, give them some time. It can take a while for animals to colonize new habitat features, and eventually they will carve out a space for themselves.

How long have you been an advocate for habitat piles?

As an undergraduate I studied snake ecology. One of the best ways to find snakes is to look under cover — natural and artificial. I would flip over logs, rocks, and boards to increase the chances of finding snakes. I also observed many other types of animals using this cover, such as  insects, rodents, lizards and more. This taught me the importance of cover for small animals and showed me that there is an entire community of semi-fossorial organisms — which are adapted to living partly underground — that you can find by looking under logs and rocks. Natural and artificial cover creates the interface connecting fossorial and terrestrial species, helping to reinforce those connections in the food web. Modern forest thinning can leave very little cover in the form of downed wood on the forest floor. Forest landowner goals revolving around fire mitigation tend to encourage more open space and less fuel left in the forest. This can result in a deficit of cover for animals, which are an important factor in forest health. We are in an age of biodiversity loss and mass extinction. Anything that can be done to promote wildlife habitat, especially in lower trophic species, is a worthwhile endeavor. Habitat piles and wildlife trees are probably the best ways to do that in forest ecosystems.

Do you have any suggestions on pile placement?

You don’t want your piles to become ladder fuels in case of a fire. If a fire were to burn through the forest, the burning piles will produce high flame lengths and can torch nearby trees. Because of this I think it is best to place piles at least 30 feet away from any tree that could torch and cause a crown fire. If a tree is isolated and wouldn’t ignite a neighboring tree, then this is less important.

The proximity to other types of cover or habitat features is crucial. Some of our piles, while well-constructed, were not used because they were so isolated and had no other cover nearby. Now, if we place piles in a large opening, we will build several in the area so the critters can move from pile to pile without being exposed for too long. After seeing how deer use the habitat piles, we have placed them near rows of large shrubs, hoping deer can take advantage of the wind protection and security.

Graphic by Ken Bevis

Northwestern Washington, Meet Your Newest WSU Extension Forester

me and chainsaw in olive
WSU Extension Forester Molly Darr with a chainsaw. (Photo by Dave Schuetrum)

MDarr HeadshotBy Molly Darr, Washington State University Extension Forester, molly.darr@wsu.edu

My name is Molly Darr, and I’m thrilled to be Washington State University’s newest extension forester. I will be serving Whatcom, Clallam, Kitsap and Jefferson counties, while maintaining a statewide program within the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

I am excited to be part of such a productive and engaging team and can’t wait to meet my future colleagues and collaborators here in the PNW. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and introduce yourself!

I specialize in forest and tree health, with a concentration in applied forest entomology, ecology, and pest and disease diagnostics. Before taking this position, I served as director of the Southern Forest Health and Invasive Species Program at Clemson University, which provided forest and tree health information for landowners and professionals throughout the southeastern United States. This program educated the public through remote and in-person programming and provided timely electronic resources pertaining to the identification and management of invasive and native insects, plants and fungi that impact forest and tree health. I also hosted a Southern Regional Extension Forestry webinar series that invited experts to discuss identification, biology, and management of forest health issues in the southeastern US.

I’m originally from a small town in rural Virginia, where my brother and I would entertain ourselves building forts in the woods and catching crawdads in the creek behind our house. I went to Virginia Tech for an undergraduate degree in wildlife science, and later returned to pursue my doctorate in forest entomology. My PhD research investigated the predatory lady beetle Scymnus coniferarum as a potential biological control agent of the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid in the eastern U.S. to determine the viability of this predator as a biological control agent and the risks associated with its potential release. After graduation, my husband and I moved to Wenatchee were I worked as a tree fruit entomologist and provided expertise in entomology, pathology, and tree health and management in an orchard setting.

While at Clemson, I co-founded the South Carolina chapter of Women Owning Woodlands, a national education network that engages and trains women to be successful land managers. This organization works with historically underserved landowners, promotes sustainable use of land to provide increased economic benefit, and works toward the ultimate goal of making forestland management more accessible and equitable. I loved this part of my job, the amazing people I met, and how rewarding and invigorating the collaborative process was. Therefore, one of my first objectives in my new position here at WSU is to build new relationships and create programming to reinvigorate the Women Owning Woodlands chapter here in Washington.

