KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR PIKA! A NEW INDEPENDENT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY

Which local high-altitude specialist is the size of a potato, has a teddy-bear face and large round ears, enjoys picking wildflowers, and screams “EEEEEE” like a squeaky plush toy? You guessed it–the American pika.

Pika are the smallest members of the lagomorph (rabbit) family. They are covered in a thick tan, brown, and black coat that acts as camouflage among the rocks and allows them to stay warm in the subalpine and alpine terrains they typically inhabit. Rock faces, rock slides, talus slopes, and cliffs are their preferred home.

 

An example of talus slope (pika habitat) in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest
An example of talus slope (pika habitat) in the Indian Heaven Wilderness within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

It’s easy to understand why the American pika is a favorite of many hikers in the western United States and Canada. But these undeniably adorable animals are in trouble.

Pika are sensitive to changes in climatic conditions. The summer months are an important time for collecting grasses and wildflowers, which are then dried into distinctive hay piles that will sustain the pika through the alpine winter. But foraging in high temperatures can be deadly for pikas. They have a temperature threshold of 78 degrees Fahrenheit and will not survive if they are exposed to high temperatures for too long. On hot days, pika are forced to limit the time they spend foraging to avoid over-exposure. The warmer temperatures brought about by climate change are making it more difficult for pika to gather enough food for the winter.

An American Pika perched on a rock
American pika photographed by supporter and volunteer, Michael Sulis

These changes are causing pika to move to even higher elevations. But many populations will soon find that they cannot go any higher. 

In many places, pika populations are declining. Gathering more data about current numbers and population trends is essential to understand what kinds of protections this species may need. Additionally, the ways in which pika respond to changes in the climate make them the perfect climate indicator species. Their climate sensitivity helps scientists infer the conditions in a particular habitat. That’s why Cascade Forest Conservancy has decided to join the Cascades Pika Watch collaboration and why we are launching a new program–a way for volunteers to make a difference for pika, independently and on their own schedules! 

Cascades Pika Watch is a collaboration between the Oregon Zoo and the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. They have led highly successful projects counting and studying pika for many years in the Columbia Gorge (the Columbia Gorge pikas live at lower elevations than anywhere in the United States!) and in the North Cascades. Unfortunately, there is currently a gap in pika data between those two project areas. Cascade Forest Conservancy will lead the efforts in southwest Washington to expand the study across a larger geographic area.

Watch Oregon Field Guide’s segment about Cascade Pika Watch and the pika in the Columbia Gorge

Help from volunteers will be critical for Cascade Forest Conservancy’s efforts to study pika in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Unlike CFC’s group trips, pika research offers volunteers the chance to make an impact while setting their own schedule and pace! No experience is necessary and any level of participation will help us fill in the data gaps about this charismatic climate change indicator species!

Pikas are a natural fit for independent citizen science. They are easily identifiable, are found in beautiful places, and offer invaluable information about environmental changes. We will be hosting volunteer training on June 11th. You can attend in person at our office in Vancouver or by joining our livestream (registration will open in February). During the training, we will go over:

  • Pika and habitat identification
  • Opportunistic observations vs. sitting surveys
  • Equipment checklist
  • Safety procedures
  • Volunteer guidelines 

Whether you’re going on a hike in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to opportunistically observe pika, or you want to claim a survey spot within the forest to look and listen for pika (the sitting survey) this independent volunteer opportunity is just for you! 

If you have any recent pika observations that you’d like to share or if you want to get started before June, please email Amanda Keasberry, CFC’s Science and Stewardship Manager, at amanda(at)cascadeforest.org.

 

2021 BEAVER PROJECT UPDATE: HOW ARE A FORMER “NUISANCE” FAMILY DOING IN THE FOREST?

On November 8th, I joined our project partners from Washington State University to check on a family of three beavers that we released in a tributary of the Lewis River earlier in the year. This was our last check of 2021.

On the morning of the trip, we were excited to find out that the forecast had changed. Instead of rain, it was going to be a cold but sunny day!  Typically, we can drive right up to the release site—a beautiful headwater pond with a view of Mt. St. Helen’s in the distance. As we rounded curves and gained elevation, we began to see some snow. At first, we weren’t concerned—it is not bizarre to see a couple inches of snow going into the mountains in early November. But as we made our way past a sno-park, that two inches of snow quickly grew to 4 inches and then to 8 inches. We no longer felt comfortable driving the SUV further up the road, but that wasn’t going to stop us from this final opportunity to check on this family of beavers.

