Fire and Forest Health

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.

Fire Regimes

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.

giant sequoia burn scars
Burn scars (white arrows) in the cross section of a giant sequoia. The numbers represent the year each fire occurred. Photo: Tom Swetnam.

Historic Conditions

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.

Current Conditions

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, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov

Longtime DNR Forester Boyd Norton Honored by State Tree Farm Program

Boyd Norton
Boyd Norton was named Outstanding Tree Farm Inspector of the Year by the Washington State Tree Farm Program.

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.

Forestland Grazing in the Inland Northwest

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.

PHOTO: T. Hudson, WSU
Photo: T. Hudson/WSU

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.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University
Photo courtesy of Cornell University

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.

Deer photo by E. Gutierrez/WSU
Photo: E. Gutierrez/WSU

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.

Tree damaged by deer.
Tree damaged by deer browsing. Photo: A. Perleberg/WSU

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.
Cattle grazing in riparian area
Cattle grazing in riparian area. Photo: T. Hudson/WSU

Conclusion

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.

Announcements, Events and Other News

(If you are reading a paper copy of this newsletter, links for these events can be found at the WSU Extension Forestry Website:  forestry.wsu.edu )

Free Workshops on Forest Health and Fire Risk Reduction 

Forest and Range Owners Field Days

These out-in-the-woods, family-friendly events allow you to attend five or six different outdoor classes and workshops on topics like tree planting, weed control, thinning, tree diseases, mushroom-growing and much more…

 

Forest Stewardship Coached Planning

If you own wooded property, our flagship course will teach you how to assess your trees, avoid insect and disease problems, and attract wildlife.  State experts will help you develop your own Forest Stewardship Plan to keep your woods on track to provide enjoyment and income for years to come.

  • Preston (King County) starting September 12, 2017
  • Sedro Woolley (Skagit County) starting September 28, 2017
  • Southwest Washington, locations and dates to be announced, Fall 2017. Contact andyp@wsu.edu
  • Stevens County, location and date to be announced, Fall 2017. Contact andyp@wsu.edu

 

TIES TO THE LAND: A Facilitated Workshop on Succession Planning

Keeping Family Forests, Farms, and Ranches in the Family

Note:  Dates and locations for these workshops will be determined by community interest.  Contact Andy Perleberg at WSU Extension, 509-667-6540, or email andyp@wsu.edu for more information (and to campaign for us to schedule a class near you).

Few challenges that family forestland owners, farmers, ranchers, and other land-based family businesses face are more important than the issue of passing the business and its land base on to the following generation. Many small landowners want to preserve their family lands but don’t know how to involve family members in ownership and operation of their small land-based businesses.

This facilitated workshop focuses on ways to maintain family ties to the land from generation to generation, and is a mix of presentations and practical exercises to help families address tough issues. Each family will receive a copy of the Ties to the Land workbook which is designed to help families continue to improve and direct their communications at home. Topics covered will also be relevant to professionals working with landowner families. More information is available on the Ties to the Land website.

Potential for Douglas-fir Beetle Outbreaks in Eastern Washington

Douglas fir killed by bark beetle
Beetle damage in stand of Douglas fir. Photo: Kenneth E. Gibson, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Several windthrow events in 2015 have paved the way for a potential outbreak of Douglas-fir beetle in areas of eastern Washington this spring (2017).

Douglas-fir beetle egg and larval tunnels
Characteristic pattern of Douglas-fir beetle egg and larval tunnels. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry.

The Douglas-fir beetle is a bark beetle that normally breeds in felled, injured, windthrown or root-diseased Douglas-fir. It may also attack western larch, but can only produce brood in downed trees. At outbreak levels, this bark beetle can attack and kill large diameter, healthy Douglas-fir. Outbreaks tend to occur after extensive windthrow events such as was seen in 2015. Outbreaks may also occur after defoliation events, fire and extended drought. Dense stands surrounding areas where windthrow, defoliation, fire and drought events have occurred may be at high risk for an outbreak, particularly if those stands contain a 50 percent or more component of Douglas-fir that are greater than 120 years of age and larger than 14 inches DBH (DBH = diameter at breast height; diameter of a tree bole 4.5 feet from the base).

The Douglas-fir beetle has one generation a year. Brood that developed through 2016 will pupate and emerge as adults this spring. Once emerged, they will begin attacking standing trees surrounding the windthrow, as the windthow is no longer habitable for them.

What can be done?

The best approach to prevent an outbreak this spring is to salvage any large diameter Douglas-fir or western larch that were downed by the storms prior to the adult beetle flight, which should occur in April, depending on temperatures. Windthrown trees can also be burned or chipped on site if salvage is not an option. Time is running out; if you find you cannot take care of this material, the use of the anti-aggregate pheromone MCH is another option.

