The bull elk stalks through the forest, holding his enormous antlers back so he doesn’t tangle in the brush. The tiny warbler flits through the canopy, seldom letting us have a good look. The woodpecker chisels for food and cavities in dead wood. Small mammals creep along under the edge of down logs. Cougar and bobcat slink around the forest edges.
Wildlife captures our imagination, filling the forest with life, but can be difficult to observe directly. Yet, we can discover some of what wildlife use our lands through keen observation.
Keep a Record
I encourage small forest landowners to keep some kind of record of what sort of wildlife they observe and encounter on their property.
It could be as simple as a journal entry with species, specific location, behavior and numbers, all written in a notebook or hard bound book. Some keep an electronic record on their computer or mobile phone. Any method is good, because it gives you a chance to compare notes from year to year, while reminding us all to try to become experts on the kinds of wildlife using our property.
Look for “Sign”
Sign is an old word and expression referring to physical things telling us about our environment.
Many animals will leave behind sign, telling us of their presence and their lives.
Droppings (poop or scat) are a sign that can usually be identified to species. We often find some poop along our walks, and sometimes wonder what it is and what it can tell us. Note the shape, location, freshness. Don’t touch too much (wash afterwards), but pull it apart and see what is in it.
A good reference for thinking about scat is the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at www.icwdm.org.
Once on the website you’ll find several questions whose answers can help to narrow the possibilities for what sort of scat you’ve observed. These questions include:
White in the droppings? This is from a bird, or even a reptile
Size: Length? Width? Consider the expected size of the anus of the animal it came from.
Shape: Is it like a pellet? Tubular? What are the ends shaped like?
Where did you find it? Under a tree? On the trail?
Are there pieces of bone or hair? Seeds or fruit pits?
Where are you? What kind of habitat is it? What are the possible animals?
Use these clues to figure it out. Become familiar with the different forms of deer poop, and what bear or coyote scat looks like.
Deer and elk leave tracks (and rubbed small trees in the fall). Moose have big feet and distinctive tracks. Bear and cougar are very different.
It’s more difficult to find tracks of smaller animals but it can be done. Tracks are often distinctive, but need to be put down in the right substrate. Mud along roadside puddles is perfect medium for track impressions. Walking with a landowner east of Colville, we found the print of a lone wolf in a muddy puddle on a remote forest road. Location, shape and size tell us it was wolf. The landowner’s big golden retriever was along and the dog’s track was only two-thirds the size of this one.
Light snow on a hard surface also is a great way to find tracks. We all remember the day when the snow was just right and we could suddenly see what animals had passed by. Dusty roads can work too. Ever see insect tracks in the dust?
Sometimes bones or feathers we find can give us clues. Think about the body structure of an animal. Hard and white larger bones are mammal. Bird bones are delicate, and even the largest birds (eagles, ravens, or geese) have relatively small bones compared to a raccoon or snowshoe hare. These fine bones degrade quickly in the outdoors. Reptile bones are rarely found, and never amphibian bones. All animals share the same basic anatomy, and a great exercise is trying to reconstruct the body of the creature from the small clue of a bone, or collection of bones. Call it CSI wildlife.
Another important clue is the setting. Did the animal die from predation? Was it scavenged? How many pieces did you find and how old are they?
Individual feathers are usually molted, or shed, in the normal course of the bird replacing its resplendent covering. Try to figure out the species by color, pattern and size. Which part of the bird did it come from? A pile of feathers, often on a log, can indicate a kill by a hawk, usually an accipiter like a Cooper’s, sharp-shinned or goshawk. They will pluck breast feathers, and some tail feathers, and either eat the rest right there, or carry the carcass to a favored feeding spot.
Rarely do we find whole dead animals because the forces of scavenging and rot are so formidable.
Recently, however, I did find a dead shrew-mole (an unusual mammal) on a forest road near Mt. Rainier. It was still floppy, and I do not know why the animal was dead. But it did give open up a teachable moment, and I learned about Neurotrichus gibbsii, and this amazing little critter’s lifestyle.
