EARLY WILDLIFE OBSERVATIONS AND DISTRIBUTION
IN OREGON TERRITORY PRIOR TO 1843
One of the goals of biodiversity preservation is to maintain or restore native species in something approaching their natural distribution and numbers. Historical accounts can provide some insights into preexisting conditions. Using early journal entries from Oregon Territory it appears that a number of species once abundant have significantly declined in numbers or suffered local extirpation. The notion that wildlife was equally abundant and well distributed prior to Euro-American exploration may be also inaccurate. This review presents the major historical references to wildlife occurrence in the Pacific Northwest prior to extensive Euro-American settlement.
Key Words: Historic, wildlife, Oregon.
One of the goals of biodiversity preservation is to maintain native species in something approximating their natural distribution and numbers (Noss and Cooperrider 1994). The historic biogeography of a region can be an immense aid in restoration ecology efforts, or at least providing insights into how much or how little a region has been changed due to human manipulation or other factors (Cronon 1983, Kay 1990, Davis 1982, Schullery and Whitlesey 1992, Vale 1975). Such records are useful tools that can be employed as an environmental "barometer" to measure landscape and wildlife changes over time.
Many factors affect animal and plant distribution. Long term climatic change is a potent force in changing biogeographical distribution (Despain 1990, Romme and Turner 1991, Whitlock 1993). But in the western United States, perhaps the biggest single factor in changing species distribution today is human modification of the environment. It may be incorrect, however, to assume that indigenous people had no influence effect upon the natural landscape (Cronon 1983, Johannessen et al. 1971, Kay 1990, Ray 1975), thus represented some "pristine" steady-state situation.
To minimize the influence of Euro-American settlement and exploitation upon wildlife populations and distribution, I choose to review only first hand accounts recorded prior to 1843, the year of the first major mass immigration to Oregon by way of the Oregon Trail. Although there were as many as several hundred non-Indians, primarily retired traders and trappers of the Hudson's Bay Company may have already been living in the region by 1840, their direct influence upon wildlife was concentrated in a few locations such as the Fort Vancouver area in Washington and Oregon's Willamette Valley by present-day Oregon City.
BIAS IN HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS
There are several risks associated with use of historical records (Forman and Russell 1983). The first is to assume that early historical accounts represented a "pristine" environment. Even before the first Euro-American explorers set foot into Oregon, the influence of white contact was already in place. Indians of eastern Oregon, for example, had obtained the horse as early as the 1700's. This provided greater mobility and changes in trade patterns, and resource exploitation. There is evidence that suggests that bison were wiped out of southern Idaho largely due to Indian predation pressure by 1840 (Urness 1989) as a result of improved hunting efficiency after the acquisition of the horse and firearms. Even technologically primitive people had the capability to extirpate regional wildlife populations.
In addition, trade opportunities, in part provided by Euro-American markets may have also introduced European diseases to formerly isolated Indian groups. This may have countered, however, the effects of Indian predation, creating large regions where major game species were virtually unhunted.
Many Indian tribes contracted diseases from the first Euro-Americans to travel the coasts of the Pacific Northwest, and through trade networks and warfare, transmitted these diseases to other indigenous people throughout the region. In many instances, these diseases had a devastating effect upon Indian populations.
For example, Thomas Farnham (1843) who traveled to Oregon in 1839 noted how disease had wiped out thousands of people. In traveling down the Columbia River he noted numerous elevated burial platforms. "These mountains are used by the Chenooks as a burial places. During the epidemic fever of 1832, which almost swept this portion of the Columbia Valley of its inhabitants, vast numbers of the dead were place among them. ...Thousands of these were seen."
Similarly, John Kirk Townsend (1839) traveled down the Columbia River in 1834 and noted how disease had ravaged the native population. "A disease of a very fatal character is prevalent among these Indians; many of them have died of it, even some of those in the neighborhood of the fort, where medical assistance was always at hand."
Human influences work dynamically with climate, and other influences, so one can't freeze the situation, nor recreate past assemblages of plants and animals. Even the earliest recorded wildlife observations may have been points of transition.
The room for individual bias in reporting is obvious. The interests of each of these groups affected what they noted about wildlife. As might be expected, trappers were concerned about fur-bearing animals and food resources more than anything else. They might note if they saw elk and deer, but ignore non-food bird species. Early naturalists like Douglas and Townsend, on the other hand, might describe the common birds and small mammals observed.
Temporal and spatial scales are also important. The season of travel often influenced what would be recorded or seen. For example, Lewis and Clark failed to note grizzly bears in western Oregon, and even the number of black bears recorded as observed by them was small in number. However, the only observations they made in western Oregon was during the winter of 1805-1806, a time when bears would be in hibernation (Burroughs 1961, Coues 1893). Similarly, waterfowl were abundant in the Willamette Valley in winter, but nearly absence in the summer when they move further north to nest. Thus summertime travelers might fail to record the occurrence of waterfowl that a winter traveler would almost certainly note. And many big game animals like elk and deer made seasonal migrations from winter lowlands to subalpine feeding grounds and may have been absence or scarce during the summer in the lowlands where many expeditions traveled.
The route traveled may also influence wildlife observations. In the early days of exploration, the Columbia River, and its major tributary the Willamette, were both important travel corridors. These rivers are navigable by canoe with minor portages. These rivers were also important population centers for the region's native people, in part, due to the abundance of salmon and other fish that regularly ascended these streams. Since most of the early Euro-American travelers to the region were traders, trappers, missionaries or government expeditions, all gravitated towards the Indian settlements and primary travel routes. Thus, the preponderance of observations were made along these major travel corridors. This could introduce another bias into the accounts since heavy exploitation of wildlife along these routes by native people as well as travelers may significantly reduce wildlife numbers. For instance, members of the Lewis and Clark (Coues 1893) expedition during their return trek across Montana's Gallatin Valley in 1806 noted the absence of bison. Their guides suggested that recent hunting by Indians likely drove the animals from the region.
Finally, if animals are relatively common, people often don't bother to note them. Who today would bother to record that there were cars in a parking lot unless one expected the lot to be empty or full.
As Schullery and Whittlesey (1992) have stated, the absence of wildlife observations does not necessarily mean that it was not present or even abundant.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Most of the early historical accounts come from five different groups of Euro-Americans. There are exploratory military expeditions like the 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition and Lt. Charles Wilkes 1841 military reconnaissance.
Fur trappers and traders were another major source of early historical observations. Although a number of fur companies vied for domination of the lucrative Pacific Northwest trade, the Hudson Bay's Company eventually came to control the region. The company's major trading post, Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, became a focal point for travelers and traders from throughout the Northwest, particularly from the 1820's through the 1850's. From bases on the Columbia River, traders and trappers including Peter Skene Ogden, John Work, Gabriel Franchere, and Alexander Ross provide journal entries spanning the years from 1811 to the 1830's. All of these observations were made prior to significant white settlement that began in the 1840's. Their journals provide detailed observations of early wildlife abundance and distribution.
At the same time that the fur traders were mapping out the Northwest, a few early naturalists also traveled through the region. These include botanist David Douglas who spent the years 1824-1827 collecting plants throughout the region, and John Kirk Townsend who journeyed overland from St. Louis, Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia in 1835-1836.
Beginning in the mid-1830's, a third group of observers entered the region. These were missionaries like Gustavus Hines and Samuel Parker. Their observations were made about 1835 and slightly later. Again this was prior to the mass migration of settlers on the Oregon Trail.
Finally, starting in 1839 and accelerating every year there after, homesteaders such as Thomas Farnham who arrived in Oregon in 1839, and Lansford Hastings who cross the country in 1842, were members of wagon trains that crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail. These settlers also recorded their impressions of wildlife occurrence and abundance.
One problem with such a review, of course, is that geographic place names are largely non-existent. Except for outstanding natural landmarks such as Willamette Falls on the Willamette River or Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, or estimates of distance traveled from reference points like Fort Vancouver, it was often difficult to determine the exact location for any journal entry.
Some generalizations are possible. Eastern Oregon and adjacent parts of Idaho seemed to have uneven wildlife distribution. Some parties almost starved while traveling through this region (Ogden 1909, Ross 1849) while others found game abundant, particularly in southern Idaho where bison were occasionally encountered.
The Columbia River was a major travel corridor. It also had a large native population that subsisted primarily on salmon. Most travelers did not find game particularly abundant along the river corridor. Whether this was due to a lack of game or because it was easier to procure fresh and dried salmon from the Indians, and therefore few whites pursued game, is difficult to determine.
Since vegetation and habitat determines to some extent what wildlife may be present, a quick review of early historical accounts of the landscape is useful.
Of all regions in the Pacific Northwest, the overwhelming majority of travelers thought Oregon's Willamette Valley was a rich and bountiful land. Over and over again, trappers, and settlers commented upon the beauty of the valley and the abundance of good soil, as well as wildlife.
