Over the last three decades, significant changes in wildlife abundance have taken place in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Fires and tree planting affect the numbers of mule deer. Spotted owls increasingly struggle to find habitat.
Sadly, if not surprisingly, the Mt. Hood Land and Resource Management Plan as conceived in 1990 fails to address current wildlife trends—trends that reflect the complex interrelations between fauna, flora, water, and soil. Science has learned so much more about the ongoing roles wildlife perform in an integrated forest system than the plan reflects.
Worse, the current plan also fails to consider how climate disruption may impact wildlife in the years and decades ahead.
Wolves: At the peak of the forest’s health
Consider the case of the gray wolf, a species that was eradicated from the Oregon Cascades in 1947.
Encouragingly, a breeding pair of gray wolves appeared on the Warm Springs Reservation in 2018, and after successive years of producing litters, the alpha parents and surviving pups were officially recognized as the White River Pack by Oregon Fish and Wildlife. Cameras continue to verify the pack's dispersion within the borders of the National Forest.
As important apex predators, wolves help regulate both the size and health of various prey populations, notably deer and elk. Carcasses that the wolves leave behind provide food for bear and scavenger species. Wolves also help redistribute essential nutrients to soil, duff, plants, and trees as they range great distances across the forest terrain.
In fact, wildlife biologists and managers are only beginning to better understand the positive effects that wolves can induce when they rejoin an ecosystem. Yet the 1990 Forest Plan makes no mention of wolves or a wolf management strategy at a time when forward-looking policy initiatives are imperative.
Beavers: The habitat builders
Another “need-to-change” wildlife concern: the role that beavers can play in the Mt. Hood National Forest.
Once beavers were hunted and trapped to near eradication for their valuable fur or simply as pests, but scientists now recognize the beaver as a keystone species whose place-based reintroduction is an essential—and cost-effective!—part of restoring the health of watersheds and wetlands.
These revived wetlands will help reestablish diverse flora-fauna communities. By encouraging riparian hardwoods, beavers provide crucial habitat for downy woodpeckers, yellow warblers, and red-eyed vireos. Beavers also help shape bodies of water that waterfowl depend on, as well as the peregrine falcons who prey on waterbirds.
The dams and ponds that beavers create also help regulate water flow and storage in the forest. Beavers’ work helps extend water availability in meadows and woodlands at higher elevations while reducing downstream erosion and scouring. Their work is also linked to keeping creeks and rivers cooler, enhancing conditions for complex invertebrate populations, and for iconic salmon and steelhead species.
At a time when our region faces the growing prospect of diminished snowpack, changes in seasonal rainfall and runoff, hotter summers, and more frequent droughts, water management has never been more important. All things considered, the natural skill that beavers possess for “engineering” niche environments could be incredibly helpful. But beavers can only help solve our water problems if a Forest Plan acknowledges the beaver’s full ecological worth.
So whether the issue is new threats to sustainable habitat for endangered species like the northern spotted owl, or how fire suppression methods and post-disturbance tree replanting undermine mule deer populations, a new Mt. Hood Forest Management Plan is clearly in order, revised and updated with common sense urgency and the latest scientific evidence. We need a plan that best addresses pressing wildlife concerns in the greater context of forest ecology—and not as a lesser priority to tree plantations and timber sales.
With climate disruption already upon us, the status quo is not an option.