Song and Call
In the springtime, territorial songs and calls of birds will reveal species and defended territories, but it takes a trained ear to differentiate between the subtle calls. There are several good apps now that link song to bird species. Go out early in the day with someone who is good at “birding by ear,” and you will be amazed at what is out there.
Mammals don’t vocalize very much. Coyotes call often in the late spring and summer when pups are exploring. Elk bugle in September and October. Deer sometimes bleat. But in general, hearing a mammal is uncommon.
Beavers are the only critter to chew through large tree stems. Deer and elk rub saplings leaving bald areas on the tree’s lower trunk. Woodpeckers leave distinctive holes in trees for feeding and nesting. Bears can strip the cambium off of small diameter saplings in wet forests. Tree sign is among the best because it lasts a long time!
Wildlife is elusive but not invisible if we are alert to all of the ways of detecting and understanding the amazing animals we share our forest with. Open your senses to the little pieces of evidence all around us as we walk in the woods!
Send me your wildlife photos, pictures of sign and stories so I can share them when teaching our Coached Planning classes this year. And consider signing up for a Coached Planning course when one is help near you, or take part in our online version of the course this winter.
By Ken Bevis, stewardship wildlife biologist, Washington Department of Natural Resources, firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you do some outdoor burning this winter and spring? If so, please read on because outdoor burning is the leading cause of wildfire in northeast Washington state.
You may be wondering, how does a burn pile become a wildfire? One of the leading reasons is “failure to extinguish” the pile.
Did you know that a pile burned in January can start a wildfire in July? People are often surprised that a pile they burned during the winter and then saw covered by three feet of snow, followed by four inches of rain and produced no visible smoke for six months can still start a fire in summer. It is true and this is how it happens:
The conscientious landowner burns the pile when fire danger is low and outdoor burning is allowed. The pile burns down but some of the material may be mixed in the dirt beneath the ash. Due to the scarcity of oxygen at the bottom of the pile, this material may continue to burn but very, very slowly. It can burn so slowly that no smoke is seen, and the heat produced is so minute that it does not melt any snow that falls on the top of the pile. When you feel the top of the ground with the back of your hand you’ll likely feel only cold ash. But, when summer arrives and the weather warms up, a piece of that slow burning wood near an outer edge of the pile may become exposed to air. The result could be a small flame. If that flame touches nearby dry grass or other dry vegetation, you have the next wildfire.
I have worked on numerous wildfires over the years that started from a pile that the landowner said was “out” and was sure had been out for months. Many times I have walked up a burn pile that looks like it is completely out. I may see no smoke and feel no heat when I touch the ground, but when I put my shovel into the pile and dig into the ash I might find burning material six inches, or maybe even a foot, below the pile’s surface.
What can you do to help ensure your burn pile is fully extinguished?
Use a shovel to dig down into the pile. Dig in several spots in each pile you burned.
Feel the ash with the back of your hand (not your palm). We use the back of our hand because it is more sensitive to heat and, of course, we do not want to get a painful burn on our fingers or palms. If the ash you’ve uncovered feels warm at all, dig deeper to find out where the heat is coming from.
Remember a fire is out only after you dig into it with a shovel and feel no heat in what you dig up. Always dig completely through the ash layer into the dirt below to be sure you’ve haven’t missed anything.
By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, email@example.com
Although it is difficult not to think of fire from a destructive point of view, it is in fact a natural process of renewal, and a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Some plant species are actually adapted to fire. For instance, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) have serotinous cones (seeds are released in response to an environmental trigger such as fire). These seeds are retained in the tree canopy for long periods until a fire burns through the stand, releasing thousands of seeds as the resin seal enclosing the cones melts. This feature allows lodgepole pine to reproduce prolifically following a fire.
The Pacific Northwest includes many types of vegetation and fire regimes, from frequent surface fires to infrequent high severity fires.
