Monday, November 18, 2013

Union River Estuary Connects!

By Rich Carlson, Restoration Ecologist, USFWS Puget Sound Coastal Program

 At the turn of the 19th century, a 3,300-foot dike was constructed around the salt marsh wetlands of the Union River Estuary in Lynch Cove, near Belfair, Wash.  The property was used for cattle and hay production and the dike was meant to block tidal waters and create a pasture for farming. 

 The dike served that purpose for nearly 100 years before it was purchased by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in 2006.  The WDFW determined that restoring the historic estuary on the property would provide greatest benefit to wildlife. Today, the property is part of the WDFW’s Wildlife Area Program which seeks to increase fish and wildlife production, and hunting/fishing opportunities for the public. 

 This project is located in one of the most important winter waterfowl areas in Hood Canal and South Puget Sound. The salt marsh is particularly attractive to large numbers of migratory birds and other wetland-dependent fish and wildlife species. Shorebirds and waterfowl seasonally concentrate along the shoreline and depend upon the estuary and the surrounding saltwater wetlands for feeding and resting areas.
                                         Union River Estuary, Photo credit: Rich Carlson, USFWS

The project included a new trail over the wetlands. This trail opened to the public October 25, 2013.  The trail is an extension of the popular Theler Wetlands trail system, which stretches across two miles of Hood Canal shoreline.  Local schools will help monitor the estuary for the natural tidal processes that restore vegetation and attract fish wildlife to the area.  You are invited to come out and enjoy this estuary year round.  The best access is to park at Theler Community Center, and walk east on the marked trail.

 The successful transformation came about through work by many of our partners. WDFW worked with the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group (HCSEG) to secure a design grant from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board in 2011.

 This grant enabled WDFW and HCSEG to form a project design group.  The design group consisted of WDFW, USFWS, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, North Mason School District, Theler Wetlands Board, Skokomish Indian Tribe, and the Hood Canal Coordinating Council.  Public outreach was a priority for the design group, which used public meetings, press releases, and meetings with elected officials to solicit input on the project.

 The design committee developed and reviewed 13 design alternatives incorporating public comments into the designs.  The final design was considered the best balance of habitat benefits for fish and wildlife, education and recreation opportunities for people.
 The final design called for breaching the dike in two locations and restoring 31 acres of estuarine marsh, including a tidal channel network.  The first and largest breach is 300 feet wide and connects the western end of the estuary with Hood Canal.  The second breach, 100 feet wide, is on the northern side and connects the estuary with the Union River.  Both breaches are spanned by concrete bridges to provide public access and are wheelchair accessible.

 The majority of the project was funded with $1.8 million from the USFWS National Coastal Wetlands Grant program. This grant was matched with nearly $300,000 from Washington State.
 For directions to Theler Wetlands Trail and other information:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Letting the Rivers Teach: Leopold Revisited

By Paul Bakke, Geomorphologist, Washington Fish and Wildlife Office

Although humans have been altering river channels for many years, the science of rivers, that is the study of how rivers form their channels and how these channels evolve over time, is quite new. The influential American scientist, Luna Leopold, was one of the pioneers in this field. During the second half of the twentieth century, he directed a large number of field investigations and authored dozens of scientific articles about rivers. With the help of his colleagues, he gathered these data into a body of theory that established the field of fluvial geomorphology as a science, independent from engineering. That is, he helped discover natural laws which describe the form or shape of river channels and the physical processes which create the river’s form. Previously, these natural laws were incompletely developed and poorly known among the engineers charged with managing, and often modifying, our rivers.

