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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.

Forests, Wildlife, and Brush

by Jim Bottorff, Wildlife Biologist, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources

Whenever there is a major disturbance in a forest and the canopy is removed, we can expect a quick invasion of grasses, forbs, and in fairly quick order—“brush”. After events as logging, fires, severe storms, land clearing, major disease and/or insect outbreaks, the brush often gets such a powerful foothold that it may become the dominant vegetation for an extended period of time. And anyone who has attempted to plant and nurture conifer seedlings or hike off the trail in young forest stands learns very quickly some of the problems associated with the “brush”.

On the positive side, these vegetative species supply some very essential food, shelter, and cover for over one-fourth of our forest-dependent wildlife species. Furthermore, “brush” has names, and is composed of deciduous trees and shrubs of over 50 species in northeastern Washington. As a way of explanation: trees usually have a single stem while most shrubs have multiple stems. Deciduous-leaf species usually lose their leaves in the fall, although some are evergreen. (And some conifers such as tamarack are deciduous). Depending on the location, some shrubs may take on the form of trees and some tree species develop a shrub-like growth form. It can be confusing.

Probably one of the most useful classes of shrubs and trees for wildlife are those that produce mast. Mast is an old-world term that denotes the formation of nuts (hard mast) or berries (soft mast). Hard mast is almost nonexistent in northeastern Washington and is represented mostly by an occasional scattering of beaked hazel (and some would argue the cones of most conifers). However, some of the soft mast species such as mountain ash and the wild roses have very hard fruits that usually persist well into the winter. The number and extent of soft-mast producing trees and shrubs is enormous. These range from the ground covering species such as pigeon or bunchberry (a true dogwood) and kinnikinnick to the full-size bitter cherries and cascara. Some species such as red-osier dogwood and Douglas-spirea prefer damp sites while some of the Ceanothus (deer brush) and currant species do well on dry, harsh sites. Others are in-between in their requirements. In fact every aspect, elevation, and soil type harbors some different brush species.

The fruits of these trees and shrubs are readily consumed by a wide range of birds and mammals from some of the smallest rodents up to and including black bears. Many of our songbirds, both native and migratory, and all ground-nesting game birds feed on the fleshy fruits as well as the hard seed they contain. Hard mast is readily eaten as well. All resident big game species feed on the leaves and twigs of these same shrubs while hares, beavers and other mammals feed on the bark and cambium. And insects and hummingbird pollinators depend on the huge array of flowers produced every spring and summer by these mast-producing trees and shrubs. In addition to this food source, brush species supply an incredible amount of nesting, denning, roosting, and hiding habitat.

Most brush species need sunlight, although some can persist as an understory as conifers grow. As the forest canopy becomes denser, these plants tend to disappear. But there are always locations and conditions under which brush species can be maintained strictly for the wildlife habitat they supply. Contact your DNR stewardship foresters and wildlife biologist, county forest extension agent, or conservation district for assistance on maintaining or developing this important wildlife habitat within your forestland.

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