For example, in February of 1814, Astorian Gabriel Franchere traveled up the Willamette Valley and was one of the first whites to leave a record. Franchere (1967) wrote: "I found it a superb river as I traveled up it. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful of all the rivers that flow into the Columbia. From the confluence to a falls of considerable size, (present day Oregon City), the country is, in truth, low and marshy; but at the falls the banks begin to rise on either side, and above it they offer the happiest and most picturesque of views, laid bare of trees in several places and rising gradually in the form an amphitheater. Deer and elk are to be found there in great number."
Alexander Ross, a contemporary of Franchere, describes (Ross 1849) the Willemette which he calls the Wallamitte. "The Wallamitte quarter has always been considered by the whites as the garden of the Columbia, particularly in an agricultural point of view."
Lansford Hastings (1845) who traveled overland to Oregon in 1842 described the Willamette Valley favorably. "This river and its tributaries, water one of the most fertile and delightful regions in all Oregon. From its source to its mouth, a distance of about three hundred miles, it passes alternately through high mountains and hills, undulating, rich plains, and fertile and beautiful valleys."
In November of 1835 Samuel Parker, a missionary recently arrived in Oregon from the East, describes his first impressions of the Willamette Valley. "...the country around contains fine tracts of rich prairie, sufficiently interspersed with woods for all the purposes of fuel, fencing and lumber." Near McKays settlement, a hamlet located upstream of Willamette Falls (by present day Oregon City) consisting of twenty or so retired Hudson Bay Company families which has about twenty families, Parker described the Willamette Valley as "...well diversified with woods and prairies, the soil is rich and sufficiently dry for cultivation and at the same well watered with small streams and springs. " He comments upon the horses he saw "fattering upon the fresh luxuriant grass of the prairies."
In August of 1840, Gustavus Hines, along with Jason Lee, and several another missionary traveled up the Willamette Valley. Hines describes the Willamette Valley as "beautifully diversified with rising grounds, varying from the gentle undulation to the majestic hills, fertile valleys..."
Later Hines described the valley near a river they called the Santa Am's Fork (Santiam). Hines (1851) says his horses "cropped the wild grass of the prairie around us." On August 19, 1840, Hines says they camped "the centre of a large prairie." Later he comments that "The prairies had been all overrun with fire a short time previous, and it was with difficulty that we could find sufficient feed for our horses."
Comments such as Hines would seem to confirm what later researchers have prostrated: that much of the Willamette Valley was open prairie. A number of authors contend (Habeck 1962, Johannessen et al. 1971, Bowen 1974, Towle 1978) that Indian-ignited and natural fires helped to maintain the Willamette Valley and other major valleys like the Umpqua and Rogue as an open prairie with oak savannas.
These burned areas would green up and regrow with the rains that came each fall and winter. Hence, they provided a rich and nutritious food resource for grazing animals like geese, and elk. The fires also helped to maintain the dominance of oaks which are otherwise replaced by Douglas fir, bigleaf maple, and other species. Acorns from oaks, for example, were an important food resource for everything from bear to deer.
Eastern Oregon looked much as it does now with grasslands, sagebrush, and pines. Traveling in the Harney Lake Basin near present-day Burns, Peter Skene Ogden (1909) noted "All of the country is low and bare of wood except worm wood (sagebrush) and brush. We had trouble finding wood to cook supper."
Most wildlife observations were generalized summaries of the region's wildlife occurrence, rather than specific references to particular observations. Nevertheless, they do provide a view of early traveler's overall impressions of the wildlife abundance. The following are representative summaries.
Gabriel Franchere (1967) was a member of the 1811 Astorian party sent by sea to the Columbia River. Franchere's party set up a trading post called Fort Astoria. In his journal, Franchere notes "The principal quadrupeds are the elk, the black-tailed deer, the red deer (whitetail), and four species of bear, distinguished especially the color of their fur--to wit: black, brown, gray, and white. The gray bear is extremely ferocious and is flesh-eating; the white bear lives along the seashore to the north. The wolf, panther, lynx, a species of marmot, prairie dog (prairie dogs are not found in Oregon and this must be a reference to ground squirrels), wood rat, mink, beaver, otter and sea otter are also to be found.
In May of 1811, Franchere traveling with Indian guides and a few others from the ship proceeded upstream. Franchere commented (1967): "We then passed the Willamette River, above which the tide ceases to be felt. Our guide informed us that up this river about a day's journey there was a larger waterfall (by present day Oregon City) and beyond it the country abounded in beaver, otter, deer, and other wild animals."
On October 1, 1812 Franchere left Astoria on a food gathering expedition to procure supplies for the winter by trading with the natives and hunting. He says "We found game very abundant, killed a great quantity of swans, plovers, ducks, and so forth, and returned to Astoria on the 20th with a part of our venison, 750 smoked salmon, and 450 beaver skins" (Franchere 1967).
Thomas Farnham (1843), who traveled to Oregon by wagon train in 1839 says of animals observed that "Of wild animals , these are the white tailed, black tailed, jumping and moose deer; the elk; red and black and grey wolve; the black, brown, and grisley bear; the mountain sheep; black, white, red and mixed foxes; beaver, lynxes, martin, otters minks, muskrats, wolverine, marmot, ermines, woodrates, and the small curled-tailed short eared dog."
Lansford Hastings (1845) who traveled to Oregon with one of the first wagon trails on the Oregon Trail described general wildlife abundant in Oregon as follows: "The game of the western section is more abundant (than in the east and middle sections of Oregon Territory which at this time extended into present-day Idaho) yet it can not be said to be very plentiful, even in this section. It consists principally of elk, antelope, deer, wolves, bear, foxes, martens, muskrate, beavers, otters and seals."
Though wildlife may have been abundant in some areas, there were areas with few animals sighted. Many early travelers mentioned periods of hardship, even starvation. In 1811, Franchere states that his party had difficulty obtaining fresh meat from the Indians and said " they were obliged to trade with the Indians for dry venison. Salmon and elk were considered delicacies".
Lieutenant Wilkes traveled the length of the Willamette Valley in 1841. Excepts from the Report of Lieutenant Wilkes to the Secretary of the Navy, of the examination, by the Exploring Expedition, of the Oregon Territory in 1841 follow: " Abundance of game exists, such as elk, deer, antelope, bears, wolves, foxes, muskrats, martins, beavers, a few grizzly bears and siffleur, which are eaten by Canadians. In the middle section (between the Cascades and Blue Mts), or that designated as the rolling prairie, no game is found. In the eastern section (between the Blue Mts. and Rockies) the buffalo is met with."
Wildlife was even scarcer in parts of eastern Oregon and adjacent parts of Idaho which were then all part of Oregon Territory. For example, Franchere (1967) relates the experiences of the overland Astorians who had traveled with Wilson Price Hunt by canoe, horse and foot to the mouth of the Columbia from Montreal. On January 2nd, 1812 the travelers Donald McKenzie, Robert McCllellan, and Mr. Reed, arrived at Astoria and related a story of extreme hardship.
According to Franchere, for twenty days, McKenzie's party followed the Snake "finding nothing at all to eat and suffering horribly from thirst." Several times mounted Indians approached them, and each time, the Astorians would shoot a horse out from under one of the Indians, then devour it, saving themselves from starvation. They would leave some trinkets as payment.
Alexander Ross (1849), another Astorian based at Fort Astoria between 1811-1814 near the mouth of the Columbia relates the near starvation of the Wilson Price Hunt's party of overland Astorians encountered in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Hunt party saw few Indians and the Indians encountered were "destitute"themselves. "At this time a starving dog that could hardly crawl along was a feast to our people, and even the putrid and rotten skins of animals were resorted to in order to sustain life."
Traveling along the Snake River in Idaho Ross comments that Hunt's party found: "That part of the country where they were was destitute of game, and the provisions of the whole party taken together were scarcely enough for two days journey. At that season of year the Indians retire to the distant mountains, and leave the river till the return of spring, which accounts for their absence at this time."
Hunt's party split into four different groups, figuring that it would be easier to find food to feed four smaller groups than one large group. Individually, each party made its way towards Fort Astoria with varying degrees of suffering.
Crooks and John Day, two hunters with the Hunt Party left behind with the Snake Indians to trade suffered terribly. The Indians eventually left them, having run out of food themselves, so Crooks and Day were left their own devices. Crook's story is related by Ross.
Ross (1849) says Crooks and Day gathered some roots, started a fire, and built a brush teepee or hut. But they were so weak, the fire went out and they did not have the energy to start another. Fortunately two Indians happened by who rekindled the fire and gave them venison. Shortly after, a wolf ventured by which John Day was able to shoot.
This food gave them enough strength to travel again and eventually Crooks and Day reached the Umatilla area where they were befriended by some Indians. Eventually they reached Fort Astoria.
Ross tells of another Hunt party group trials. Donald McKenzie's party traveling through the Blue Mountains in December of 1811 "suffered much and were at one time five days without a mouthful to eat, when, fortunately, they caught a beaver; and on this small animal and its skin, scarcely a mouthful to each, the whole party had to subsist for three days."