The writings of Luna Leopold, like those of his perhaps more famous father, Aldo Leopold, are well known among those who study geomorphology and environmental science in the U. S. Unfortunately, they are less well known in the engineering community here, and are even more unfamiliar to most of the rest of the world, which means that river habitat continues to be damaged by practices that do not conform to local natural processes.
Luna Leopold started his career trained as a civil engineer. He then studied meteorology and geology, with an emphasis on hydrology, the science of water and its occurrence on the earth’s surface. His career spanned nearly 7 decades, including rising to the position of Chief Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and later becoming a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1997, at the age of 82 years, Leopold gave a speech entitled,“Let Rivers Teach Us.” The ambitious goal of his speech was, in a very few words, to recount his vast experience with the science of rivers and his struggles with engineers and government agencies that were too slow to adopt the new science of fluvial geomorphology in their project designs or policies. In short, he wanted to advocate for letting the natural form of rivers dictate how we manage them, and for collecting the field measurements needed to accurately describe the natural processes at work shaping the river channel. He wanted to emphasize the importance of ongoing field data collection and data availability, to an audience of non-scientists. Although this was clearly a daunting task Leopold’s goal of disseminating the science of how rivers function in nature remains an urgent one for the future of rivers here and abroad. It’s a task worth repeating, though perhaps at a more elementary level to reach a wider audience. This is the task I would like to begin in this, and subsequent, Word from the Wild blog posts.

Let’s start with the fact that there are two types of rivers. First, there is the river that forms its channel, its watercourse, by means of erosion of the earth’s surface. Rivers concentrate the flow of water from rain or from melting snow or ice and this flow is a force, a source of energy, which can excavate the soil or even carve its way into bedrock, forming the channel. In general, this type of river is encountered in steep terrain or in the mountains. A river formed in this way tends to be not much narrower than its valley bottom, filling the valley from side to side. Scientists call this type of river“non-alluvial,” and the process which dominates its form or shape, and its evolution, is erosion.

The Humptulips River (left) is a typical alluvial river, while Rush Creek (right) is an example of a non-alluvial river. Both are in Washington State.
The second type of river, the “alluvial,” is encountered in places less steep, in the bottom of wider valleys, valleys that have flat bottomland (the floodplain) bordering the river. An alluvial river is distinguished by the materials which form its riverbed and riverbanks. These rivers flow in channels constructed from sediments which the river itself has deposited, sediments which were excavated from erosion occurring in channels and valleys further upstream. The distinguishing characteristic of an alluvial river is that it constructs its own channel with materials carried in its current of water. Both erosion and deposition, equally, are processes which dominate the form and evolution of alluvial rivers. And the flat bottomland bordering the river, its floodplain, consists of soils derived from sediments deposited by the river over thousands of years. These rivers are called “alluvial” because they are constructed from water-borne, or“alluvial,” sediments.

I want to talk briefly here about some terms which are used frequently in river science. I’ve already mentioned fluvial geomorphology. Geomorphology is the science of how the surface of the earth attains its shape, that is, how landforms such as plains, valleys or hills are sculpted by processes such as erosion, landslides, or sediment deposition by moving water. “Fluvial” geomorphology pertains to the way rivers shape the earth. In geomorphology, there is an important distinction between “form” and “process.” The “form” of a river channel refers to its shape at one point in time. Form is like a snapshot of the river channel that shows all of its dimensions and characteristics, such as width, depth, and curvature. “Process,”by contrast, refers to something in motion, a force or an action which, over time, changes the form. Process is more like a video than a snapshot. For example, the erosion of the streambed is a process that creates a river channel with a particular form, having vertical banks and a rough streambed surface made from coarse rocks that are resistant to erosion.
The alluvial rivers, then, represent a balance, an equilibrium, between two opposing processes: erosion and deposition of sediment. As sediment is picked up and carried off of the streambed or stream bank, sediment from upstream moves in to take its place, replenishing the streambed and building new stream banks by piling up sediment as a gravel or sand bar. The form of the river channel adjusts itself, through erosion and deposition, until this equilibrium is established. If either process is altered the form of the river channel will change, going through a sequence of evolutionary stages that bring the two processes back into balance. The end result of this evolution might not resemble the original river channel, however.
For example, erosive forces can be increased by increasing the amount of water flowing in the channel, particularly the high flows that occur during storms. Forest fires, which remove water-absorbing vegetation and create water-repellant soil layers, can cause this to occur. Urbanization, which results in vast areas of roofs, roads and parking lots (impervious surfaces) that do not allow rain water to soak into the soil are another cause of increased water runoff. Increased erosive energy of this water erodes the streambed, forming a narrow, deep gully. The high stream banks of the gully are unstable, however, since the soil is not strong enough to resist gravity when exposed in a tall vertical cut. So the stream banks slide down and the flowing water carries the sediment away. In addition to there being more water, the water in its newly-formed gully is deeper, which gives it more hydraulic force. This is because water that would have spread over the floodplain is now concentrated in the gully, increasing erosive potential. As the stream banks fail the channel widens, which causes the flow to become shallower, until it is too shallow to further erode the streambed. As erosion slows down, sediment begins to accumulate along the sides of the channel, reducing the steepness of the stream banks and slowing their retreat. Eventually, sediment eroded from upstream begins to be deposited within the new channel bottom, creating a narrower channel and a new floodplain at a lower elevation than the original. This evolution once again brings erosion and deposition into balance, but creates a new landform, that is, a river channel and floodplain inset within a former floodplain at higher elevation.

