At the beginning of June, CFC hosted a virtual training session to teach volunteers how to survey for pika in the talus slope areas of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Pika survey efforts have been going on for years in the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Rainier, and other locations within the Cascades, but there’s a gap in pika population data in the Gifford Pinchot.
Volunteers could go to sites where pika have previously been observed to conduct sitting surveys, or volunteers could send back reports if they happened to cross paths with a pika when out on a hike. Pika can be hard to spot as they are often well camouflaged by the rocks they inhabit, but wait long enough and they start to scurry around and make calls to the other pika nearby. So far this year, volunteers have conducted 30 sitting surveys and have had 34 opportunistic sightings.
These new pika sightings will allow us to have more sites to complete the sitting surveys next year. Most of our projects are not possible without the help of volunteers, and that is especially the case for the pika surveys. CFC sends a HUGE thank you to all the volunteers that have participated and are continuing to participate in the first year of these surveys!
There’s still time to get involved! If you want to do a sitting survey, please contact email@example.com so she can send you all the information you need to get started.
If you’re ever out on a hike and come across a pika, feel free to share that information with us here.
At the end of June, CFC staff and volunteers visited two South Fork Toutle River tributaries to survey for the presence or absence of lamprey–an ancient and relatively understudied keystone species.
Excellent reporting in an article by Brian Oaster, an award-winning journalist, staff writer at High Country News, and member of the Choctaw Nation, explains the importance of the species and the dire situation they are facing. Oyster’s reporting was the source of many facts in this blog.
The Pacific lamprey is an ancient species of jawless fish with a cartilage skeleton, an eel-like body, and an oval sucker mouth filled with an array of hooked teeth used to attach and parasitically feed on hosts. They have survived five mass extinctions, remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, and have been around for more than 400 million years. But man-made impacts may be pushing this species toward their decline.
Many lamprey runs have disappeared, and some fear that as much as 90% of their former population has been wiped out by habitat degradation and dams. Until recently, most Western scientists ignored the species. However, many tribes have been sounding the alarm over declining Pacific lamprey populations and distribution throughout the Pacific region for decades.
Lamprey is a first food used for sustenance and medicine. Despite being smaller than salmon, a lamprey contains more than four times the omega-3 fatty acids and calories than the more famous fish. In addition to being a culturally important and super nutritious food source, Pacific lamprey are a keystone species, meaning their decline can drastically change entire ecosystems.
AN UNDERSTUDIED AND IMPERILLED KEYSTONE SPECIES
Pacific lamprey are anadromous fish, meaning they are born inland, migrate to sea, and eventually return to freshwater to spawn. After mating, the adults die. In Oyster’s article, Yurok tribal member and fisheries biologist Keith Parker explains that prior to colonial settlement, migrating “Pacific lamprey were the largest biomass of anything in the river–not just fish, but of anything.” Their bodies were a yearly transfer of marine nutrients to inland watersheds on a staggeringly massive scale. The trees are full of nutrients from the sea carried inland in the bodies of countless generations of lamprey. While they are weaker swimmers than salmon and steelhead, Pacific lamprey are capable of reaching certain headwaters that are inaccessible to those species by using their sucker mouths to climb waterfalls!
Their young also serve critical ecological functions. Before developing into an adult, a larval lamprey spends 2-7 years in freshwater. They are filter feeders that bury themselves underneath streambeds, recycling nutrients, aerating water, and providing meals to larger fish.
COLLABORATING WITH THE COMMUNITY TO PROTECT PACIFIC LAMPREY
A number of tribes have been working to protect the species through translocations, habitat restoration, artificial propagation, and by petitioning the government to take action. After the Pacific lamprey was denied listing for protection through the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2004, tribes, government agencies, and non-profits knew they needed to respond and collaborated to create the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative (PLCI).