Ogden repeats this same scenario. Leading a trapping expedition through eastern Oregon in November of 1826, Ogden (1909) noted that "the country is destitute of animals and we may prepare to starve altho' wild fowl seem to abound." Later he writes "provisions scarce prospects gloomy... no game... The hunters are discouraged. Day after day from morning to night in quest of animals; but not one track do they see." Ogden plight is not due to an inability to secure food. He notes that Indians of the region were also starving and had resorted to cannibalism. "She herself had not killed any one, but had fed on two of her own children who died thro' weakness."
Samuel Parker (1844) who traveled to Oregon in 1835 well before the major migration of people to the state, nevertheless, already noted a decline in wildlife abundance--or at least fewer animals than he had been lead to believe existed in the West. In summarizing the wildlife he observed during his journey west to Oregon notes: "It is generally supposed that wild animals, in all Indian countries, and especially in the far regions beyond the mountains, are very numerous, but, on the whole game is scarce."
At least some of this decline Parker attributes to overharvest and greed. With regard to the bison Parker (1844) observed on the plains and in Wyoming, he seems almost prophetic when he perceives the bison's potential extinction. "...buffalo within their range, which is becoming more and more circumscribed. And if they should continue to diminish for twenty years to come, as they have during the last twenty , they will become almost extinct.... It is unpleasant to contemplate the period, when this noble animal will be seen no more, and will be known only in history and seen only upon canvass. Thousands and hundreds of thousands are slain yearly, not for food, but for robes, to gratify the luxury of civilized men, as is seen in almost every vehicle for business or pleasure."
From the above, it's clear that the idea that wildlife was everywhere abundant, and easily procured is not entirely accurate. Starvation and suffering was a common occurrence both for the Indians as well as the first explorers and travelers.
Lewis and Clark were the first to record bear. In Feb. 1806 while (Burroughs 1961) at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River, Lewis noted that Drewyer, one of the expedition's hunters, had seen a black bear, "which was the only one which had been seen in this neighborhood since our arrival; the Indians inform us that they are aboudant but now in their holes." This is a reference to the fact that most bears were in hibernation.
In April, expedition members killed three bear cubs near the mouth of the Sandy River. Two more bear were sighted on April 8th within the Columbia Gorge (Coues 1893).
Lewis and Clark noted grizzly bears on numerous occasions in Montana and elsewhere on their journey across the continent, however, they reported no grizzlies in western Oregon.
Botanist, David Douglas (1905) recorded seeing several grizzly bears in the Upper Willamette River valley. On October 1, 1825 he remarks upon seeing a "very large grizly bear." A few days later, while still in the Willamette Valley, he obtains a grizzly bear hide from another trapper who had recently killed it. The same day one of the hunters in Douglas's party was attacked by a grizzly.
Later in October, while on the Umpqua River, Douglas relates how his Indian guide was attacked by another grizzly (Douglas 1905). Later that same day, Douglas comes upon a sow and her two cubs "feeding on acorns under the shade of a large oak." He opened fire on the bears and wounded the mother which ran off, and managed to kill one of the cubs.
Ogden (1909) along the Klamath River near the Oregon-California border reports that on March 5th his men reported that bears were "numerous" after just coming out of hibernation. And on March 26, 1826 in the Rogue River Valley, Ogden notes that one of his Indian guides "saw a grizzly bear of large size." The bear was attacked by the Indian who was mauled severely.
Missionary Samuel Parker (1844) traveled west from St. Louis to Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1835 and reported on the bears he observed on this journey, which included considerable time in Oregon. Parker doesn't make a distinction as where exactly he observed a particular bear, however, he implies that he observed some in western Oregon.
Parker notes: "There are four varieties of bears, though it is supposed there are only two distinct species. These are the white, grizzly, brown and black. The white bear is ferocious and powerful, but their numbers are so small in the region of the Oregon Country, that they are not an object of dread.
"But the grizzly bear is far more numerous, more formidable, and larger, some of them weighing six or eight hundred pounds. Their teeth are formed for strength, and their claws are equally terrific, measuring four or five inches and their feet, which are astonishingly larger, exclusive of the claws, measuring not far from ten inches long and five inches wide. There are some even larger. The shades of their color vary from a very light gray to a dark brown, always retaining the grizzly characteristic."
Parker (1844) observes that the black bear has two color phases in the west by noting a "brown bear" and a black bear being nearly similar. He states: "The brown bear is less ferocious, more solitary, and not highly esteemed either for food or for its skin. The black bear is somewhat similar in its habits to the brown, but lives more upon vegetable food, and is more in estimation for its pure black, well-coated skin. "
WOLVES, FOX, MOUNTION LION AND OTHER LARGER PREDATORS
John Kirk Townsend (1839), in December of 1835 noted that a trapper at Fort Vancouver caught an "enormous wolf."
Samuel Parker (1844) who traveled overland to Oregon in 1835 summarized his observations of the cat family observed in Oregon or on his journey west. "Of the feline, or cat kind, there are the panther, the long-tailed tiger cat, the common wild cat, and the lynx. The panther is rarely seen, and the differences of climate and country produce no change in its ferociousness and other habits from those found in other parts of America. The long-tailed tiger cat is more common, very large, and of a dull reddish color. Also the common wild cat is often seen. It is much smaller, its tail is short and its color is like the above named. I can only name the lynx, as they did not come under my observation. In the lower, wooded country they are found, and the Indians say they are numerous."
Parker (1844) made extensive comments on the canines. "There are different species of wolves; the common gray wolf, the black, blue, white and the small prairie wolf. The common gray wolf is the same as those found in the United States, and has all their common habits. The black wolf, I did not see, but as described by Mr. Ermitinger, a gentlemen belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, is larger than the gray and more noble in its appearance, and is the strongest of the wolf kind. Those which the same gentlemen called the blue wolf, are rarely seen, as also the white and so far as their habits are known, they do not materially differ from others."
Parker (1844) comments upon wolf numbers: "Much has been said about the immense numbers of wolves beyond the Rocky Mountains, but I did not find them so numerous as I expected. I do not make this assertion solely from the fact that I saw or heard only a few, but from the testimony of those whose long residence in this country entitles them to credit. It is the traveler who never saw the country he describes, or the lover of the marvelous, or he who does not expect soon to be followed in his route through dreary and uninhabited wilds, who sees, and minutely relates adventures with the reptiles and monsters of the desert."
Parker, like other travelers, often referred to the coyote as a prairie wolf. He notes (Parker 1844), "The small prairie wolf is the most common, and bears the greatest resemblance to the dog, and has been called the wild dog. It differs from the dog in all the peculiarities of the wolf kind as much as the others do. It is as uniform in its color, size, and habits. They are of a dull reddish gray, never parti-colored; the hair is always long, blended with brown fur at its roots, and like other wolves they are always prowling and cowardly. They are more numerous than the other kinds, and in considerable numbers follow the caravans to feed upon the offal. Although we frequently heard them howl and bark around our encampments, yet they never disturbed our rest."
"The fox, which is generally dispersed through the world, is found here in three different kinds; the red, gray, and silver. They do not differ from those found east of the mountains. The silver gray fox is scarce, and highly esteemed, and takes the highest rank among the furs of commerce. Its color is dark, sometimes nearly black, the ends of hairs tipped with white..." (Parker 1844).
On June 14, 1840 Gustavus Hines left Ft. Vancouver for the Willamette. Near the confluence of Columbia and Willamette he reported hearing the howl of a wolf (Hines 1851).
Traveling down the Willamette Valley in June of 1840, Hines reports that "occasionally could be seen the fallow deer and prairie wolves..."(Hines 1851).
In 1840 while camped on the Umpqua River, Hines (1851) notes:" The party camped in dense forest along the upper Umpqua and reported hearing the howl of a wolf.
Lansford Hastings (1845) gave his impression of predator and prey in the Willamette Valley in 1842. He wrote ".... In that part of this section, where the settlements are now being made, by our citizens, deer and wolves are the most numerous game, of the quadruped kind. The latter of these animals are very numerous, and troublesome to the surrounding settlers, among whom they make frequent incursions, destroying their sheep, hogs, and even young calves in great numbers."
And Bailey (1936) reviewing wolf distribution concludes that the animals were common in the Willamette Valley and west to the coast. From 1913 to 1914, bounties were paid 6 in Clackamas Co. , 6 Linn Co. , 1 Lane County. A wolf was killed in Lane County in 1930, and another killed near McKenzie Bridge in Lane County in Jan. 1931 (Bailey).
Bounties were paid on 269 mountain lion between 1913-14. Highest number from Douglas County. Twenty four in lane county,
10 in Linn co. 18 in Coos County. 60 in Curry (Bailey 1936).
Parker (1844) notes: "Martins (Marten) are not abundant; some are found about the headwaters of the Columbia in woody mountains, but they are more numerous and of superior quality farther north."