Stages in the evolution of a river cross section in response to artificially straightening the channel (stage 2). Straightening results in a shorter, steeper channel. Because it is steeper, the erosive forces are greater, and the channel must go through stages of adjustment in order to bring erosion back into balance with deposition. A very similar sequence of adjustment happens when erosion is increased by enhanced water runoff, as from urbanization, forest fires, etc. The thick arrows show direction of change for the streambed and banks. The height of the top of bank, h, changes from typical, stable floodplain or “bankfull”height, to heights too large to remain stable, then returns to bankfull, as a new floodplain develops. The old floodplain is called a terrace, and is flooded infrequently, only by the largest floods. Adapted from Cramer, Michelle L. (managing editor), 2012, Stream Habitat Restoration Guidelines, WDFW, Olympia, WA.

In this example, we have interplay between form and process. When the process (erosion) changed, the form (channel shape) began to change. And eventually, a form was reached in which the processes of erosion and deposition were once again balanced. The interesting point about this equilibrium is its guarantee that the form of a river is no accident. In fact the various components of form are related to each other mathematically, and are related to the magnitude of deposition and erosion. By taking measurements of the dimensions such as width, depth, slope and curvature of numerous rivers in stable condition, it is possible to recognize when a river departs from a form that can remain stable. It also becomes evident that engineered modifications which depart from this stable form will be at odds with the natural processes at work, and will ultimately fail. These ideas, and Leopold’s contributions to river science, will be explored further in the next Word from the Wild blog post.


Paul Bakke is a fluvial geomorphologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lacey, Washington, working mostly in river restoration.

Luna Leopold’s original speech, Let Rivers Teach Us, can be found at:

A biography and comprehensive list of his publications is available at:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fisheries Program Managers Receive Real-life Lesson from High School Stream Steward

Jarred Figlar-Barnes (center), of Elma, WA, explains the benefits of work he has helped lead to restore McDonald Creek to USFWS managers
Submitted by: Miranda Plumb, fisheries biologist and Chehalis Fisheries Restoration Program coordinator
Region One Fisheries Assistant Regional Director, Mike Carrier, Julie Collins (Deputy Assistant Regional Director), Jana Grote (Fisheries Supervisor), Tom McDowell (Supervisory Fish and Wildlife biologist), Curtis Tanner (Supervisory Fish and Wildlife biologist) and Miranda Plumb (Chehalis Fisheries Restoration Program Coordinator coordinator) recently shared an opportunity to learn about restoring fish habitat from a young stream steward.  Jarred Figlar-Barnes, a senior at Elma High School, wrote a successful grant proposal to replace a fish passage barrier (undersized culvert) with a bridge, opening up several miles of this small stream. 
Jarred told the group of USFWS biologists and managers visiting the site, “these small streams don’t get enough attention.”
Jarred’s work to help restore MacDonald Creek began a few years ago when he heard stories from local fishermen and farmers recounting the days when coho came up the creek to spawn. Jarred surveyed the watershed on his bicycle when he was 14 years old, identifying fish passage barriers associated with roads, railroads, and driveways. He then got to work to fix the problems he found.
 Jared shares map of McDonald Creek
At 16 years old, Jared wrote his first successful grant application and received $10,000 from the Washington Department of Ecology’s Terry Husseman Account to fix a small concrete blockage on McDonald Creek.  The next grant Jarred and his partners, the Grays Harbor Stream Team and Chehalis Basin Fisheries Task Force, received was $66,000 from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board.  That funding was used to correct the lowest fish passage barrier on McDonald Creek which was a ‘shotgun’ culvert on a farm access road.  
Jarred rattled off an impressive list of fish species that had been found in the creek, including coho salmon, steelhead trout, Olympic mudminnow, cutthroat trout, and speckled and long-nosed dace. "Olympic mudminnow is my favorite!" he admitted.
The group agreed that Jarred’s efforts were impressive, and that he was making a real difference in his community, and the Chehalis River basin.
Jarred is one of several partners working with the USFWS Chehalis Fisheries Restoration Program (CFRP) that ARD Mike Carrier met with on his tour of basin fish habitat restoration projects.  The goals of the CFRP are to restore or improve spawning and rearing habitat, improve water quality, and increase public awareness.  The CFRP funds and provides technical assistance to many different habitat restoration projects such as fish passage barrier removals, riparian planting, invasive species removals, estuary fishery assessments, and education and outreach.  Fisheries Biologist Miranda Plumb organized the tour, highlighting recent successes to restore habitat and provide outreach and education opportunities for local school children. 

