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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Missing Cottonwoods

by Ray Entz & Liz Stuart

Black cottonwood trees are native to the Pend Oreille River valley and once lined riverbanks for miles. There are still cottonwoods around, providing important habitat for a variety of animals, including migrating birds, waterfowl, osprey, eagles and herons. Their soft wood attracts insects and, in turn, woodpeckers. Deer, moose and elk rely on soft new growth for winter food and use them as shelter for fawning and calving. The trees shade streams and keep water cool for fish.

Cottonwoods usually only live 50 to 100 years—and dead trees are relatively abundant along the Pend Oreille River. Cavity-nesting birds from woodpeckers to wood ducks happily use these, and the tall skeletons are a favorite perch for fish-eating birds like osprey. When the snags fall, they help stabilize shorelines and provide good hiding and resting habitat for fish in streams and rivers.

What is missing in this wonderful picture? The youngsters. The remaining cottonwood stands along the river consist mostly of trees over 50 years old. This generation gap poses a serious threat to the Pend Oreille cottonwood population because of the short-lived nature of the trees. No young trees now…no recruitment for future snags.

Why are there so few young cottonwoods? The answer to this question stems from the fact that cottonwoods thrive on disturbance. Fire, erosion, and disturbance by animals can induce reproduction by suckering, but reproduction by seed usually only occurs through flooding. The Pend Oreille River still floods with normal frequency, but upstream dams alter the flow and duration of flooding and downstream dams alter the water elevation. Dams have eliminated most of the mud bars that once set up ideal conditions for cottonwood reproduction. With no real large-scale seed recruitment, cottonwood populations in the Pend Oreille River valley are in danger of disappearing completely.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the U.S. Forest Service, the Pend Oreille PUD and others are working to increase and improve cottonwood stands in the river valley. Techniques used for cottonwood propagation include planting cuttings, planting rootstock, scraping areas to mimic flood deposition, and restoring small-scale hydrology for new stands. Several hundred acres are already being managed along the river in hopes of improving long-term cottonwood survival in the Pend Oreille valley.

Local residents can pitch in to help restore Pend Oreille valley cottonwoods by not removing existing trees along the shoreline and by replacing them where they no longer exist. Plant a cottonwood and watch the wildlife come and visit you—for the entire life of the tree and for a long time after its death.

For more information about cottonwood habitat restoration, please contact Ray Entz, 445-1147 rentz@knrd.org

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