Parker (1844) says of other furbearers that: "The weasel, the polecat (skunk), the marmot, the mink, and muskrat are common, though not numerous in this country..." He finds "The wolverine is said to inhabit these western regions, and I saw one in the Salmon River Mountains, which my Indians killed."
Beaver--In 1805 Lewis and Clark reported beavers along the lower Columbia. In 1811, Franchere (1967) states: "The natives informed us that the beaver was very abundant in the country where the Willamette flowed." And in 1812, Franchere, on a 20 day trapping and trading trip from Astoria, brought back 450 skins of beaver and other animals of the furry tribe" (Franchere 1967).
Gabriel Franchere (1967) reported that in 1813 several Astorians had been sent to the Willamette to trap. They returned to Astoria on March 20th and reported " the country of the Willamette as charming and abounding in beaver and deer..."
And Franchere (1967) reported that another trapping party of Astorians returned from the Willamette on May 25, 1813 "...with 17 packets of skins and 32 bales of dried meat."
Douglas (1905) reports that beaver were apparently abundant in the Willamette Valley. "This place was at one time considered to be the finest hunting ground for beaver west of the Rocky Mountains, and much have I been gratified in viewing the lodges and dams constructed by that wise and industrious little animal."
The beaver no doubt declined due to trapping pressure. West of the Cascades Douglas (1905) reported the beaver as "now scarce".
Ogden (1909) who traveled extensively throughout eastern Oregon in search of beaver, did not find them particularly abundant, a fact he attributes to past trapping efforts by both whites and Indian. For example, in his journal for 1826 he notes that "It was now 2 mos. since we set out, and we have only 500 beaver." Later again in the Harney Lake Basin Ogden (1909) mentions that the "natives have destroyed in this region upwards of 60,000 beaver, not one of which reached our forts." This probably means that the Indians took their furs to American traders.
Among the major game species sought by many traveler as a food source. Lewis and Clark recorded no elk between Lolo Pass and the mouth of the Columbia (Burroughs 1961). Originally the expedition was planning to winter on the Washington side of the Columbia River, however they moved their camp to the south side of the Columbia, in part because the Indians reported that elk were more abundant there. While at Fort Clatsop between December 1, 1805 and March 23, 1806, they killed 129 elk. They killed fifteen more before they reached Celilo Falls on the Columbia, but none thereafter until they again reached the Bitterroot Valley in Montana.
On the Willamette Valley in Feb. of 1814 Gabriel Franchere (1967) stated that elk were abundant commenting that "deer and elk are to be found there in great number."
Alexander Ross was a contemporary of Franchere who also was one of the Astorians. Leaving Fort Astoria, Ross heads up river and just beyond Cascade Locks, he (Ross 1849) notes that "this range (Cascades) abounds in beaver and elk, and is often frequented by the industrious hunter."
Ross (1849) also ascended the Willamette River in 1812 and notes "Between these high lands lie what is called the Valley of the Wallamitte, the frequented haunts of innumerable herds of elk and deer. "
Douglas (1904) says that elk are "found in all the woody country, and particularly abundant near the coast."
David Douglas (1905) traveling in the Willamette Valley in October of 1825 notes that his party killed a "small elk" that weighed about "500 pounds". Nevertheless, the elk had "five prongs" on each side.
Samuel Parker traveled across the west to Oregon in 1835 and commented on the elk abundance he found. "Among the animals of the genus cercus, the elk is the largest and most majestic. It exists in considerable number east of the Rocky Mountains, but is less numerous on the west side."
In August of 1840, while traveling on the Umpqua River Hines (1851) commented: The elk abound in this country, and afford a fruitful source when the Indians derive a subsistence."
And in 1841 Wilkes reported them as abundant near Willamette Falls.
Bailey (1936) reports that as country was settled, elk were reported from almost every valley and mountain range of western Oregon, including the west slope of the Cascade Mountains.
However by the turn of the century elk numbers were dramatically reduced. Bailey (1936) states that in 1914, the Oregon Sportsmen reported 48 elk in Lane County, 25 elk on the head of Drift Creek in Lincoln County. In 1915, two or three small bands were reported for Clackamas County. And in 1916, animals were said to be increasing in Lane, Lincoln, and Doulgas counties. Eight were counted in Coos County, and a small band of 30-40 in Curry County.
The Forest Service reported 1924, 1925, 1926, elk numbers decreasing on the Cascade and Siskiyou Forests, and increasing on the Crater, Hood, Santium and Umpqua forests. The Cascade Forest reported 225 elk. A total of 436 elk were reported for the entire western slope forests in Oregon in these years (Bailey 1936).
Today, there are an estimated 50,000 elk in Oregon (Oregon Fish and Game 1994). Thus despite a growing human population coupled with an eroding habitat base, restriction on the harvest of elk has resulted in an increase in elk numbers somewhat approximating the abundant observed during early years of Euro-American occupation.
The Lewis and Clark expedition give the impression that deer were less abundant than elk. However, it is also possible that hunters preferred to kill elk rather than deer. Whatever the reasons, the party only killed 17 deer during the three months they spent at Fort Clatsop. Nevertheless, on their return trip, they reported seeing on Deer Island below the mouth of the Willamette more than a 100 Columbia whitetail deer and killing 10 of them in one day (Bailey 1936, Coues 1893). Another 12 were taken near the Sandy River (Burroughs 1961, Coues 1893).
In September of 1825, Douglas traveled the Willamette Valley and found deer scarce. "Nine deer seen in one group, the animals were so shy... that no meat was procured." The next day, his party kills just one deer. In general he suggests that "deer were scarce...(Douglas 1905)"
In October of 1825 Douglas (1905) reported seeing deer fairly frequently on the Umpqua River. On the 18th of that month, he scared up a "a herd of small deer." The next day, he wounded "a very large buck" and he notes that other hunters in the party had killed several deer. He specifically mentions that a "black-tailed deer" was killed on the 22nd of October by Mr. McLeod.
In ascending the Willamette in August of 1824, Douglas mentions killing "several" "long white-tailed deer, as well as some of the black-tailed kind" just upstream from Willamette Falls.
Yet, in 1826, David Douglas reported them as "remarkably abundant", "more especially in the fertile prairies of the Multnomah (Willamette) River (Douglas 1904)."
Bailey (1936) suggests that early explorers did not find the blacktail deer excessively abundant, although words like considerable deer found here, deer abound and other adjectives indicate that deer were not scarce.
D.D.Hikcelmen of Albany is quoted in Bailey saying the last whitetail was killed in the valley about 1898 near Sweet Home.
T.C. Baker said that "flagtails" were naturally deer of the river bottoms, islands, and willow thickets and open prairies, sometimes going into the foothills, but never high in the mountains (Bailey).
In 1826 David Douglas is quoted by Bailey (1936) of procuring a bighorn sheep skin at the Dalles. And of the trappers with Peter Skene Ogden's recorded killing a bighorn sheep in the Mutton Mountains south of the Dalles.
Regarding bighorn sheep, Samuel Parker (1844) never saw any. "...which probably I should have done, if they were as numerous as travelers have said they are." However, it should be noted that except in crossing the mountains in Wyoming and Idaho, Parker's route did not cross any sheep habitat.
Samuel Parker (1844) summarized some of the smaller mammals found in Oregon noting that "The raccoon is somewhat numerous in parts of this country, more especially towards the ocean." And Parker states badger " inhabit this country and is found on the plains west of the great chain of mountains." And Parker notes: The hedgehog is common in all parts of Oregon Territory, does not differ from those found in other parts of America, and for its quills, is held in high estimation by the Indians."
John Kirk Townsend (1839) commented about seals he encountered on the Columbia River below Cascade Rapid. "We see great numbers of seals as we pass along. Immediately below the Dalles they are particularly abundant, being attracted thither by the vast shoals of salmon which seek the turbulent water of the river."
On the Columbia River near Lewis and Clark's Strawberry Island, Franchere (1967) describes shooting seals at the foot of a falls. "...we came to the foot of a falls, where we amused ourselves for some time shooting seals that were here in abundance. The Indians were catching salmon below the narrows."
Apparently shooting seals was a common recreational past time for many of these early travelers. On the Columbia near Fort Vancouver, David Douglas (1904) mentions "amusing" himself "shooting seals, which were sporting in vast numbers in the rapids where the salmon are particularly abundant."
Samuel Parker (1844) also noted the occurrence of harbor seals in the Columbia River. "The common seal are numerous in this river. It is very difficult to shoot them, even with the best rifles, on account of their diving with extreme suddenness at the flash. I had a fair opportunity to shoot one today, but with one splash he was out of sight and did not again appear. "
David Douglas (1904) says that the common Canadian good and small white goose are "abundant" on all lakes, marshes, and along the Columbia. He also notes three species of swan. The "common swan" (trumpeter), a smaller swan (tundra), and a third that is "blusih grey on the back neck and head, and white on its belly."
The latter is probably the greater white-fronted goose.