Cascade Forest Conservancy has joined the PLCI and received funding through the Bonneville Power Association to explore several creeks in SW Washington to see if there are populations currently existing in these waterways. Last year we surveyed the Wind River, Panther Creek, and Pete Gulch using environmental DNA, a less-invasive surveying technique that allows scientists to test water samples for the presence or absence of a targeted species. We found that the distribution of Pacific lamprey in the Wind River goes 7.5 miles higher than what was previously reported by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016!
This year’s area of focus was the South Fork Toutle River. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out on a warm, sunny Saturday morning with 12 volunteers to walk along the reaches of Stump Creek in search of Pacific lamprey. We conducted various surveys to look for lamprey at their various life stages. Pacific lamprey spawn in the summer, so we made sure to keep an eye out for lamprey redds (gravel beds that lamprey and other fish build to lay and fertilize eggs).
Larval lamprey spend years in freshwater buried beneath fine sediments, so we also used a survey technique to dig into the sediment and carefully sift through it to (hopefully) uncover lamprey. We also took several environmental DNA samples that will determine Pacific lamprey’s presence within Stump Creek. In addition to all the lamprey surveys, we documented other fish species we saw, beaver activity, and type 1 habitat (fine sediments, shady, slow-moving water), which is the preferred habitat of larval lamprey.
With so many volunteers, we could split into groups and cover a large portion of the creek. At the end of the first day, the groups compared notes. We had not found any lamprey redds or larval lamprey. However, we identified a decent amount of type 1 habitat, which led us to wonder what was missing.
LAMPREY AT LAST!
The next day we headed to another South Fork Toutle tributary–a location our partners at Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group were particularly curious about the existence or lack of lamprey populations. This creek is a likely site for future restoration efforts, so we wanted to learn what populations may be there because that data can inform the design of the restoration project.
Once we arrived to the creek, I found an easy way down to the water near a bridge and I suggested we start there. As we got closer to the water, we saw numerous patches of type 1 habitat, so the volunteers grabbed the larval lamprey sampling gear and started to dig. Excitement erupted when someone found a 1-inch long wiggly creature, but I, unfortunately, had to burst their bubble by revealing that we were looking at a horsefly larva.
Once again, volunteers broke into groups to search in different sections of the stream. One volunteer pointed out a small patch of really fine and silty sediment on the opposite side of the bank. I headed over with her, and as I stuck the sampling base into the sediment, I saw a glimpse of a silvery body. Because we had seen fish all day, I assumed this was the same and exclaimed–“I caught a fish!”. Others said, “No, no, no, I think that’s a lamprey!”
Everyone held their breath as I scooped the dip net to try to catch our mystery specimen. As I dumped the contents of the dip net into a tray, we saw a 7-inch, dark blue, iridescent eel-shaped creature, equipped with a suction mouth and seven breathing holes–it was none other than our elusive lamprey. Excitement erupted again, even louder as all the volunteers ran over to get a glimpse of our ancient friend. We continued scoping out more sediment and uncovered several other lampreys of various sizes. Data was collected, photos were taken, and we sent the lamprey back into the stream so they could dig back down into the comfort of the fine sediments. After this discovery, we continued upstream with huge smiles, determined to find more lamprey. We spent several more hours digging and uncovering more larval lamprey.
USING DATA TO GUIDE RESTORATION
Though finding our target species during our second day of surveys was more exciting, our failure to find lamprey and optimal habitat in Stump Creek has provided data that is equally important to our work. Together, the information gathered over two years at various sites tells a story that backs up the need for restoration. Once we saw where lamprey were found on the second day, in a particular silty fine sediment, we realized that the less-fine sediments in Stump Creek may not be currently capable of providing the exact habitat features that lamprey need.
Later this year, CFC will be installing several wood structures into the stream to improve the aquatic and riparian habitat at Stump Creek. Introducing more woody debris will help slow the water, create deep pools, retain fine sediments, and keep water in the system for longer–all features that will benefit Pacific lamprey, salmonids, beaver, and more!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Right 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.