I believe a successful WSU Extension program starts with conducting a needs assessment to determine important stakeholder issues. Needs assessments cannot be established without trust, and trust is established amongst community members when they feel their ideas, challenges and feedback are being heard. My extension program will use various forms of communication, including social media, webinars, popular and peer-reviewed publications, in-person visits, and workshops, to help educate stakeholders about forest health, invasive species, and forest management in Washington. I look forward to developing these key relationships with my colleagues and community members in the PNW region and am so grateful for the opportunity to serve in such a unique and beautiful environment.

Making Some Extra Change at the Valhalla Tree Farm

Offering camping can help bring in additional income to a tree farm. (Photo courtesy Dave Ingebright)

By Dave Ingebright, Valhalla Tree Farm

Last May, I was opening my daily bundle of email and out of the stack jumped this one from a Pacific Northwest film location scout. This guy — Dave Drummond — was interested in coming out to our 100-acre woodlot to see if our place fit his director’s vision as a location for filming a primitive campsite.

They were looking for a wooded spot by a beaver pond or a lake and some other woodland scenes, plus they wanted to buy a tree to cut down. A film was in the works and somehow this guy had found us, and of course I was interested. As a private forest owner, I’m always looking for ways to cut expenses while our forest grows. There were several visits by the director, the photography gurus, and other producers, and they were delighted by the place! One thing led to another and we negotiated a two-week contract to acquire the back acreage of our tree farm for a film shoot. They wanted 24/7 access and would have on-site night security. Later I found out that the state-run office, Washington Filmworks offers advice and incentives to film companies and assists location owners.

We had a blast watching some scenes being filmed, took some photos and then were shooed away as the filmmakers got down to business. I am sure my dad, Earl Ingebright would have been pleased to see the place become immortalized on film. He’d been managing the timber on this old wooded homestead in his spare time since he’d bought it as a family getaway in 1958. Earl added to it over the years and eventually he’d accumulated a little over 100 acres of second growth Fir, Cedar, and Hemlock. Like most of Snohomish County, the land had been steam logged around the turn of the century. I’d grown up hiking and fishing the property and always had a special connection to the land.

Coming back into it in the 1980s, I had a tech degree, service in the Coast Guard, and a growing career under my belt. Earl was retired by then and always had an interest in forestry.  Father and son decided to work together to manage the timber as a renewable resource and have some fun along the way. Earl joined the local farm forestry groups and used the WSU extension services and used their assistance to make sure we were doing things right. We hired a consulting forester and worked with him to build a 30-year management plan. We successfully executed harvests and replanted in different parcels in 1986, 2008, 2018, and 2022. It wasn’t easy and we made some mistakes, but the fruits of our labors were visible. The place grew trees really well.

One of our visions, along with being stewards of the land, was to teach and lead by example successful private northwest forest management. The stunning 1,000-foot vertical cliff backdrop, the healthy salmon creek and beaver ponds and the various stands of trees were real eyecatchers and almost too good for us to lock the gate and savor for ourselves.
Our first foray was to contact the local scout troops. Hearing some enthusiasm, we built a couple of primitive campsites along with pit toilets and worked to improve the trails. We had some success with visits from troops of both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but for some reason, they just sort of faded away after a few years of visits.

We decided to build a web presence. If for no other reason than to post some pictures of the mountain behind us, our bulldozer, a nice tree and shots of the beaver pond shimmering in the afternoon sun. I would recommend a webpage because you need to stay relevant even if you are not advertising anything. This is how the location scout found us and it’s always fun to have your website name on your business card. The cost is low even if you have someone do it for you — probably $50 per year. I like photography and designing things and most of the software is easy to use.

Then we heard about an online marketplace company called Hipcamp that offered outdoor stays and camping experiences via a website and a mobile app. We looked into it and found that private landowners list campsites, RV spaces, and cabins for users to discover and book based on listing type, location, landscape, activities offered, and amenities.