John Kirk Townsend (1839) notes that in 1834-35 "that the ducks and geese, which have swarmed throughout the country during the latter part of the autumn , are leaving us, and the swans are arriving in great numbers."
Later Townsend (1839) remarks on the abundance of pintails along the lower Columbia. "The common pintail duck is found here in vast flocks. The chief and myself killed twenty-six today, by a simultaneous discharge of our guns."
Lt. Charles Wilkes on a military expedition in western Oregon noted that waterfowl were abundant in the Willamette Valley. "In the spring and fall, the rivers are literally covered with geese, ducks, and other waterfowl."
Samuel Parker (1844), traveling down the Willamette Valley on December 1, 1835 commented upon the waterfowl. " Since going up this river, the number of swans and geese had greatly multiplied upon the waters and along the shores. Their noise, and especially that of the swans, echoed through the woods and prairies. The swan is a beautiful and majestic bird; its large body, long neck and clear white color, and graceful movements place it among the very first of the winged tribe."
In the same volume, Parker (1844) comments upon other waterfowl. "As autumn advances, the number of swans, geese, and ducks multiply. And in particular Parker notes the "loon, or great northern diver, is very plentiful in this river."
Hastings (1845) comments on waterfowl observed in Oregon. "In addition to the game before referred to, all the various rivers of this section abound with innumerable flocks of geese, ducks, brants, cranes, pelicans, swans, gulls, and a great variety of other waterfowl."
Indeed, Hastings suggests that they were so numerous as to be a nuisance. "The waterfowl enumerated, are very numerous, in the spring and autumn, when they appear to have congregated, from all the surrounding country, an from their incessant croaking , squeaking, and flapping of wings, you would be inclined to think, that they were convened, in sporting convention, from all parts of the world. so numerous are they, in fact, that their tumultuous croaking and plunging and dashing in the water is, in many places, noisome in the extreme. It is scarcely necessary here to remark, that it is entirely unnecessary , for emigrants to take either beds or feathers, from the states to that country. Feathers of the best quality, can be obtained from the Indians, in any desired quantities, for any trivial compensation."
David Douglas (1904) commented upon the birds he found while traveling in the Pacific Northwest in 1824 and 1825. "The silver-headed eagle (bald eagle), a grand creature , abundant wherever there are rivers containing fish." Douglas frequently shot eagles to demonstrate his prowess with a gun to the local natives.
Douglas (1904) also noted seeing a "species of buzzard or vulture" which he said was the "largest bird seen here, except the wild swan." "Seldom more than one or two of these buzzards are seen together; but when they can find the carcass of any dead, they gorge so gluttonously that it is easy to know them down with a stick....The color of this species is similar to the Canadian buzzard which I sent home, the beak and legs bright yellow." It seems that he is describing the now nearly extinct California Condor.
Douglas (1904) also specifically mentions magpie, four species of hawks, grouse, stellers jay, great horned owl, two species of crow (probably one being a raven).
John Kirk Townsend (1839) noted that band-tail pigeon was "very abundant" and found in flocks of "fifty to sixty".
In terms of birds Samuel Parker (1844) mentions the white-headed eagle, golden eagle, 3-4 species of hawks, two species of jay, the magpie, and "thousands of ravens and crows." several species of small sparrows, two or three species of grouse, dipper red-winged blackbird, and robin. Of warblers "there are eleven species, six of which are new; the other five are common in the United States." He also mentions six species of wren, three of titmice, two of nuthatches. Seven species of thrushes, fly catchers--eight species, 13 species of finches, eight species of woodpeckers.
Hastings (1845) who visited the Willamette Valley notes that "...there are numerous other feathered animals, such as hawks, eagles, ravens, thrushes, pheasants, woodpeckers, partridges, grouses, snowbirds and robins."
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS
In the summer of 1840 while traveling in the Willamette Valley, Hines (1851) noted: "There was something very peculiar about this pool. It embraced a superficial area of some ten rods round, with no visible inlet or outlet, and it was several miles from any other water, though the water in the pool was nearly upon a level with the surrounding land. It was also literally filled with frogs, there being at least five to every square foot."
Astorian Gabriel Franchere (1967) while at Tongue Point on the lower Columbia notes that in August, the Indians from Gray's Harbor and Strait of Juan de Fuca arrived to fish for sturgeon, indicating that the Columbia must have had significant sturgeon runs to draw Indians south from Puget Sound.
Later on Feb. 13, 1813 Franchere (1967) again noted: "The sturgeon began to enter the river, and on February 13 I left to fish for them. On the fifteenth, I sent the first boat-load to the establishment." This suggests that sturgeon were easily caught and abundant.
Franchere notes: "The months of August and September bring excellent sturgeon, a fish that varies greatly in size. There are some almost 11 feet long, and we caught one that weighed 390 pounds, even after the eggs and intestines had been drawn. The sturgeon does not come into the river in as great numbers as the salmon.
Alexander Ross described Willamette Falls on the Willamette River near present day Oregon City. Ross (1849) noted the abundance of salmon that congregated at the base of the falls attracted great numbers of Indians who spent months capturing fish and socializing. "To this pace, and no farther, the salmon ascend , and during the summer months they are caught in great quantities. At this place, therefore, all the Indians throughout the surrounding country assemble, gamble, and gormandize for months together."
David Douglas (1904) notes that in the spring of 1824 while at Fort Vancouver, they had an "abundance of excellent salmon." In June of the same year, he traveled up the Columbia and commended upon eating "roasted sturgeon". He (Douglas 1904) notes that a sturgeon caught in the Columbia by one of his companions "measured twelve feet nine inches from snout to the tip of the tail, and seven feet round the thickest part, and its weight exceeded 500 pounds."
Douglas later comments (1905) that the "quantity of salmon taken in the Columbia is almost incredible. The Indians resort in great numbers to the best fishing spots, often traveling several hundred miles for this purpose."
Douglas (1905) also mentions that a small trout is found abundantly in the creeks of the Columbia. He gives no description, but it is likely to be cutthroat trout, which was native to the area.
John Kirk Townsend (1839) observed the abundance of salmon on the Columbia River in 1835. "In our passage through some of the narrow channels today, we saw vast shoals of salmon, which were leaping and curvettig about in every direction, and not infrequently dashing their noses against our canoe, in their headlong course."
Thomas Farnham (1843), an early traveler on the Oregon Trail recorded an abundance of salmon at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River. "Countless numbers of salmon were leaping and falling upon the fretted waters;"
Missionary Samuel Parker (1844) describes the abundance of fish that once filled the rivers of the region. "The salmon is far the most numerous and valuable fish found in these waters, and is of excellent flavor. It is well ascertained that there are not less than six different species or varieties of the true salmon that ascend these waters commencing about the twentieth of April. Their muscular power is exceedingly great, which is manifested in passing the falls and rapids which would seem insuperable. They are never known to return, but are constantly pressing their way upwards, so that it is not uncommon to find them in the small branches of the rivers near the very sources. We found them in September near the Rocky Mountains, where they are said to be as late as November and December.
...It is worthy of notice, that the salmon has its preferences of water, selecting some branches of the Columbia River and passing by others; and those taken in some of the tributary streams are far better than those taken in others. While those which ascend the rivers never return, the young are seen in September descending on their way to the ocean, in immense numbers. It is believed these return the fourth year after their descent; but this may be only conjecture.
Parker (1844) also notes that "The sturgeon of good quality and in large numbers, commerce ascending the rivers in the fore part of April, and furnish food to the suffering Indians. I say suffering , for before the opening of the spring, their stock of provisions is consumed, and they are seen searching for roots and any thing which will sustain life; and though I do not feel authorized to say what others have said, that in the latter part of the winter and beginning of spring, they die with starvation in great numbers, yet they are brought to extreme want, and look forward , with great solicitude, to the time when the sturgeon shall come into the rivers."
In the rivers and lakes are a very superior quality of salmon, brook and salmon trout, sardines, sturgeon, rock cod, the hair seal, etc.
WILDLIFE IN OREGON TODAY WITH REFERENCE TO THE WILLAMETTE VALLEY
Most of the Willamette Valley has been transformed by agriculture and urbanization from its original natural condition. More than 69% of Oregon's population resides in the valley (U.S. Census, 1990) with Portland home to nearly half of the state's population. Important agricultural products include fruits, nuts, berries, grass seed, corn, ornamental shrub and tree production.
Historically, the valley was quite open with numerous grasslands as evidenced by the place names such as Tualatin Plains, North Plains, French Prairie and others.
Douglas fir dominates forested areas, along with bigleaf maple, and Oregon white oak. The loss of burning by Indians as well as early settlers, has changed the appearance of the valley, leading to a loss in the oak savanna habitat, an important wildlife food.
In addition, channelization and dams for flood control have significantly changed river flood patterns. Prior to the advent of dams and channelization, much of the Willamette Valley was seasonally flooded each winter. Numerous tributary channels provided habitat for waterfowl.