We backtracked to the sno-park where we each confessed that we had not looked at the snow report. To reach the release site now meant we had to walk 5 miles in the snow. I was ill-equipped for this journey (I did not pack my snow boots for this trip), but we really needed to take environmental eDNA samples and place the wildlife camera. We all bundled up in the gear we had brought, and made our way to the snowy creek.

Image: A snowy pond near the beaver release site.

The beavers at this site had been released in the summer. We trapped them from a landowner’s property in Vancouver, WA. The beaver family had actually been causing damage for years; a culvert that was supposed to drain any excess water was completely underwater due to all of the dams that the beavers had created and maintained. The dams also caused flooding during parts of the year, blocking a county road that a neighbor needed to access their driveway. We believe in promoting solutions that enable people to live harmoniously with beavers. But in an urban environment, that isn’t always possible. The homeowner had a permit to notch the dams, but beavers will repair a dam overnight. For any substantial changes to be made to this overflowing wetland, the beavers were going to have to be removed. In a situation like this, relocation is the best option for the animals, which made it the perfect case for CFC to step in and move the family to the national forest where their construction work can be better appreciated confer beneficial effects to the surrounding areas. 

We worked with a local wildlife conflict specialist and set traps near one of the dams, an area that we knew the beavers would be frequenting. We got one beaver only a few days after setting the traps, but then things began to slow down. It sometimes takes a bit of time to trap beavers, and we can only house them in our holding facility for two weeks. We decided to release the one that we had, hoping it would get its family members shortly after. Luckily that is exactly what happened! We were able to reunite the three family members at the release site in August.

Image: A beaver in a live trap that was caught in Vancouver and moved to a new home in the forestRight before the releases, we outfitted the beavers with radio transmitters, so our WSU partner, Jesse Burgher, could track them via radio telemetry. The transmitters each have their own frequency, so when Jesse is out with the antenna, he can triangulate the location of each beaver. Beaver #1 was released in late July and was tracked for a week straight. Jesse would get her location during the day and at night. On two occasions, he ended up very close to her. Once he saw her climb up rocks in the creek and another time she ended up walking straight towards him on land. Beavers don’t have great eyesight and Jesse was standing very still, so it’s likely that she didn’t notice him. In that week of observing, beaver #1 made multiple bank dens (burrows in the stream banks) and food caches about a mile down from the release site.

Beaver release video

A couple of weeks later we released the rest of the family. Now all three beavers were being tracked via radio telemetry. Beaver # 2 decided to go off and explore soon after he was released, and we have not been able to track him since. Beavers are rather transient creatures and like to explore, especially in the summer and fall. Beaver #3, the youngest of the bunch, stayed right in the main pond where we had released him! Beavers become self-sufficient at a young age and this little one really proved that. For the next couple of months, beaver #1 and beaver #3 created even more food caches around the pond and downstream. Beaver #1 created a couple of more bank dens and beaver #3 took advantage of using a downed tree in the pond as refuge. Beaver #3 also repaired some holes in an old beaver dam near his downed log home. 

By October, Beaver #3’s transmitter was found tangled in the grass so we assume it fell out and that he was not preyed upon. There was also an increase in activity after the transmitter was found, including tiny lodges, so it’s safe to say he is still there continuing to make his home. A few weeks after that, Beaver #1’s transmitter also fell out. We hypothesize that the increase in creating food caches for the winter likely leads to the transmitter being pulled out. They are moving through more trees, brush, and/or grass, so the transmitters are getting caught. Even when a transmitter falls off, we still have beneficial data about the beaver’s movements for the first few months. We can still rely on visual surveys of the area to look for beaver activity like food caches, fresh chew, beaver slides, dams, and lodges. We will revisit the site in January (with snow gear!) to conduct visual surveys and check our wildlife cameras.

Image: a relocated beaver in its new forest home

BEAVER DAM ANALOGS AT WOODS CREEK

 

As a quick recap, beaver dam analogs are man-made structures that are created to mimic the form and function of natural-made beaver dams. Check out the first blog post in this series to learn more about beaver dam analogs and the benefits they provide to an ecosystem. There are a variety of reasons why you might install a BDA, but for us, it was to help the beavers that currently inhabit Woods Creek and hope that they help us in return.