High severity fire regimes are generally located in cool, wet environments at higher elevations where subalpine forests are located. These forests typically consist of subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and whitebark pine. Fire intervals can range greatly (100-300 years), and typically destroy entire stands.
Moderate severity fire regimes tend to occur at mid-elevation zones where dry Douglas-fir forests persist. Other tree species found within this zone include grand fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, western red cedar, western hemlock and western larch. Moderate severity fires occur at intervals of 25 to 100 years and leave a mosaic of lightly burnt to severely burned areas.
Low severity fire regimes are characterized by fires that occur at frequent intervals (1-25 years). Because fuels have a limited time to accumulate in these areas, returning fires tend to be of low intensity. Ponderosa pine forests are indicative of the low severity fire regime.
Historically, the Pacific Northwest was subject to fires of a variety of frequencies, intensities and extents. How do we know what the historic fire regimes were? Some information comes from human sources such as records of explorers or from land surveyors as they were establishing section corners. Some information comes from the forested ecosystem itself, such as the presence of charcoal layers in the soil and the even-aged character of some forests. Trees themselves record history through the growth rings that develop each year. When a fire burns through an area, the growth rings may be scarred. A fire scar tells us the year the fire occurred and may also reveal the season of fire occurrence based upon the position of the scar (photo).
Historically, the dry forests of the Pacific Northwest experienced low and mixed severity fire regimes. Low severity, frequent fires eliminated fuel ladders; elevated tree crown bases; reduced competition for site resources among surviving trees, shrubs, and herbs; promoted the growth of a low and patchy shrub and herb cover; and cycled nutrients from foliage and branches into the soil. This resulted in forests dominated by large, widely spaced, fire-tolerant ponderosa pine with little accumulation of coarse woody debris on the forest floor. Severe fire behavior and effects were uncharacteristic of dry forest-dominated landscapes.
Wildfire size, severity and frequency have increased, particularly in the lower elevation dry forests. This is due in part to past and present fire suppression efforts. These forests now contain heavy fuel loads, a shift in the dominant tree species, smaller than average tree size and multi-layered canopies that act as fuel ladders. These conditions result in high intensity fires in areas that previously did not experience them.
In addition to wildfire size, severity and frequency, fire suppression efforts have affected general forest health. Douglas-fir and true firs are not as well adapted to dry sites as ponderosa pine and western larch. As a result these firs suffer physiological stress when subjected to hot, dry summers and, especially, drought. Stressed trees are more likely to succumb to insect and disease problems such as bark beetles and root disease. The presence of great numbers of stressed and dying trees offers an abundance of food to sustain insect populations and lead to insect outbreaks of epidemic proportions.
Models projecting climate change and fire patterns indicate that the frequency and extent of fire will increase due to increased temperatures, earlier spring snow melt and longer fire seasons. These projections suggest that there is an immediate need for forest managers to mitigate and adapt to increased wildfire events in order to sustain forest landscapes.
Accumulated fuels in dry forests need to be reduced so that when fire occurs, rather than becoming a conflagration that destroys the entire stand, it is more likely to burn along the surface at low-moderate intensity, consuming many small trees and restoring forest resilience to future drought, insect and disease problems and wildfire. Various combinations of thinning, slash treatments and prescribed burning can be used for restoration. Visit the Washington State Department of Natural Resources website for information about cost-share opportunities to help private landowners in eastern Washington with these tasks.
Most fires are human caused, often due to neglected campfires, sparks, irresponsibly discarded cigarettes and more often than not: debris burning. Significantly fewer fires may be started by taking greater caution. Check online for the current fire danger and outdoor burning restrictions in your county.
By Melissa Fischer, forest health specialist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, firstname.lastname@example.org
At the recent annual meeting of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, Boyd Norton, a long-time Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee, was awarded the Washington State Tree Farm Program’s Outstanding Tree Farm Inspector of the Year Award for 2017.