Wapato or arrowhead, an aquatic was once common, but due to drainage, and agricultural use of the land, this plant is no longer common.
Other changes include the change from a more diverse farm to larger fields of mono-crops. For example the widespread planting of commercial Christmas tree farms has low wildlife value (Oregon Fish and Game 1994).
The Willamette Valley is also the most densely settled part of Oregon with the state's four largest cities--Portland, Eugene, Salem and Corvallis. Over two million people reside in the Willamette Valley (U.S.Census 1990). Land ownership in primarily in private hands. According to the Oregon Fish and Game 96 percent of the land in the three interior western Oregon valleys (Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue) is privately owned. 33,000 acres are set aside specifically for wildlife and natural values. Among the public holdings are Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, and Fern Ridge Reservoir Wildlife Area.
Most of these refuges were established to benefit waterfowl, in particular two rare subspecies of Canada geese (Brana canadensis occidentalis and B.c. taverneri). Both subspecies nest in Alaska and winter in the Willamette Valley.
Other species that have declined include the Columbian white-tailed deer, canvasback, yellow-billed cuckoo, Lewis woodpecker, varius amphibians and reptiles.
Fish: Several species have suffered due to habitat changes. They include the Oregon chub, now a federally listed species under the ESA. It was once widespread in the Willamette drainage from Oregon City upstream. It is now isolated and restricted in numbers to Lookout Point and Dexter reservoirs on the upper Middle fork of the Willamette River, and in Gray Creek in the William Finley National Wildlife Refuge.
Reptiles: The western rattlesnake was once fairly common on rocky buttes in the Willamette Valley, now remains as a relict species only in the southern Willamette Valley. The western pond turtle has declined to the point where it may soon be listed as endangered as well. It's decline is blamed on wetland loss as well as the introduction of the exotic bullfrog which preys upon young turtles.
Mammals: The Pacific or "camas" gopher is a Willamette Valley endemic. Its numbers have declined presumably as farming replaced much of their habitat with fields. The gray-tailed vole, thought to be a Willamette Valley endemic, recently was found in Clark County Washington (Oregon Fish and Game 1994). The Columbian white-tail deer has also suffered a significant decline. The black-tailed jackrabbit was once more widespread in the Willamette Valley. Bailey (1936) reported seeing nine dead jackrabbits on the road between Eugene and Salmon in a single day in 1936. Today they are seldom seen. Large predators like the wolf and grizzly are now gone. However, elk and black-tailed deer are relatively common on the valley fringe--up from turn of the century lows.
The urbanization, and habitat fragmentation accompanying the spread of subdivisions, farm fragmentation, and other land use changes has resulted in the increase of several species formerly not found or rare in the region. This includes the starling, scrub jay, house finch, brown-headed cowbird and opossum (Oregon Fish and Game 1994).
In general, wildlife that benefit from human habitat manipulation have increased, while those relying upon undisturbed habitat have declined. This is similar to the situation that has occurred throughout the United States and presents the greatest challenge to those concerned about the long term preservation of biodiversity.
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Douglas, D. 1905. Sketch of a Journey to the Northwestern Parts of the Continent of North America during the years 1824, 1825, 1826,1827. The Oregon Historical Society. Vol.6
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Ross, Alexander. 1849. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s linerboard plant in Missoula announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Schweitzer, Missoula mayor John Engen and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable.
The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There has been a spate of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.
Part of the reason for this “boom” is that taxpayers are providing substantial financial incentives, including tax breaks, government grants, and loan guarantees. The rationale for these taxpayer subsidies is the presumption that biomass is “green” energy. But like other “quick fixes” there has been very little serious scrutiny of biomass real costs and environmental impacts. Whether commercial biomass is a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels can be questioned.
Before I get into this discussion, I want to state right up front, that coal and other fossil fuels that now provide much of our electrical energy need to be reduced and effectively replaced. But biomass energy is not the way to accomplish this end goal.
BIOMASS BURNING IS POLLUTION
First and foremost, biomass burning isn’t green. Burning wood produces huge amounts of pollution. Especially in valleys like Missoula where temperature inversions are common, pollution from a biomass burner will be the source of numerous health ailments. Because of the air pollution and human health concerns, the Oregon Chapter of the American Lung Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Florida Medical Association, have all established policies opposing large-scale biomass plants.
The reason for this medical concern is that even with the best pollution control devises, biomass energy is extremely dirty. For instance, one of the biggest biomass burners now in operation, the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont is the number one pollution source in the state, emitting 79 classified pollutants. Biomass releases dioxins, and as much particulates as coal burning, plus carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and contribute to ozone formation.
BIOMASS GENERATES MORE CARBON THAN COAL
Besides ignoring the human health aspects of large scale biomass burning, assertions that biomass energy is “green” is a misnomer. Wood burning generates 50% more carbon dioxide than coal. This is largely a factor of the lower heat content in wood which means to generate the same amount of megawatts requires burning far more wood than coal to achieve the same amount of electricity. Biomass burning releases about 3,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, while coal releases 2,100 pounds.
BIOMASS IS NOT CARBON NEUTRAL
Proponents of biomass often claim that biomass is “carbon neutral.” The reasoning behind this claim is the fact that growing trees will sequester carbon. On the surface this may make sense, however, it ignores that the it takes decades for new forest growth to capture the carbon that is released by trees consumed in a biomass burner. And that assumes there will be new trees growing—something that one can’t assume because climate change could make many places less suitable for forest growth. In an era of climate change, the assumption that a forest cut will grow back on the same site is optimistic at best.
The problem for humanity is that we need to reduce large scale carbon emissions now, not in 50 or 100 years as forests sequester carbon over decades.
BIOMASS ENERGY IS INEFFICIENT
Wood is not nearly as concentrated a heat source as coal, gas, oil, or any other fossil fuel. Most biomass energy operations are only able to capture 20-25% of the latent energy by burning wood. That means one needs to gather and burn more wood to get the same energy value as a more concentrated fuel like coal. That is not to suggest that coal is a good alternative, rather wood is a worse alternative. Especially when you consider the energy used to gather the rather dispersed source of wood and the energy costs of trucking it to a central energy plant. If the entire carbon footprint of wood is considered, biomass creates far more CO2 with far less energy output than other energy sources.
The McNeil Biomass Plant in Burlington Vermont seldom runs full time because wood, even with all the subsidies (and Vermonters made huge and repeated subsidies to the plant—not counting the “hidden subsidies” like air pollution) wood energy can’t compete with other energy sources, even in the Northeast where energy costs are among the highest in the nation. Even though the plant was also retrofitted so it could burn natural gas to increase its competitiveness with other energy sources, the plant still does not operate competitively. It is generally is only used to off- set peak energy loads.
One could argue, of course, that other energy sources like coal are greatly subsidized as well, especially if all environmental costs were considered. But at the very least, all energy sources must be “standardized” so that consumers can make informed decisions about energy—and biomass energy appears to be no more green than other energy sources.
BIOMASS SANITIZES AND MINES OUR FORESTS
The dispersed nature of wood as a fuel source combined with its low energy value means any sizeable energy plant must burn a lot of wood. For instance, the McNeil 50 megawatt biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont would require roughly 32,500 acres of forest each year if running at near full capacity and entirely on wood. Wood for the McNeil Plant is trucked and even shipped on trains from as far away as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine.
Biomass proponents often suggest that wood as a consequence of forest thinning to improve “forest health” (logging a forest to improve health of a forest ecosystem is an oxymoron.) will provide the fuel for plant operations. For instance, one of the assumptions of Senator Tester’s Montana Forest Jobs bill is that thinned forests will provide a ready source of biomass for energy production. But in many cases, there are limits on the economic viability of trucking wood any distance to a central energy plant. Again without huge subsidies, this simply does not make economic sense.
Biomass forest is even worse for forest ecosystems than clearcutting. Biomass energy tends to utilize the entire tree, including the bole, crown, and branches. This robs a forest of nutrients, and disrupts energy cycles.
Worse yet, such biomass removal ignores the important role of dead trees to sustain the forest ecosystems. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. They provide home and food for thousands of species, including 45% of all bird species in the Nation. Dead trees that fall to the ground are used by insects, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles for shelter and even potentially food. Dead trees that fall into streams are important physical components of aquatic ecosystems and provide critical habitat for many fish and other aquatic species. Removal of dead wood is mining the forest.
Keep in mind that logging activities are not benign. Logging typically requires some kind of access, often roads which are a major source of sedimentation in streams, and disrupt natural subsurface water flow. Logging can disturb sensitive wildlife like grizzly bear and even elk are known to abandon locations with active logging. Logging can spread weeds. And finally since large amounts of forest carbon are actually tied up in the soils, soil disturbance from logging is especially damaging, often releasing substantial additional amounts of carbon over and above what is released up a smoke stack.