We were already well set up to give it a try. There were good roads behind our automatic gates and gate video tied to a recorder. Once we got going, it was pretty easy. Looking back over the past two years, we’ve had good success with a couple of campsites. It pays for a bit of the brush control, new gravel and maybe a weekly dinner out. Since we live on the property, we have some visibility of who comes and goes.  The overall experience has been excellent with good interactions and now repeat visitors. During the extremely dry fire season we blocked out the campsites using the online dashboard so they were not visible to be booked.

I never thought I’d be playing park ranger, checking TP and picking up garbage cans but it really hasn’t taken a lot of effort. Pit toilets with a sack of lime, a couple of picnic tables and fire circles. Later I got to thinking about what I’d want in a NW campsite and had the idea to build a couple of simple wood crafted 10×10 open shelters. These helped increase traffic. The Hipcamp web process is simple and the earnings show up in my PayPal account every Tuesday.
I communicate with the camper via the website, note the number of campers, and maybe run the name on the internet. We correspond via the app and I follow-up the contact with an email and entry instructions. I add cautions and warnings, a know-before-you-go sheet and a roads and trails map. More often than not, I do not contact the campers after they arrive. They come and they go, respect the place and contact me if there are any questions.

So, I guess this is one way to do it in the 2020s: Watch your trees grow, have some respectful campers, a nice dinner out and maybe a movie production on your woodlot!

The Best Time to Plant a Tree: Make a Plan Before You Make a Purchase

Tree planting
When planting species such as cedar in a deer-prone area, you may want to take precautions. (Photo by Ken Bevis/DNR)

By Kelsey Ketcheson, DNR service forestry coordinator, Kelsey.ketcheson@dnr.wa.gov

You’ve probably heard the quote, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ve heard that this is an old proverb, and I’m not one to argue with ancient wisdom. It’s true that planting season is now, at least in Western Washington. And plant sales are happening, tempting you to fill a shopping cart. You may be eager to buy some trees and get started, but it might be wise to first take some time to think through your project. A planting plan will help you buy smart and set you up for long-term success.

Here are a few things to consider before purchasing trees:

Define Your Objective

Why do you want to plant trees? Do you want to grow a stand for harvest? Do you want to improve wildlife habitat or increase species diversity? If you have an existing forest management plan, consulting it can help you determine where a planting project would fit in.

Defining the objective of your project will help you make decisions about which species to buy and how many trees you’ll need. If your objective is to harvest, perhaps you should choose one or two high value timber species and follow a standard 10’ x 10’ or 12’ x 12’ spacing. However, if you want to provide wildlife habitat, you might want to purchase a wider variety of species and consider a different planting density. Defining your objective will help ensure that you make smart decisions with your money now and are happy later on.

Understand Your Site

Understanding species tolerances and preferences is important, but you also need to know what your site will support. Learning about your soils is good place to start. Using the Web Soil Survey, you can look up your soil types as well as applications for planting. For instance, you can find information on how deep your soil is and how well it holds water.

Your observations can help with species selection and post-planting care. If you’ve noticed areas with root rot, then maybe think about choosing resistant species. What type of wildlife have you seen around, and how might they impact newly planted seedlings?  For example, if you have deer in your area and want to plant cedar, think about ways to deter them from snacking on your seedlings. Have you noticed any weedy species lurking, waiting to overtake small trees? Think about how you will deal with brush once the trees are in the ground.

Do Some Research on Seedlings

Besides species selection, stock type (seedling age and size) and seed source are important factors in growing healthy trees. Nurseries grow a variety of stock types, each with advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost and care. It may be best to first consult with a forester on site-specific recommendations. At the very least, talk to the nursery specialists about how to best care for the types of seedlings you’re buying.

Additionally, it’s important to know if a seedling’s seed source is appropriate for your area as trees will do best where they have adapted to grow. Washington has designated Tree Seed Transfer Zones, which split a tree species’ native range into smaller areas. Within these areas, the trees are genetically similar. You can read more about Tree Seed Transfer Zones and find the appropriate zone for your area by species. Ask nurseries about where they source their seeds to make sure what you’re buying is appropriate for your area.

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations for a successful planting project. DNR’s Webster nursery has a brochure that includes information on everything from seedling care to proper planting technique.