The award recognizes Boyd’s decades-long service as an inspector and dedicated supporter of the Washington Tree Farm Program. The program is a state affiliate of the American Tree Farm System, a national third-party certification program for forest landowners who meet strict internationally recognized standards for producing certified wood. The program’s Certified Tree Farmers are required to manage their lands in a sustainable manner according to an approved written forest management plan. Periodic re-inspections by tree farm inspectors like Boyd ensure continuing compliance with program standards.
Tree Farm inspectors volunteer their time and perform considerable outreach efforts and inspections to educate the public and private landowners about the benefits of sustainable forestry.
Boyd started his career at DNR in the South Puget Sound Region in the spring of 1975. By 1977 he’d been twice promoted and moved to Pacific County in what was then DNR’s Central Region. After 14 years and two more promotions, Boyd relocated to northwest Washington where he’s been ever since.
Boyd has worked in a variety of DNR programs over the years including State Trust Land Management, Forest Practices, and assisting small forest landowners both as a Small Forest Landowner Office field specialist and two positions in the Forest Stewardship Program. In all of his career experiences Boyd’s first love has been working with small forest owners. It was that dedication that led him to his current position as the DNR stewardship forester for the northern half of western Washington, including northwest Washington, the central Puget Sound area, and northern Olympic peninsula.
Boyd Norton’s achievement is particularly noteworthy, since he is one of only two remaining stewardship foresters in western Washington due to the current low funding for the program following the loss of all state funds during the recession concurrent with declining federal funding.
The American Tree Farm Program has its roots in southwest Washington with the certification of nation’s very first Tree Farm near Montesano in 1941. It subsequently grew into the nationwide program that it is today. More information about the program is available at treefarmsystem.org
The Forest Stewardship Program is a nationwide program delivered in partnership between the USDA Forest Service and state forestry agencies. In Washington state, it is administered by Washington DNR.
Many of the cultural practices that family forest owners use to improve forest production may be used to improve other components of their forestland. Forest owners may wish to increase production of grasses and forbs for livestock production and/ or wildlife habitat improvement. Forestland grazing presents opportunities to increase land productivity, improve cash flow, and to increase the diversity of plants and wildlife – all of which are not mutually exclusive. Most forestland grazing is found on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, as forest stocking levels tend to favor more open stand conditions. While generally discouraged by foresters due to soil impacts on water-saturated soils, limited forestland grazing is found on the west side of the Cascades, and generally on sites that are managed to promote more open stands.
Grazing can benefit forest management in several ways. For example, grazing and browsing can reduce the need for herbicides and mechanical weed control, and manure can reduce the need for fertilizer application by promoting nutrient recycling. Forest stands that include grazing as a management option are often park-like in appearance, and generally more socially acceptable than traditional plantations managed exclusively for timber. Low-intensity cattle grazing-grazing reduces competition for moisture between overstory trees and understory shrubs when the stand is very young. Studies in Oregon have shown up to 50 percent increase in forage and timber growth over 10 to 20 years with the integration of livestock into the system. Also, adding nitrogen-fixing vegetation such as legumes to the forage mix combined with recycled nutrients in dung and urine increases nitrogen uptake of trees on sites that are naturally deficient of nitrogen.
Weight gains for cattle on forested pastures may exceed those of grasslands because: (1) prolonged spring run-off provides more spring moisture to understory plants, (2) forage reaches maturity more slowly, (3) grasses are protected from sun and frost curing, and (4) forage species diversity provides a longer grazing season. Experience has shown that forests also protect cattle from weather – cutting the direct cold effect by 50 percent or more and reducing wind velocity by as much as 70 percent. Cattle protected by windbreaks gained 35 lbs. more than unprotected herds during a mild winter and lost 10.5 lbs. less during severe winters. Weight gains also improve with proximity to shade.
Livestock grazing in forests is much more common than many people realize. In a recent survey, 26 percent of Washington family forest owners reported livestock grazing on their forestland in the previous 12 months. Nationally, livestock graze about 25 percent of all forests. This forest area accounts for about 13 percent of the total land grazed in the U.S. and roughly equals the total area of improved pastures and grazed croplands, combined.