Beavers have been in the Woods Creek watershed for a long time. Different families move in and out of the mainstream and side channels. They repair old dams or create new ones in locations that they would like to see more water. In August of last year, as we were surveying the area to determine if Woods Creek would be well-suited for BDAs, we found three newly built beaver dams. At first we thought, “Do we need to put BDAs where beavers are already building?”. The answer was yes because by installing a series of BDAs where there were already beavers meant that there was a possibility that the beavers would improve upon and maintain what we create. BDAs are created knowing that they will only last a couple of years because the design and implementation of these structures are non-technical. Restoration practitioners often hope that installing BDAs will attract beavers to the area to provide maintenance, but have the benefit of already knowing that beavers are there.

On the week of August 9th, we set out to Woods Creek to see our plan come to life. Donning full-body waders and manual post drivers, Forest Service specialists and CFC staff spent two days building the skeleton of the BDAs. We drove six-foot wooden posts halfway into the ground to serve as a stronghold for the branches that were going to be woven in between. Once the posts were in place, we had a group of volunteers gather alder and maple branches to use to fill in the gaps between the posts. Various thicknesses and lengths of branches were used to ensure any large gaps were filled with natural materials. Beavers are fans of alder and maple, so utilizing those species is another way to ensure that the beavers at Woods Creek would come to check out our work.

One of the recent beaver-made dams was doing a fantastic job at holding back water. While we were out there, we noticed that there was a relic beaver dam that was mostly covered with sediment and vegetation but was still built up higher than the surrounding landscape. It seemed that the beavers were trying to connect their new dam to the old dam, but were about eight feet away from making that happen. We decided to connect the two dams and added more plant material to the top of the beaver dam to get it closer to the height of the old dam. On the other side of the relic dam, we built another BDA that connected to the old dam, through a side channel, and to the tree line.

By Sunday afternoon, volunteers and CFC staff wove their last few branches into the final BDA. Because there isn’t much water in the system right now, we have to wait until the rains come to see how our structures hold up. Until then we have a camera out to see if the beavers are enticed or offended by our work!

Beaver Reintroduction Update II

December 10 2020

Our Science and Stewardship Manager, Amanda Keasberry, and our partner Jesse Burgher, a grad student at  Washington State University-Vancouver, recently set out on a beautiful sunny November day to check in on a pair of beavers released into the forest earlier this fall. Last year, some of our supporters won the privilege of naming some of the beavers released in 2020. This pair were dubbed Cornelia and Gifford.

 

 

Although the male has been located several times before, the team wasn’t able to locate him on this trip, but neither are worried. “It’s typical for one beaver to go off exploring while the other waits at home,” explained Keasberry. She added that the deep snow limited their access to the creek so the area they were able to search in was restricted. 

Speakers of the Algonkian language, including some of the first tribes encountered by British colonists, call the full moon in November the beaver moon. It is the time when beavers prepare for the winter by storing food and setting up their dens and lodges. By now, Cornelia and Gifford are probably ready for the winter months. Jesse will continue checking in on the beavers every month. Stay tuned for future updates.

New study highlights the importance of beaver reintroduction work in the southern Washington Cascades

A newly published study from our Partners at Washington State University partners confirms the importance of beavers for wildlife and climate resilience. reintroduction work. This research shows that beaver-affected habitats in the southern Washington Cascades increase the presence and diversity of slow-developing amphibian species, such as the vulnerable Oregon spotted frog.

CFC’s beaver reintroduction work is an effective and important component of ecosystem-based restoration work, management, and climate adaptation efforts. As northern temperate wetland ecosystems like those found within the Gifford Pinchot NF, face increased summer drying in the coming years, beaver-affected habitats may become increasingly important climate refugia critical to the survival of a number of species.

Read the article here.

Beaver Reintroduction Project Update

October 26th 2020  |  Amanda Keasberry

Cascade Forest Conservancy is working to restore beavers to areas of the forests where they are absent. European settlement and the fur trade that fueled it reduced beaver populations to as few as 100,000 animals by the turn of the 20th century. In the last 100 years, their numbers have rebounded significantly, but are still only a fraction of historic levels. Many plants and animals in North America evolved in a world shaped and constructed by beavers. These rodents, and the habitats they create, are still essential to healthy watersheds and forests.

Reintroducing beavers is one of our best tools for protecting and restoring ecosystems across southwest Washington. This year, we’ll be moving 3-4 families of beavers from areas where their penchant for building is impacting human infrastructure to places in the wild where they are most needed.