A pheromone is a chemical released by bark beetles that is used to affect the behavior of other beetles of the same species. Aggregating pheromones attract beetles, while anti-aggregates repel them. A bark beetle might use an anti-aggregate to prevent overcrowding within a tree. An anti-aggregate basically tells other beetles that there is no room for additional inhabitants in the tree.

MCH bubble capsule stapled to a tree
MCH bubble capsule stapled to a tree. Photo: US Forest Service.

The Douglas fir-beetle naturally produces an anti-aggregate to repel others. A synthetic version of this anti-aggregate, MCH, has been produced and is available for purchase through several online companies. MCH comes in a “bubble capsule” and can be used to protect individual live, high-value Douglas-fir or even an entire stand. For individual tree protection, two bubble capsules can be stapled on either side of a Douglas-fir bole at approximately 6-8 feet from the ground for a tree less than 24 inches DBH. Four bubble capsules should be used for Douglas-fir larger than 24 inches DBH. To protect a stand of Douglas-fir, 30 bubble caps per acre can be evenly placed through the stand.

MCH costs approximately $2.50 per capsule and should be hung prior to the beetle flight in April. It is advisable to contact your local forest health specialist if you are considering this method of management. Additional information about this method can be found in the free publication, “Using MCH to protect trees and stands from Douglas-fir beetle infestation,” published by the US Forest Service.

By Melissa Joy Fischer, forest health specialist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov

 

My, What Big Teeth You Have! Living with Big Predators on Small Forest Lands

Methow Valley cougar: Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.
A trail camera with remote sensors captured this image of a mother cougar in the Methow Valley. Photo: Don McIvor (see more of this cougar and her cubs in McIvor’s video linked in this article).

“Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!” Remember in the Wizard of Oz how Dorothy and her three companions (four if you count Toto), chanted this phrase in the creepy forest while looking over their shoulders nervously for certain doom?

Sometimes people who have moved out to their own little piece of paradise in a rural area feel this same trepidation, particularly after hearing a neighbor or news story about a predator encounter. It’s important to consider that we now live in someone else’s neighborhood, namely that of our rich Washington wildlife. This includes some significant predators. But don’t worry too much. With knowledge and good habits, we can peacefully coexist with these animals.

Worries over these big toothy critters include indirect effects, such as losing livestock or pets, or seeing damage to infrastructure from bears getting into garbage or destroying bee hives. These also may be sparked by fears of direct encounters with these animals. Here I will present a few facts, stories, and some links to good resources.

Territory

Predators tend to have large territories, and will continually cross ownerships in their quest for survival. This means that the home ranges of predators usually cover far more land than our average small forest landowner. If you see one, it probably is either passing through, or has found just what it needs there for a limited time (See cougar story below).

We have a rich variety of meat eaters across our landscape, with varying species and populations depending on where you are. Black bears, cougar, wolves, coyote, bobcat and fox all live with us, and sometimes thrive on our forest lands. Their life histories require killing of prey, and the size of prey generally correlates with the size of the predator. For example, coyotes eat mice and voles, cougars eat deer.

Mostly, we coexist with these animals and never even know they are there. But sometimes we notice. Smaller predators generally cause small scale problems, such as the occasional loss of pets (cats and small dogs) or small livestock (such as chickens). Those causing the deepest consternation for landowners are the larger predators, particularly black bear, and cougar. (Wolves are large and wide ranging, sometimes taking range livestock, but rarely causing problems for small forest landowners or threatening people directly. Hence I won’t discuss wolves here. Check the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website for useful information about dealing with wolves and all sorts of other wildlife.)

Cougars

Cougars occur in most forested regions of our state, in varying populations, but basically can occur wherever prey, mostly deer, occur. Some of the Puget Sound islands are currently without cougars, perhaps due to historic extirpation, but one recently appeared on Vashon Island and has been quite the phenomenon there.

Cougar along Skagit River
Cougar along Skagit River. Used with permission of landowner

Cougar observations are rare, and those of us who have been fortunate enough to see one in the wild remember it vividly. Even rarer events are attacks on people (and pets) but they do occur. Precautions can be taken, particularly if active cougar sign is about. They are outlined in the WDFW publication, Living with Cougars. Remember, cougars prey primarily on deer. If you choose to feed deer, you may also be inadvertently attracting cougars.

I heard a landowner near Spokane tell me a story from his neighborhood of part time landowners, (where he lives full time), with seven deer feeders. These were the barrel variety with a timer that causes the noisy machine to come on at a set time. The deer would come running for the spray of delicious corn. Needless to say, the neighborhood has a healthy population of resident whitetail deer. There is also a resident mother cougar and her cubs. Nearly everyone had seen this big cat and several youngsters following her around. The neighborhood alarm was substantial. It was exciting but probably dangerous for all concerned, the cougar in particular. To my knowledge, the situation has not changed at the time of this writing.