Foresters often discourage livestock grazing in timber plantations for fear that trees will be browsed, debarked, or stepped on. Once reassured that the plantations can be safely grazed without damaging trees, the next silvicultural concern is often soil compaction. Cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock can exert as much downward pressure on soil as do agricultural tractors and unloaded forestry harvest equipment. When a sustainable number of animals are managed, trampling only occurs over a limited area. In addition, soil compaction by livestock is generally confined to the top few inches of soil whereas heavy equipment can compact to depths over a foot. Extensive reviews of published literature found that grazing does compact soil—though it is unusual for livestock grazing on drained soils to sufficiently compact soils to hinder plant growth. Forested rangelands in the western U.S. are most frequently used as summer-fall range, when soils are not saturated. It is unlikely that responsible forest grazing will sufficiently compact soils to reduce tree growth unless soils are poorly drained.
Large seedlings are cost-effective in forest grazing systems. While more difficult and expensive to plant, these trees have a higher tolerance to damage from livestock and will more quickly escape the maximum height of browsing by livestock and deer. Careful management should be the norm when grazing young stands, particularly on steep slopes to see that soil is not displaced by animal hoof action. The number of trees to plant and the planting pattern vary widely with the objectives of forestland grazing. If the forest component is to be emphasized, stocking of 200 to 400 trees/ acre are common, with grazing restricted to the first decade or so after tree planting. If grazing is to be maintained over the long-term, lower tree stockings will be needed to maintain forage production with subsequent overstory tree thinning that reduces stocking to as few as 50 trees/ acre at maturity. Tree pattern becomes increasingly important as density increases. Conventional forests use rectangular grids of trees to minimize competition between trees at the expense of the understory vegetation. Square grids, single, double or triple rows, and cluster plantings have all been used in grazed forests. The grid layouts optimize the area for tree growth, while the row or cluster plantings share the site resources more evenly with the forage crop. Rows support greater understory forage and the ease of access to row plantings for agricultural operations such as fencing, fertilizing, haying, etc., make them popular with producers.
Overgrazing can lead to the removal of terminal leaders, substantial lateral branch defoliation and, more rarely, debarking. Young conifers are fairly tolerant to defoliation provided that the terminal leader is left intact. Research applicable to eastern Washington forests reported that heavy lateral branch defoliation of 4-year-old Douglas-fir did not affect tree height and reduced the current year’s growth by only 1.5 percent compared to undefoliated trees. It takes browsing of over half of the needles produced in the current year or girdling of over half of the stem to visibly reduce long-term growth. Removal of terminal leaders is a more serious matter. Loss of conifer terminal leaders not only forgoes that year’s height growth, it may also reduce diameter growth by as much as 30 percent. The risk of growth loss and tree deformation of young conifers in pastures is high enough to warrant either careful monitoring of forage availability and livestock grazing behavior, or physical protection of the trees during the first few years after plantation establishment. Given the increased competition from other trees and understory shrubbery on west side Cascade forests, the loss of a year’s height growth may eventually result in competition mortality. However, to place these concerns in perspective, studies in western Oregon forests report that native deer inflict more damage to young forests than livestock.
While livestock can graze new plantations safely, great care should be exercised when tree terminal leaders are within the reach of livestock. Pastures can be grazed during the spring growing period with negligible defoliation of trees provided that total utilization of forage does not exceed 35 percent of current seasons forage crop.
The potential for tree damage by livestock appear to be related to several factors including season of year (spring/ early summer is when other forage plants are most palatable, but compaction may be an issue), percent utilization of forage available, age of animal, and tree heights. One study in southern Oregon comparing tree seedling growth by cattle grazing in a recently planted pine plantation versus a non-grazed plantation, experienced enhanced tree growth due to both the reduced grass and shrub vegetation competition the with the pine seedlings as well as the nitrogen inputs from manure. Damage is more likely during the first two-three years of tree growth before resinous chemical defenses are well developed. After three years, conifer foliage is not particularly palatable to cattle or elk, though sheep, goats, and deer might still be attracted. Conifer foliage is most likely to be grazed in the spring when it is newly-emerged and the anti-herbivory defense compounds have not yet fully accumulated, or any time that livestock are short of other forage, however, livestock will consume conifer foliage in low amounts even when other preferred forage is available. This very low level of tree browsing often changes quickly info substantial levels as other forage is depleted. It is not unusual for over 90 percent of tree defoliation to occur when other forage choices are limited. Livestock grazing young forests must be checked frequently and animals properly removed when forage is depleted and they begin to actively feed upon trees.