Early last week, we got the call that our wildlife trappers caught our first beaver of the season! We met the trapper at our beaver housing facility and learned that we had a 2-year-old, 29 pound male. We were informed that he definitely had a mate or sibling that we would need to get before we released them into their new home in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. 

Trapping beavers takes experience and knowledge, which is why we are working with licensed trappers. The trappers position the trap so it is partially in the water and place vegetation and castor lure to attract the beavers. Once one beaver is trapped, the other beavers are quick to become skeptical of the traps near their home. It is not uncommon for them to retreat for a couple of days after traps are set. The photo below shows the 2-year-old male beaver in the box trap he was caught in.

Two days later, the trappers had news that they caught the 2-year-old, 24 pound female beaver that was living with the male beaver. The female was quick to hide when we put her in the facility and the male immediately went over to her. She stayed tucked away and the male went and sat next to her. It was a clear sign that they remembered one another and that we should leave them be! The next afternoon we found the snuggled together in their lodge. As we began to clean the housing facility, they jumped into one of their pools while we were cleaning it out. It was safe to say that they seemed happy to be reunited with one another! 

The trappers were pretty confident that these two beavers were the only ones living together, but they kept the traps out for a few more days before we made the call on releasing them to their new home. We are only allowed to house the beavers for two weeks so we don’t leave too much of an imprint on them from human interactions. We had the male for 5 days and the female for three, so we thought it was worth it to wait and see if they had anyone else in their family. So, the beavers hung out for a few more days doing beaver activities like swimming, grooming, sleeping, and eating. 

After a week in the facility, the beavers could now get back to being wild beavers. In their previous home, they were negatively impacting infrastructure that was near their creek. Now, in the national forest, they can construct their dams and lodges where there is minimal risk of damaging any infrastructure. Ideally, the beavers will stay where they were released but no matter where they go, they will provide the ecosystem with numerous benefits like creating in-stream habitat for a variety of species, stabilizing seasonal flows, capturing fine sediment, and recruiting riparian vegetation.

In addition to the wildlife camera, this pair of beavers were also outfitted with radio transmitters for a study being conducted by WSU-Vancouver and WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. We will be able to get daily locations about where these beavers are moving within the system. A graduate student with WSU-Vancouver is currently out tracking the movement of our newly released beaver pair. Over the first few days the beavers have up and downstream from the release location but have stayed within a half a mile of the release. The radio transmitter tracking will occur for two weeks and then two weeks after that CFC will go out to look for dams, lodges, and other signs that the beavers have decided to make this spot their new home! 

Beaver Reintroduction Project Update

July 31, 2020

In 2018, Cascade Forest Conservancy partnered with Cowlitz Indian Tribe to reintroduce beavers to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest for the first time since the 1930s.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of these animals to the health of the forest. In his award-winning book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb describes the fur trade that eradicated beaver populations as an ecological and social disaster on par with the destruction of the bison herds of the Great Plains.

Beavers are a keystone species–dam-building, wetland restoring, water-storing, habitat engineers. The weight of their ponds push water deep into the ground, refilling aquifers and allowing water to be in the system even during dry summers. The slack waters and ponds beavers create help filter pollutants out of water systems, dissipate floods, disrupt the spread of fires, and create habitat that greatly benefits other species. In some parts of the West, wetlands cover 2% of the total land area but contain 80% of an ecosystem’s biodiversity. As the effects of climate change accelerate, the benefits beavers bring to the landscape are more important than ever.

So far, this project has been a success, and it’s still going strong!

 

We’re expanding the project and releasing even more animals this year. Here is the latest.

Our Program Director, Shiloh Halsey, and Science and Stewardship Manager, Amanda Keasberry are now permitted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to house and relocate beavers in multiple SW Washington counties. In July, we completed building our new beaver housing facility on land belonging to a generous supporter. Trapped beavers must be kept in housing facilities where we monitor their health and collect data before release.

We’re thrilled to be expanding the capacity of this program. We plan to release 3-4 beaver families this fall–families of beavers are made of between two to six animals.

This year, the project will benefit from an additional partnership. Researchers from Washington State University Vancouver are working on a new way to track beavers and understand their impacts, one that uses environmental DNA taken from water samples. The researchers will be working with the beavers who pass through our new facility and tracking them post-release. The new technique they are developing could be key to monitoring wild and reintroduced beaver populations without having to physically track down individual animals.