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Exploring Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest

Two fuzzy baby birds with large eyes huddle together on a brown branch, with a green backdrop of tree leaves behind them.

This is post 1 of 4 in "Species of the Pacific."

Throughout this series, we explore the ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest and the wildlife who inhabit them, including the Northern Spotted Owl, the wolverine, and bullhead trout. Our newly launched Pacific Wildway aims to reconnect, restore and rewild the Pacific region so that these species and more can thrive. All posts in this series…

Trying to encapsulate in a few words the many unique ecoregions of the Pacific Northwest is impossible. This landscape is varied: harsh and beautiful in its windswept coastline, daunting yet majestic with its dynamic volcanic peaks, soft and rolling in grassland valleys, and dry but productive in our eastern plains and deserts.

Mist shrouds the mountain peaks in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Photo: Katy Schaffer

For those of us who live here and for the species that depend on them, the ecosystems of the Pacific are life. They provide food and water, shelter and habitat, clean air and growth. The various pieces necessary for our survival—food, shelter, air and water—fit perfectly here amongst the complex old forest canopies, the high alpine vistas and the fast, clean waters of our rivers. But as humans continue to dominate this landscape, fragmenting the wildness of the Pacific and the biodiversity it holds, we fracture those pieces and threaten our own livelihood.   

Wildlands Network has long recognized the Pacific as a key piece to our overall continental connectivity strategy. By protecting its vast landscapes that are home to a variety of species and ecosystems, we can ensure we are protecting the greatest biodiversity. To continue providing solutions on the ground, we are just getting started on our innovative work to reconnect, restore and rewild this incredible Pacific landscape so life in all its diversity can thrive. To bring you along on our journey, we invite you to explore a few of the wild ecosystems here in the Pacific Northwest.

Old-Growth Forests

High in the canopy of an old growth forest in the western Pacific Northwest live vast numbers of organisms: rare moths flutter around spiky snags, lichen fall from branches below, and birds puncture through the tops of the trees, deftly beating their wings as they burst into open air. The silence is interrupted by the gentle hoo…hoohoo…hoo of a northern spotted owl, a species so representative of this particular forest type that it has become the living embodiment of why we need to protect it. The owl, whose hazelnut and tan colored feathers provide seamless camouflage for roosting in hemlocks and redwoods, makes it home here and only here in the Pacific old-growth forest ecosystem.

In an upcoming blog post series about the species of the Pacific, we’ll feature the northern spotted owl. Stay tuned to learn more!

To most people, an old-growth forest is characterized most easily by the age and height of the trees. It was often assumed an old-growth forest had trees at least 150 years old, but that definition is not entirely accurate anymore. While it’s true that Pacific old-growth forests are often made up of old trees, they are more accurately characterized by their unique structural attributes, including tree size, dead woody materials, canopy layers, species compositions and ecosystem function. Old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest are also not the same across the region. They developed under different circumstances and can look very different from one forest to the next.

For example, in the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon, the forest developed under frequent low intensity fires that scattered old, large trees and snags among a mix of smaller age classes. Douglas fir predominate the overstory canopy, with madrone underneath and manzanita under foot. Compare that to northern Washington, were fire is rare and shade-tolerant trees like the western hemlock and western red cedar are more predominate on the landscape than Douglas firs, and trees of varying ages create a continuous old-growth ecosystem. But both of these rare old growth ecosystems are valuable to the species that depend on the complex conditions in which they developed.

A tall stretches into the sky, with green, wet moss hanging off it. It's surrounded by tall green tree canopies.
A tall, ancient tree in the old growth Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. Photo: Katy Schaffer

Scientists estimate that about half of the old-growth forest that existed on the western side of the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the 20th century has been logged. The continuous fragmentation of this valuable forest type is accelerating declines in a multitude of species, including the northern spotted owl, a bird so dependent on old-growth that it spawned a new forest management system, the Northwest Forest Plan, to protect its precious habitat.

High Alpine Ecosystems

High above the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, past the tree line and up into the craggy mountains, lies a unique environment: Rocky volcanic outcroppings with glacial peaks, punctuated by pristine blue lakes, dot the horizon. This high alpine ecosystem is an icon of the distinct Pacific Northwest landscape.

A trail of footprints in the snow against a dark backdrop.
Wolverine tracks disappear into the night. Photo: Dan Russell

In the cold, rugged snowfields that adorn these alpine peaks, there lives a reemerging creature specifically adapted to this ecosystem. With short powerful legs, claws so sharp they can cling to sides of mountains, paws shaped like oversized snowshoes, and dark, dense fur to protect it from cold, harsh weather, the wolverine manages to survive where other creatures fail. In fact,  wolverines depend on this environment for their survival, with females denning with their kits in snow dens where snow lingers until early summer.

Alpine ecosystems, like the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and North Cascades National Park, are characterized by rocky ridges, snowfields, glaciers, and short growing seasons sitting above the natural tree line. This ecosystem stands in sharp contrast to our forest ecosystem: Instead of tall, ancient trees with woody underbrush, high alpine ecosystems maintain short, dense growing seasons for pincushion meadows and stunted krummholz trees, which are deformed by fierce, freezing winds. As we move up to the rocky volcanic peaks, the forested floor of the valley between mountain peaks becomes shrouded in mist.

Spring in the North Cascades. Photo: National Park Service

In the highest reaches, we usually only encounter lichen clinging to cold rocks, and small birds catching the insects that live and die there. In the summer months, it is a vibrant ecosystem, with creatures both big and small—like the mountain goat and alpine grouse—moving up into the area to forage for food in the meadow. But in the cold harsh winters, we are left with only a few species specially adapted to the harsh climate.

But much like our old-growth ecosystems, the high alpine environment is also threatened. With temperatures consistently soaring upward, the glacial peaks are losing their characteristic snowy caps and glacier fields, making them inhospitable to wolverines and other species that depend on this ecosystem type.

Rewilding These Unique Ecosystems

Yellow flowers in a rolling mountain meadow
Harts Pass, North Cascades, Washington. Photo: Robert Long

Climate change is quickly devastating our mountains and forests, creating shifts in ecosystem ranges so fast that plants and animals may not have time to adapt. Wildlands Network is working to create a connected Pacific Wildway from British Columbia to Baja California, starting here in the Pacific Northwest, to create wildways where plants and animals will have room to roam, move and migrate, and hopefully continue to thrive.

Please continue to follow us as we continue our journey exploring the Pacific. In the weeks to come, we will be taking an in-depth look at some of species of the Pacific that inhabit these ecosystems, including both the northern spotted owl and the wolverine.

We would love to hear from you! Let us know what you see or hear as you explore the ecosystems of the Pacific. Check out some of these great hikes to start your very own Pacific Northwest adventure.

  • Summerland Trail at Mount Rainer National Park is about a 5-hour, 8.4-mile moderate day hike starting at the Fryingpan Creek area in Mount Rainier National Park.
  • Heather-Maple Pass Loop in the North Cascades shows both old growth forest and alpine ecosystems.  This is a moderate-to-strenuous 7.2-mile hike.
  • The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is an easy 0.8-mile trail that showcases some spectacular old growth trees.

You can also consider donating to support our efforts to restore critical habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

More posts from Species of the Pacific

  1. Exploring Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, March 16, 2018
  2. Species of the Pacific: The Northern Spotted Owl, March 19, 2018
  3. Species of the Pacific: The Wolverine, March 22, 2018
  4. Species of the Pacific: Bull Trout, April 5, 2018

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