BIOMASS ENERGY USES LARGE AMOUNTS OF WATER
A large-scale biomass plant (50 MW) uses close to a million gallons of water a day for cooling. Most of that water is lost from the watershed since approximately 85% is lost as steam. Water channeled back into a river or stream typically has a pollution cost as well, including higher water temperatures that negatively impact fisheries, especially trout. Since cooling need is greatest in warm weather, removal of water from rivers occurs just when flows are lowest, and fish are most susceptible to temperature stress.
BIOMASS ENERGY SAPS FUNDS FROM OTHER TRULY GREEN ENERGY SOURCES LIKE SOLAR
Since biomass energy is eligible for state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), it has captured the bulk of funding intended to move the country away from fossil fuels. For example, in Vermont, 90% of the RPS is from “smokestack” sources—mostly biomass incineration. This pattern holds throughout many other parts of the country. Biomass energy is thus burning up funds that could and should be going into other energy programs like energy conservation, solar and insulation of buildings.
PUBLIC FORESTS WILL BE SACRIFICED FOR BIOMASS ENERGY
Many of the climate bills now circulating in Congress, as well as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Montana Jobs and Wilderness bill target public forests as a source for wood biomass. One federal study suggests that 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year—of course this study did not include the ecological costs that physical removal of this much would have on forest ecosystems.
The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, which was quietly put into the 2008 farm bill has so far given away more than a half billion dollars in a matching payment program for businesses that cut and collect biomass from national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. And according to a recent Washington Post story, the Obama administration has already sent $23 million to biomass energy companies, and is poised to send another half billion.
And it is not only federal forests that are in jeopardy. Many states are eyeing their own state forests for biomass energy. For instance, Maine recently unveiled a new plan known as the Great Maine Forest Initiative which will pay timber companies to grow trees for biomass energy.
Ironically one of the main justifications for biomass energy is the creation of jobs, yet the wood biomass rush is having unintended consequences for other forest products industries. Companies that rely upon surplus wood chips to produce fiberboard, cabinet makers, and furniture are scrambling to find wood fiber for their products. Considering that these industries are secondary producers of products, the biomass rush could threaten more jobs than it may create.
Large scale wood biomass energy is neither green, nor truly economical. It is also not ecologically sustainable and jeopardizes our forest ecosystems. It is a distraction that funnels funds and attention away from other more truly worthwhile energy options, in particular, the need for a massive energy conservation program, and changes in our lifestyles that will in the end provide truly green alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels.
The rush to formulate new forest legislation that advocates thinning forests, use of biomass for energy production, and the presumption that our forests are “unhealthy” and/or that large fires and beetle outbreaks are undesirable may soon create a new threat to our forests. There are a host of different bills before Congress including legislation introduced by Mark Udall of Colorado, Jon Tester of Montana, Ron Wyden of Oregon, among others that are all predicated upon a number of flawed or exaggerated assumptions.
Some of this legislation is better than others, and some of it even has some very good things in the language and policies that are an improvement over present policies. Nevertheless, there are many underlying assumptions that are troubling.
THE FIRE SUPPRESSION CONUNDRUM
There is a circular logic going on around the issue of fuel buildup and fire suppression. Currently the major federal agencies including the Forest Service and BLM generally attempt to suppress fires, except in a few special locations like designated wilderness. Despite the fact that most agencies now recognize that wildfires have a very important ecological role to play, we are told by managing agencies that they must continue to suppress fires or face “catastrophic” blazes—which they consider to be “uncharacteristic”.
The problem is that thinning won’t solve the “problem” of large blazes because the problem isn’t fuels. By allowing the timber industry to define the problem and propose a solution we have a circular situation whereby the land management agencies continue to suppress fires, thereby presumably permitting fuels to build up, which they assert thus drives large blazes, creating a need for more logging and fire suppression. This cycle of fire suppression, logging, grazing, and more fire suppression has no end.
In addition, since thinning reduces completion, opens up the forest floor to more light, thus new plant growth, thinning can often lead to creation of even more of the flashy fine fuels that sustain forest fires. Unless these thinned stands are repeatedly treated, they can actually acerbate fire hazard by increasing the overall abundance of the very fuels which are most problematic—the smaller shrubs, grasses, and small trees that sustain fire spread.
In addition, thinning can increase solar penetration leading to more rapid drying and greater penetration of wind—both factors that aid fire spread.
This is not unlike the approach taken with predator control, whereby agencies for years have shot, poisoned, and trapped coyotes in the belief that they were reducing coyote numbers. But since coyotes respond to such persecution with greater fecundity, predator control becomes a self fulfilling activity whereby predator control begets more predator control.
While fire suppression (and logging, grazing, and so forth) may be a contributing factor in fire spread in some forest types (primarily ponderosa pine), they are not ultimately what is driving most large fires. Large blazes are almost universally associated with climatic features like severe drought, wind, and ultimately by shift in oceanic currents such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Therefore fuel reductions will not substantively change the occurrence of large blazes.
Even if one wanted to buy into the fuels-is-driving- large blazes story, it would behoove us to rethink the range of solutions. The National Park Service, the only agency that does not have a commercial logging mandate, has effectively dealt with fuel reductions through wildlands fire and prescribed burning. At the very least, any fuel reduction that may be needed should be done by prescribed burning.
QUESTIONING FIRE SUPPRESSION
One of the underlying assumptions of all these pieces of legislation is the idea that our forests are unhealthy and possess unnatural fuel loads due to fire suppression or fire exclusion. There is, of course, a bit of truth to the generalization that some forest types may have had some fuel build ups as a consequence of fire exclusion, but whether these fuel build ups are outside of the historic range of variability is increasingly under scrutiny.
It’s also very important to note that the majority of all forests/plant types in the West like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, aspen, juniper, red fir, silver fir, Engelmann spruce, western red cedar, Douglas fir in west coast ecosystems, and many others have such naturally long fire intervals, that suppression, even if it were as effective as some might suggest, has not affected the historic fire frequency.
Indeed, the majority of acreage of forest types burned annually tend to be characterized by moderate to severe fire, and are not the forest types where fuel build up is presumed to be a major problem—namely ponderosa pine forest type. Yet most people apply the ponderosa pine model of less intense frequent fires to all other forest types and thus assume that fire suppression has created unnatural fuel levels.
In particular the timber industry has adopted the convenient theme that fire suppression has created a presumed “fuel build-up” responsible for large wildfires. (Never mind that there were always large wildfires long before there was any effective fire suppression—for instance, the 1910 Burn which charred more than 3 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana)
Thus logging proponents have created a “problem” namely fuel build up, and then by happy coincidence, have a solution that just happens to benefit them-- logging the forest.
Fire suppression may have influenced some low elevation dry forests like those dominated by pure ponderosa pine, but perhaps not nearly to the degree or over the large geographical area that timber interest and logging proponents try to suggest. Those who want to justify logging try to conflate low elevation forests with all forest types—many of which such as lodgepole pine—are very likely not affected by fire suppression due to the naturally long intervals between fires in these forests.
CLIMATIC DRIVERS OF LARGE BLAZES
The emphasis on fuel reductions has obscured the fact that nearly all large blazes are climate/weather driven events. Evidence is building that wet, cool climatic conditions may be more responsible for dense forest stands and/or lack of fires than anything to do with fire suppression. In other words, fire suppression may not be as effective as some suggest and any fuel build up may be within natural or expected range.
In addition, there is also a growing body of scientific analysis that calls into question the very methods and conclusions used to construct fire histories. These analyses suggest that historic fire intervals, even in lower elevation dry forests like ponderosa pine, are biased. Fire intervals may be far longer than previously assumed. Because of this longer fire interval, dense forest stands may be natural, and/or no different than what existed in the past. There is also new evidence for mixed “severity” (i.e. moderate change) fires as well as crown fires in these dry forests. The implications of these findings is that many forests, even low elevation forests, may well be within the historic range of variability.
LARGE BLAZES NECESSARY
One of the issues missed by thinning proponents is that the vast majority of all ecological work occurs in a very small number of fires—the big so-called “catastrophic” fires. Even though most agencies and environmental groups now profess to believe that wildfire is important to healthy forest ecosystems, they are not willing to let fires do the work.
For example, in the years between 1980 and 2003, there were more than 56,350 fires in the Rockies. These fires burned 3.6 million hectares (8.64 million acres) Most of these fires were small—despite all the fuels that has supposedly made conditions in forests ready to “explode”. Out of these 56,350 fires, the vast majority of blazes totaling 55,228 fires or 98% of all blazes only charred 4% of the acreage.
On the other hand, a handful of fires—1,222 or less than 2% of the fires accounted for 96% of the acreage burned. Even more astounding is that 0.1% of the fires or about 50 fires charred more than 50% of the acreage burned.
This suggests four things to me. First, fuels are not driving large blazes. There is plenty of fuel throughout the Rockies, but most fires never burn more than a few acres—despite all the fuels that is sitting around. Fire suppression if it was responsible for a fuels build up doesn’t appear to be creating a lot of big fires.
