The Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP) is working with the Deschutes National Forest (DNF) to restore the forest’s resistance and resilience to natural and human disturbances including climate change, wildfire, insects and disease, invasive species, poaching, and recreational impacts to name a few.
Research indicates that recreating historic conditions significantly increases the forest’s resistance and resilience to natural and human disturbances.
This includes restoring forest structure or the percentage of forest in early or young condition, mid or middle condition, and late or old condition, along with understory composition, or the suite of plants that occurred historically within a sites biophysical setting – elevation, slope, aspect, precipitation, etc.
Coupled with this is a site’s spatial arrangement or clumps of trees and gaps between trees. The spatial arrangement affects wildfire behavior, snow retention, insects and disease spread, wildlife habitat and the associated species, plus other ecological and social values.
Today we have out-of-whack forest, or forests that are in a condition different from what occurred historically.
This condition is a result of past logging practices to provide lumber for homes and commerce across America and the World, in addition to wildfire suppression to keep the forest from burning.
This condition is not sustainable, its more vulnerable to climate change, wildfire, insects and disease, and it’s a condition that is not providing our community with the ecological functions and social values we desire.
Likewise, wildlife has responded to these new conditions with those whose habitat requirements are aligned with the new conditions benefitting, while those not aligned with the new conditions being negatively affected.
With restoration treatments, or treatments that move the forest toward historic conditions, species that benefited from the out-of-whack conditions will now be negatively affected, while those whose habitat requirements are more aligned with historic conditions will now benefit.
So where does that leave wildlife biologists, whose charge is to manage viable populations?
The DNF supports around 265 vertebrate wildlife species: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish that occur seasonally or year-round. Those that occur seasonally are migrants, who winter or reproduce elsewhere. These 265 species are broken down into specialists or generalist.
Specialists are species who’s seasonal and reproductive life history needs are supported by a narrow range of habitat conditions. A white-headed woodpecker is considered a specialist. It depends on large ponderosa pine to meet some of its life history requirements.
Generalists, on the other hand, can attain their life history requirements through a range of habitat types and conditions. A coyote is a generalist, or a species that utilizes a broad range of habitat conditions to meet its life history requirements.
Broken down finer, each wildlife species has unique or specific habitat requirements, which wildlife biologists call a niche.
A niche is made up of the habitat resources – food, water, shelter, space - needed by a species for each season of the year. When thinking about habitat resources, think about the resources provided across horizontal and vertical planes.
In other words, the soil, grass, flowers, shrubs along the horizontal plane, and saplings, poles, on up to the large open and closed canopy lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and hemlock forests along the vertical plane. An open canopy is where a tree’s branches do not interlock with an adjacent tree’s branches, while a closed canopy is where a tree’s branches do interlock with an adjacent tree’s branches.
As one would expect, specialists are more sensitive to natural and human disturbance given the narrow range of the habitat they need to survive and reproduce. Impacts to a specialist species habitat can be significant to their welfare.
Generalists, on the other hand, are more tolerant of these disturbances given the much wider range of habitat available to meet their needs.
Likewise, due to the extensive changes to the natural environment over the past 100-years, specialists are more likely to be listed as critical, sensitive, threatened, or endangered than are generalists.
As an example, it’s been estimated that three to five percent of the old growth ponderosa pine forest remains unaltered, where 95 to 97 percent have experienced some logging to removal of all large trees. White-headed woodpeckers are dependent on large ponderosa pine to meet some of their seasonal needs. With the significant reduction in large trees biologists have observed a corresponding decline in white-headed woodpecker abundance.
Globally, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that plant and animal species abundance has declined 69 percent since 1970 of which a 94 percent decline has occurred in Latin America, a hotspot of biodiversity.
In North America, NatureServe, the authoritative source of biodiversity data, estimates that 34 percent of plants and 40 percent of animals are at risk of extinction, while 41 percent of North America’s ecosystems are at risk of range-wide collapse.
When we think about wildlife’s habitat requirements, we readily recognize they are different from our own. Where we daily import our food, water, energy, etc. locally and from across the globe, wildlife must attain all the resources they need from local sources every day of the year to survive.
More specifically, the DCFP focuses their effort on maintaining and restoring the habitat needs by the most vulnerable wildlife species, which are the listed species, along with the most economically and socially important species such as mule deer, songbirds, and forest carnivore. The habitat restored and the species’ that benefit is dictated by the biophysical setting (elevation, slope, aspect, precipitation, etc.), which determines what habitat can grow and be sustained on each forest site.