Here is an interesting story about cougars from by my good friend, Don McIvor. He provided this transcript and wonderful video to add to this topic.

I received a trail camera for Christmas a few years ago and put it out on our 20-acre property near Twisp, Wash., in early January. A fresh snowfall blanketed the ground, wiping the forest floor clean and leaving few clues as to a good spot to mount the camera. I found a faint set of tracks, almost completely obscured by the new snow, and strapped the camera to a nearby tree. The photograph here (see above) is the very first image captured by the camera; you could have knocked me over with a feather! What followed was about a 10-day visit from this female cougar and her three cubs. I repositioned the camera to a nearby spot where the snow was so compacted I couldn’t distinguish the tracks. Turns out this area was immediately adjacent to a deer the mother had killed, and the packed-down snow was the cubs’ playground. I managed to document much of the visit with video and still photography. This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event and I am pleased our small property could host the big cats, even if only for the short-term. This rare glimpse into the lives of these graceful creatures also illustrates our property’s role in the broader landscape where we help to maintain populations of animals that need large blocks of habitat to survive.

Black Bear

Black bears are big, cute, roly-poly, cartoonish characters; and are also the other big predator we may encounter on our small forest lands. Most of us have bears about. They are omnivorous but opportunistic predators, and will eat most anything they can find, including the occasional deer fawn or elk calf. They tend to be solitary and shy, avoiding humans whenever possible. They can be aggressive towards humans, but it is very rare and usually associated with a mother bear with cubs. Black bears are a game animal and may be taken during legal hunting seasons.

Black bear over carcass remains; image captured by remote sensor camera about 100 yards from Ken Bevis’ house. Photo: Ken Bevis.

Black bears are famous as scavengers and will take advantage of free food. Avoid leaving pet food or garbage out in bear country. Bird feeders can also lead to bear attention. If bears find your feeders, take them down until the bear moves on. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a saying among wildlife control folks. Habituating bears to human food will lead to trouble, especially for the bear. “Problem” bears are sometimes relocated by WDFW but this is a last resort in situations where the bear has become habitual to a location and human safety is at issue.

Trail cameras are an excellent tool for viewing wildlife on your property. They are a subject for a future article!

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent source of information on these critters in its Living with Wildlife Series

The message here is, if you live in wild lands, expect wild animals. Live accordingly.

And please send me good stories and photos!

By Ken Bevis, DNR stewardship wildlife biologist, Washington Department of Natural Resources, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire Corner: Protecting your Home from Wildfire

home survived wildfire
Fire prevention steps, including several recommended by the national Firewise program, helped to spare this eastern Washington home from wildfire in 2012.

Pine needles, dry leaves, a recycle bin full of newspaper, dead plants. What do these items have in common? They can easily start on fire from a single ember.

Embers are small pieces of burning material that are carried into the air during a wildfire and can be carried over a mile before they fall to the ground. If these embers land on some dead leaves, dead needles, newspaper, cardboard or any other flammable material, they may start another fire. If this happens on your deck, roof or next to your house, that small ember could start a fire that grows and ignites your house.

Typically during a wildfire, the ember shower can spread more than a mile ahead of the main fire front. This exposes homes to the wildfire even when the smoke is still in the distance. Often, the ember shower is accompanied by high winds that blow the embers sideways. Embers going sideways instead of falling from the sky can slip under decks, porches and other places to start your home on fire.

Homeowners can take some simple steps to reduce the chances that an ember will start a fire on or next to their home.

Vents in soffits, eaves, crawlspaces and elsewhere — look for any opening around your house where an ember could possible slip through and start a fire. Make sure these vents are screened with 1/8-inch mesh.

  • Doors — even on outbuildings — should be tight fitting with no gaps around the frame.
  • Flowerboxes — keep them watered with healthy plants. Remove dried up, dead foliage.
  • Woodpiles — keep them at least 30 feet from structures.
  • Roof and rain gutters — inspect to make sure they are free of leaves, conifer needles and other burnable debris.
  • Decks and porches — install screen, siding or other material to prevent embers from blowing underneath.
  • Garbage cans and recycling bins — don’t leave them open and filled with paper or other flammable material. Use tight-fitting lids that will not blow off during the high winds typical around large wildfires.

Finally, before you leave on a summer or early fall vacation, do a fire safety check around your house at the same time that you do a security check. Look for items that could be ignited by an ember and move them away from your house.

These simple steps may help your home survive an ember shower from the next wildfire.

Click here to get more information on Be Ember Aware or call your local fire district or Washington State Department of Natural Resources office.

  • Northeast Region Office, Colville: 509-684-7474
  • Southeast Region Office, Ellensburg: 509-925-8510
  • Western Washington: 360-902-1391
  • Firewise tips and contacts on the Washington DNR website
  • Firewise Communities: a national non-profit that brings neighbors together to reduce their community’s wildfire risks