The few very large fires that everyone is concerned about occur during very special conditions of drought, combined with low humidity, high temperatures and wind. And these conditions simply do not occur very often. When they do line up in the same place at the same time than you get a large fire—no matter what the fuel loading may be. My conclusion is that large blazes are climate driven events, not fuels driven.
Finally, the take home message for me is that even if we were successful at stopping big blazes through thinning and/or fire suppression, we would be in effect eliminating fire from the landscape. Since almost everyone today at least professes to the goal of restoring fire, than we have to tolerate the few large blazes—not try to stop them. Of course, it appears that despite our best efforts with logging, thinning, and all the rest, we have not had that much influence on eliminating the large blazes.
FRAMING THE ISSUE
One of the other major problems I have with the way many organizations have chosen to work on these issues is the way they “frame” the issues. When words like “working landscapes”, “restoration” , “unhealthy forests” “catastrophic blazes” “beetle outbreaks” are used in any discussion related to forests, they solidify in the public’s mind that there is a major problem with our forests, and more importantly that the “cure” is some kind of major invasive manipulation of forest ecosystems.
One must be careful about how you frame this issue. Even though most environmentalists do not support large scale commercial logging of our national forests, and have a lot of sidebars on how any logging should be done to address ecological concerns, when environmental groups say things like “we need to maintain our timber industry to restore the forests” the public just hears that our forests are a mess and the ONLY solution is more logging. I maintain that is not a message environmentalists want to be conveying. The public does not hear the sidebars, nor the cautionary words, rather they hear that we need to log our forests, and do so in a big way or ecological Armageddon is about to befall the West.
WHAT IS PRUDENT BEHAVIOR?
There is an important lesson in science called the precautionary principle. In the absence of full understanding of a problem, it is usually best to prescribe the least invasive and least manipulative actions. Conservation groups would be wise to apply this principle to forest policy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t support some “restoration” activities. To make an analogy, let’s look at the issue of wolf restoration. Putting wolves back on the land restores predation influences, but this is a very different thing than allowing hunters to kill elk. Especially because it allows the wolves, and natural conditions like drought, etc. t o determine what is the “right” number of elk and deer, not some agency with an agenda to sell licenses. Hunters influence elk differently than wolves and logging is different than say fires. Just as an elk killed by a wolf leaves behind carrion that other animals can use, a forest with fire leaves behind a lot of biomass that helps to sustain many other functions in the forest.
Logging short circuits those ecosystems functions. As with hunting whenever you have a commercial enterprise involved in natural resource policy, it distorts the conclusions and it’s convenient to ignore anything that suggests the activity—whether hunting or logging is creating problems.
There is a growing challenge to many of the assumptions about fires and its influence on forests. These challenges to assumptions about constitutes forest “health” and the historic role of large blazes and beetle influences is not unlike the challenges to common assumptions about predators that began with people like Adolph Murie, George Wright, and other scientists back in the 1930s and 1940s who started to question predator policy. These early ecologists were not only challenging politicians and citizens, but many other scientists who were advocates of killing predators to create “healthy” populations of deer and elk.
I need not remind many conservationists that there are still plenty of scientists around that will support killing predators like wolves, despite decades of research about the ecological need for top down predators. So assurances that any logging on public lands will use the “best” science are not reassuring to me. When there is a commercial/economic aspect to any management, that tends to distort and often compromise the science and scientists that are consulted. It would naïve for anyone to believe that this is any difference when dealing with fire and forest policy issues, especially when there’s an economic benefit to some industry and/or individuals for the policy.
There is a growing scientific body of work that is challenging the notion that fire suppression is responsible for dense forests and/or that crown fires, even in low elevation forests consisting of ponderosa pine and/or Douglas fir. The implications of this for forest policy are significant for if this is correct, our current conditions are not outside of the historical normal range of variability, especially when you consider past climatic conditions that are similar to the current dry, warm conditions.
One can find plenty of scientists who think our forests are out of whack, and prescribe logging to reduce fuels and so forth, however, if one is monitoring the scientific literature one would find enough evidence here and there to question the current assumptions about “forest health” and the presumed need for logging.
At the very least, it would seem a prudent approach to avoid endorsing logging when there is at least some evidence to suggest that our forests are not as out of whack as previously assumed, and/or that logging cannot do what advocates suggest—like restore the ecosystem or prevent large blazes.
PROBABILITY OF FIRES
Another unchallenged assumption of those prescribing thinning to protect say old growth ponderosa pine is the idea that somehow without thinning, we would lose all the old growth to fires. However, that ignores the low probability that any particular acre of land will burn in a fire. For one thing, most fires are small as mentioned earlier. They do not burn more than a few acres and go out. The few fires that do grow into large blazes occur under very special climatic/weather conditions of extreme drought, high wind, low humidity and high temperatures. These conditions do not occur that frequently, and to this you must provide an ignition. So even if you have drought, wind, low humidity, etc. you may not get a blaze.
In addition, even big blazes do not consume all the forest. Most large fires burn in a mosaic pattern for a host of reasons, the likelihood that any particular acre of old growth will burn is extremely small.
Finally, since thinning effectiveness even under the best circumstances rapidly declines over time, in order to protect old growth stands, thinning of that particular location in a forest must be very recent otherwise new growth generated by the opening of the forest, reduced competition, etc. often negates any advantage created by forest manipulation (logging).
LOGGING IS NOT BENIGN
Even if one disagreed with these new insights and interpretation of forest an ecosystem, and the presumed effectiveness of thinning projects, that doesn’t necessarily lead to logging as the “cure”. It wasn’t that long ago we heard many groups outlining the many ways that logging created ecological outcomes that were undesirable—the spread of weeds, changes in the abundance of snags, and down wood, that human activity in the woods disturbs and displaces sensitive wildlife, that disturbance of the land and use of logging roads (even temporarily logging roads) adds sediments to our streams, and so forth. Most of those critiques are still valid today, but we don’t hear that kind of criticism coming from many environmental groups anymore. This silence and unwillingness to continuously remind the public that logging has many, many negative impacts on forest ecosystems has compromised the environmental effectiveness as defenders of our public forests. After all who is going to assume that role if environmental groups do not continuously remind the public that logging has many unexamined and ignored externalities.
LESS MANIPULATE ALTERNATIVES EXIST
Even if one did not want to challenge the common perception that we have an “emergency” as Senators Wyden, Udall, Tester and others proclaims, logging isn’t necessarily the only or the best way to address this presumed emergency.
The National Park Service does fuels reductions and ecosystem restoration without logging. They have a long track record demonstrating that one can modify fuels and restore the ecological value of wildfire to the landscape without logging, and without jeopardizing communities. Yosemite NP, for instance, does prescribed burning in the crowded Yosemite Valley as does Muir Woods adjacent to Muir Woods, as well as many other national parks. That is not to suggest that prescribed burning will alleviate all concerns, but at the very least, it should be the approach that environmentalists advocate. Prescribed burning combined with natural wildfire can “restore” forest resilience as well as reduce fuels. Such an approach avoids many of the negatives associated with commercial logging, including the need for roads, the disturbance of water drainage by roading, soil compaction, removal of biomass, and so forth.
REDUCE HOME FLAMMABILITY AS FIRST DEFENSE AGAINST FIRE
There is an abundance of evidence to suggest that if community security is a concern, the best way to achieve that is through reduction of flammability of homes and the area immediately around the community, not wholesale logging for the forest ecosystem. Jack Cohen’s research at the Missoula Fire had demonstrated that thinning the forest is not the best way to protect homes.
Advocating for logging as the “cure” is like suggesting that the best way to reduce elk herds is by hunting, instead of being an advocate of wolf restoration. Any time you get an economic activity involved in natural processes you compromise the integrity of the goals and measures.
ADVOCATE FOR NATURAL PROCESSES
Even if the majority of you believe our forests are out of whack and are unwilling to accept the critiques from those who suggest that our understanding of forest ecosystems may be incorrect, that doesn’t mean one has to be a hand maiden for the timber industry. Nature does the best management—that is why we all are advocates for wilderness—we believe that allowing wild places to determine what is right for the landscape is the best way to preserve “healthy ecosystems”. If the forests are overstocked as some may want to conclude, than let natural processes select which trees should survive and do any thinning that is necessary using insects, disease, drought, fire, wind storms, and all the other mechanisms that regulate plant communities—and Nature will do a far better job of determining which trees should survive than any forester.
Our role as humans is to get out of the way as much as possible, not to intrude and advocate for invasive solutions like logging. The only role for logging on public lands that I see is to strategic as listed below.
WHEN TO SUPPORT LOGGING/THINNING
If you must support logging, make sure it is very limited, and framed not in terms of forest health, but as a useful way to reduce human anxiety. Logging around houses and communities to reduce public anxiety over fires may be a political necessity. A fire break of significant size around the perimeter of a community may reduce public fears about large fires; however, as has been shown in numerous cases around the West fuel breaks alone will not ensure that homes are safe. Flammability of individual homes must be addressed.