Student journals along the Discovery Trail in Centralia
The group first visited a local nature and education trail, the Discovery Trail in Centralia, with partners from the Chehalis Basin Education Consortium and Chehalis River Basin Land Trust.  Then they went on to see the results of a fish passage barrier removal and culvert replacement on a county road near Oakville which opened 12 miles of stream habitat with partner Lonnie Crumley, the director of the Chehalis Basin Fisheries Task Force. 
In the afternoon, the group headed to the Grays Harbor estuary where they first met with the Quinault Indian Nation and Natural Resources Consultants, Inc. who partner with The Nature Conservancy to remove derelict fishing gear (e.g. lost fishing nets and crab pots) from the Chehalis River and estuary.  Lastly, we saw the multifaceted restoration work that is happening at the WA Department of Natural Resources on Preacher’s Slough which is part of the Chehalis River Surge Plain Natural Area Preserve.

Team members inspect fishing gear recovered from the Chehalis River 
All photo credits: USFWS

Monday, July 29, 2013

Prairie Demonstration Garden Spiffed Up by AmeriCorps Service Members

As part of their ecosystem restoration work with the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) a team of five AmeriCorps service members paid a visit to the USFWS Washington Fish and Wildlife Office in Lacey, Washington. The team and their supervisor talked with USFWS biologists working to protect and restore native prairie ecosystems in Western Washington.  They “met” some of the native plants that are the target of restoration efforts, and learned a bit about the work of a Service biologist involved in listing and recovery work. The Service is also working with the Center for Natural Lands Management through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program to restore prairie habitat on private lands. After their introduction to what we do, they got busy with what they do: controlling invasive species!

      AmeriCorps Service member Rachel working with her team from Center for Natural Lands Management.
USFWS Biologist and prairie specialist Judy Lantor discusses the project with CNLM team leader Sanders Freed

USFWS staff converted a decommissioned swimming pool in the courtyard of their office into a native prairie demonstration garden. Initially, staff collected seeds and, with the support of other partners, grew plants for restoration sites. A few surplus plants and salvaged specimens were used to establish the demonstration garden to assist with education and awareness of employees and our guests. The garden even hosts a specimen of the listed golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta), grown from legally-harvested seed surplus for a restoration project. On this day, the AmeriCorps Service members helped out by weeding the garden. They quickly became experts at identifying the desirable native plants and the invasive weeds, working hard to spiff up the demonstration garden. They’ll be traveling to sites in South Puget Sound to apply what they’ve learned to assist with restoration of prairie ecosystems.

Flowering golden paintbrush plant in the WFWO prairie demonstration garden.

