A bird’s eye view of the Willamette Valley 10,000 years ago would have exposed a matrix of oak-prairies throughout the region. Now only 5% remains–a national assessment identified it as one of the United States’ most endangered ecosystems. An oak-prairie habitat hosts a significant amount of biodiversity of both flora and fauna. A healthy ecosystem could support 350 plant species and 250 animal species. The decline in habitat followed with a decline in animal species. Many plants and animals have become rare or endangered–even our state songbird the Western Meadowlark is a priority for conservation. With 96% of the land in private ownership, the stewardship of landowners can help bring back this habitat and the rich diversity of life it supports.
What caused such great habitat loss?
The loss of oak savanna and upland prairie habitat began as white settlers displaced the Native Americans from their traditional homelands. The resources of the valley were nurtured sustainably by the Kalapuya tribes with a deliberate fire regime to maintain and restore the ecosystem. It provided open hunting and traveling areas, prevented successional encroachment of trees, and stimulated adaptations in the flora to adjust to fire. Oaks became fire resistant, some prairie flowers and grasses resprout, in many cases, thrived from them. The settlers rapidly converted the open prairies to fertile agricultural land, drained wetlands and eliminated the periodic fires which initiated successional encroachment. Areas free from cultivation were impacted by grazing farm animals. They depleted the native grasses and wildflowers and their foraging feed introduced invasive exotic plants. Current threats to the remaining parcels of habitat are agriculture, urbanization, invasive exotic species, elimination of fire regimes and fragmentation. The small remnants of intact habitat undergoing restoration is not enough to sustain the wildlife reliant on it. Larger parcels of available agricultural land are now being converted back where possible. Recently urban and suburban areas are being targeted for oak protection and pollinator meadows. Despite the challenges, many stakeholders are working together to protect this heritage habitat.
How you can begin preserving and restoring
There is a growing wealth of information, organizations, and financial incentives available to landowners on assessing, restoring and managing oak-prairie habitat. A good place to begin is with The Oregon Conservation Strategy by Oregon Fish & Wildlife. It is a state-wide blueprint for voluntary conservation action. In it, the Willamette Valley is one of the eight eco-regions with Conservation Opportunity Areas that focus conservation efforts and financial investments in prioritized areas which can increase the likelihood of long-term success, maximize effectiveness over larger landscapes, improve funding efficiency, and promote cooperative efforts across ownership boundaries. Detailed information on strategy habitats, strategy species and key conservation issues help landowners focus their goals. Support on Monitoring Strategies, guidance, community science and data management help measure the restoration success. Opportunities are creating unusual partnerships as discovered in the video about conservation at Joint Base Lewis-McChord below. If you are not a landowner, and would like to participate, the Conservation Tool Box has information on outreach, education, and engagement to begin stewardship for this legacy habitat.
A Landowner’s Guide for Restoring and Managing Oregon White Oak Habitats is a great primer specific to the oak-prairie habitat. It’s purpose is to encourage private landowners to conserve, and when appropriate, actively manage Oregon white oaks that already exist on their property, and consider planting additional oaks. In the early chapters of the guide, they describe some of the uses and benefits of this remarkable tree in hopes of motivating landowners to take action. An introduction to the ecology of the Oregon White Oak is included so the reader can better understand how management practices are founded on aspects of the tree’s biology. Later chapters are designed to help landowners develop land management goals and understand the process of natural resource planning.
Institute for Applied Ecology: The Institute for Applied Ecology conserves native species and habitats through restoration, research and education. They work closely with public and private partners to implement science based restoration and provide place-based educational programs and materials. They work primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Southwestern US, but some of their efforts are international.
Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership: The Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership (CPOP) is a community of people and organizations that are involved in prairie-oak conservation and species recovery efforts in western Cascadia. CPOP strives to improve outcomes by facilitating increased collaboration, idea sharing and information transfer among the CPOP community.
Oregon Wildlife Institute: The mission of the Oregon Wildlife Institute is conserving and enhancing wildlife resources through research, education, and conservation planning. They have nearly seventy-five years of collective experience in wildlife research and management with emphasis on wildlife ecology and natural resource management and extensive backgrounds in statistical analysis, study design and execution, and management planning.
Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team: The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) coordinates efforts to protect and restore endangered Garry oak and associated ecosystems and the species at risk that inhabit them. Their Recovery Implementation Groups are working to complete the science-based information necessary for ecosystem and species recovery, minimize ongoing site and species losses, and motivate public and private protection and stewardship activities.
The Nature Conservancy: The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) mission is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends and for nearly 60 years they’ve been working in Oregon to do just that. Their vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. Their conservation is grounded in science and they support innovation, leadership and collaboration.