While planting trees is always a good use of time, thinking about what makes sense for your land before you plant will ensure that you make the most of your time and money.

Knowledge is Key to Wildfire Resilience and Safety

Defensible Space (ENG)

By Marc Titus, Community Resilience Coordinator, DNR, marc.titus@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire is a fact of life for all Washingtonians. A once beneficial natural occurrence upon the landscape since time immemorial, fire is now a cause of concern for all of us in the Evergreen State.

From the impacts of smoke from far-away fires on individual health to the potential devastation of entire neighborhoods directly in its path, wildfire has made its way into the conversation in many ways.  We are now seeing a synergy of resources aligning toward creating resilience to the effects of wildfire in our Washington communities that is rooted in the scientific understanding. Homes can survive a wildfire given proper ignition-resistant microsite conditions surrounding and/or immediately adjacent to structures in the path of a fire.

As a small forest landowner, recreation property owner, or someone with trees that meet their eaves, information on reducing your structural ignitability and creating an ignition-resistant landscape on your property is becoming more ubiquitous with every fire season that passes.  From the Washington Department of Natural Resources partnering with fire districts, conservation districts, and other local entities to promote Wildfire Ready Neighbors and Firewise USA®, to the research and work the Institute of Business and Home Safety has made available, you have numerous options available to inform yourself and prepare your structures for the inevitable.

But, you have to play your part and take action; do the research, become informed, choose activities you can accomplish and prepare your home and property so that it is ready for the upcoming wildfire season.  Use this handy online tool to Find Your Forester and discuss with them additional preparedness actions such as creating a forest management plan that accounts for wildfire on your property.

However, we don’t want to lose sight of the forest through the trees as it were, and preparing your property is only one part of the solution.  Another critical component of living with wildfire is evacuation planning or being prepared for a wildfire event when you are not at home.  If you have taken the steps referred to above that reduces your structure’s vulnerability to embers during a wildfire event—reducing structural-ignitability—it is time to consider what you will do when you need to evacuate.

Evacuation is handled by local offices of emergency management and law enforcement.  Be sure to contact your local emergency management office to sign up for the local methods of communicating during emergencies. Evacuation orders are given in the interest of life safety, are not to be taken lightly and can happen at a moment’s notice in the case of fast moving wildfires.  If you are told to evacuate now, it is in your best interest to follow the instructions and leave immediately, following the described evacuation routes.  Most Washington communities use a system based on the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Ready, Set, Go Program where there are three levels of evacuation notification.  Remember, your situational awareness, preparedness, and ability to remain calm during a crisis is predicated on your level of understanding before the emergency.

Evacuation Levels and Actions Taken

  • Ready: Be Ready (Level 1).  Prepare your property long before the wildfire occurs.  Know what emergency supplies and belongings you will need if you are asked to evacuate, get them assembled ahead of time and know where they are at all times for fast loading.  Know your escape routes and ensure all family members know what to do and where to meet in the event of a wildfire.
  • Set: Be Alert (Level 2).  Stay informed, follow local news and relevant social media channels.  Assemble a go bag that includes food, water, medications, first aid, pet supplies, important documents, phone/device chargers and or battery support, and anything else you may need if you had to spend several days away from home.  Consider keeping a pre-assembled Go Bag in your vehicle at all times.
  • Go: Act Early (Level 3).  By leaving early, you ensure there is adequate time to get out; you also help firefighting efforts by keeping roads clear and you may avoid the challenges of a large evacuation effort.  If you are told to go or that evacuation level 3 has been reached, leave immediately.

Being prepared for wildfire in Washington is a year-round experience. While you may be reading this in the comfort of your home on a low wildfire risk day cozied up to a heater or fireplace, your efforts now can be leveraged toward future wildfire risk.  Take this time for introspection and research, evaluate your past actions and assess your current situation; create a new or updated plan based on the information in this article and your research, then you will be prepared to take action when spring comes, the snow clears or the rain stops.

You can be ready, your home can survive a wildfire, and your actions can make that fateful day the fire comes over the hill a little bit easier for all involved. Even basic efforts like raking leaves or cleaning gutters can harden your home to wildfire risk.

More information