Friday, July 19, 2013

America’s “Other” Eagle

 Golden Eagle at Swan Falls  Photo credit: USDOT FHA America's Byways

Submitted by: Mark Miller

With a wingspan of more than seven feet, the golden eagle is North America’s largest bird of prey. They get their name from the golden feathers on the back of their head and neck.  In contrast to their cousin, the bald eagle, golden eagles prefer less forested, more open habitat and avoid developed areas. They find this habitat in central and eastern Washington. Their most common prey are small to medium-sized mammals including black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels and yellow-bellied marmots.  Golden eagles will also take birds, larger mammals, fish, reptiles, and domestic livestock and feed on carrion (dead animals). However, golden eagles show a strong preference for jackrabbits, even when jackrabbit populations are low.  In fact, golden eagle populations in some parts of the U.S. have a tendency to cycle on a 10-year basis with jackrabbit populations.

Any real estate agent will tell you the three most important factors for buying a home are LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.  This holds true for golden eagles.   The ideal nesting home site for a golden eagle pair is a cliff or large tree in a quiet neighborhood, close to the grocery store (hunting grounds), with a panoramic view of their environs.  Golden eagles are less gregarious than bald eagles, so you will rarely see them in large concentrations.  They range from the arctic to the desert southwest and are more common west of the Mississippi, although they do occur in the eastern United States.

Population trends for golden eagles have been difficult to determine due to a lack of long-term monitoring studies of golden eagle abundance in the United States prior to 2003.  There is a general consensus that golden eagle populations are declining in many areas due to the usual cast of suspects:  loss of habitat, reduction in prey particularly jackrabbits, collisions with vehicles, wind turbines or other structures, electrocution at power poles, intentional and unintentional poisoning and climate change. 

Habitat loss comes from a variety of sources.  As human activity and development increase, pressure is put on golden eagles.  Urbanization, agriculture, mining and wind farms can reduce golden eagle habitat.  Exotic plant species invading native shrub steppe habitat in eastern Washington can increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires and cause negative effects to the plant community and to jackrabbit populations that golden eagle depend.  Non-native cheatgrass is the chief culprit.  Climate change might also contribute to current and future negative effects to golden eagles, particularly in semi-arid and arid ecosystems.

Golden eagles are also being poisoned from ingesting fragments of lead shot or bullets from hunter- killed animals, particularly deer, ground squirrels, upland game birds and waterfowl.  Even tiny amounts of ingested lead can have fatal effects on eagles.  Switching to non-toxic copper bullets can reduce lead poisoning in golden eagles. (

Golden eagles are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in North America and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) in the U.S.  BGEPA prohibits “take” of eagles without a permit.  “Take” includes pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting or disturbing. The BGEPA prohibits “take,” or any of these actions, on individuals, their parts, nests or eggs. (

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided funding to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ( to locate and monitor known nesting territories in Washington during the 2013 breeding season.  Completion of this study will give us valuable information regarding the number of territories occupied and the number of young golden eagles produced. 


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Like Oil and Water: Measuring the Impact of Oil Spills on Washington Coastlines

Submitted by: Cindy Schexnider 

Resources for oil spill responses are limited and vary among agencies. The challenge of managing oil spills is increasing in scope and size. Oil spills are of particular concern where there is extensive refining and transport, such as along the Washington Coastlines. Birds can be heavily impacted by even a small spill and large spills can affect thousands of birds.

Oiled Common Murre Photo credit: USFWS
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), 33 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., establishes liability for cleanup costs and for damages for the restoration of natural resources and related services injured by oil spills. When a spill occurs, Natural Resource Trustees may conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to evaluate injuries to natural resources and determine appropriate actions to restore those injured resources to their pre-spill condition. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Spring Plantings for Pollinators Perk Up the Garden

Submitted by: Jessica Gonzales

All gardeners know that spring is the time to give the garden a “face lift” for summer. In our Pollinator Garden, the work began early to prepare for the arrival of beneficial insects and birds eager to forage on nectar and pollen. 

Flowers welcome our wonderful pollinators - Photo credit: Jessica Gonzales (USFWS)
This spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), teamed up to add new plants, such as showy penstemon, mountain hollyhock, snow buckwheat, arrowleaf balsamroot and snowberry, and a new thick layer of bark mulch to the office’s Pollinator Garden.