Minimizing Livestock Damage
In general, livestock breed is not a useful predictor of damaging feeding behavior as is age, sex, and past experience of animals. However, larger breeds such as Charolais, Semmental; Gelbvieh, and Limousin tend to distribute less than smaller breeds, so concentration in areas such as riparian forests can become an issue with their tendency to linger that can lead over-grazing and potential damage to soil structure. Older dry ewes do far less damage to trees than young lambs or rams. Cattle, sheep and goats that have consumed either green foliage or dry needles regularly in the past are much more likely to feed upon young trees in pastures. In every flock or herd there are individuals that seem to be predisposed to feed upon trees. Feeding behavior may be taught to others. Tree damagers should be culled as soon as they are identified. Some practitioners also report that livestock transported into grazed forests from non-forested areas will browse young trees as a “novel” food. Fencing, tubing, repellents and livestock exclusion have all been used to control browse damage by both wildlife and livestock in grazed forests. Fencing works well when trees are concentrated in closely spaced rows to maximize grazing area and minimize fencing costs. Fencing can be permanent where continuous grazing is planned or wildlife damage to trees is a concern. Portable electric fencing has been successfully used for short time periods and prescriptive grazing to reduce invasive plants. Lightweight portable fencing is erected quickly when and where needed to protect trees from livestock, so monitoring of the grazing progress is not as critical as with open grazing. Protecting individual seedling trees with plastic mesh or rigid tubes has also been used successfully, but this measure has drawbacks. Cattle trampling and tube removal by sheep and subsequent browsing of the unprotected tree is a real concern, so monitoring of the grazing is required. Attaching the tube firmly is another problem. Rigid wood stakes often break when rubbed by livestock. Resilient materials such as bamboo are more resistant to breakage.
Riparian Area Concerns
Livestock grazing becomes more complicated where riparian systems are involved. Because riparian areas remain lush and green into the summer dormancy period for upland grasses and forbs, livestock will congregate in these areas for shade, water, and forage. This situation could result in overgrazing of riparian plants critical for riparian and stream function and physical damage of stream banks. Some rules of thumb include:
Allowing continuous, season-long grazing will damage riparian function.
Expect that in years of good rainfall, an early growing season for grazing vegetation will encourage cattle to graze uplands, where green forage and warm temperatures are more favorable.
Install off-stream water and salt far away from riparian areas.
Cull animals that prefer to “camp” in riparian areas.
Force cattle out of riparian areas with riders or substitute with herded sheep or goats.
Exclude riparian grazing until late in the growing season, but be careful to watch for overuse of woody plants.
Expect mixed or very site-specific results for riparian pastures in rotation systems.
A number of successes have been observed when late winter and early growing season grazing systems were merged, but be careful to monitor compaction.
Livestock management is the key to successful forestland grazing. Important considerations for proper grazing management include where the livestock graze, season of use (timing), length of use (time), and the amount of plants grazed (intensity). Some rules of thumb include:
Match the type of livestock to the forage base.
Make judicious use of fencing, salting, off-riparian water, and trails to aid proper distribution and minimize damage.
Customize rotational grazing systems to the local area and manage them intensively; time and timing will vary depending on the location, year and objectives.
Move livestock well before browsing begins on trees.
By Andrew B. Perleberg, Regional Extension Specialist – Forestry, Washington State University and James P. Dobrowolski, Rangeland, Grassland, and Water Quantity National Program Leader, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA.