Don’t Close the Door on a Climate Refuge
Editor’s note: As the Trump administration considers the fate of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the monument’s place as a climate change refuge for numerous plants and animals is even more important. Guest author Dr. Pepper Trail, an ornithologist and conservation biologist, highlights three species that call the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument home.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument links two great western mountain ranges along the Oregon-California border. It is the only national monument established specifically to protect an area of extraordinary biodiversity. President Obama expanded its original range, proclaimed in 2000 by President Clinton, from more than 52,000 acres to more than 100,000 acres in 2017. This expansion included a significantly greater range of elevations to help fulfill the monument’s purpose as a biological refuge in the face of climate change.
I have spent more than 20 years exploring this extraordinary region as an ornithologist and conservation biologist. I want to introduce you to three of the rare and endemic species that find refuge in this monument.
One of the most precious is the Jenny Creek redband trout, a unique lineage of trout found only in the monument’s Jenny Creek. An important tributary of the Klamath River, Jenny Creek rises in the cool, dark conifer forests high in southern Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, flows down through broad, flower-strewn meadows, then muscles its way past an ancient lava flow to tumble over a spectacular waterfall and then empty at last into the Klamath River’s Irongate Reservoir in northern California.
Ranging up 10 inches in length, these fish are extraordinarily beautiful: sleek and golden, spangled with black spots, and with a dramatic red line along their flanks.
Jenny Creek redbands have been isolated from other redband trout populations at least since the end of the last ice age, held in the upper reaches of the watershed by the impassable barrier of Jenny Creek Falls. Ranging up 10 inches in length, these fish are extraordinarily beautiful: sleek and golden, spangled with black spots, and with a dramatic red line along their flanks. They are sought after by dedicated fly fisherman—as well as by the otters, kingfishers, and herons that call Jenny Creek home. The long-term survival of this unique stock is dependent on the continued availability of cool, shaded headwater streams where young trout can shelter and grow. These streams drain the slopes of the high-elevation ridge called Surveyor Mountain, which is now protected by the monument’s expansion. Without this protection, the forests of Surveyor Mountain are vulnerable to logging, which would severely degrade Jenny Creek’s headwaters streams through higher temperatures and increased sedimentation.
Another of my favorite species haunts the forests of Surveyor Mountain: the Gray Jay. Unlike its noisy cousins, the Gray Jay is a quiet, almost ghostly bird. While hiking through the hush of the winter mountains, I have more than once been startled by a small group of Gray Jays, soundlessly appearing right over my head. Widely distributed in the boreal forests of Canada (and indeed often called the Canada Jay), this species is mostly a bird of the mountains in the U.S. In the Pacific Northwest, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is near the southern limit of the Gray Jay’s range.
The higher elevations protected by the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument provide a long-term refuge for these gentle, intelligent birds.
Gray Jays are able to remain year round in even the coldest, snowiest mountain forests because of their amazing food storage capabilities. They create chewing-gum-like wads of food using specialized salivary glands, and cache this food in hidden locations around their large territories. Their ability to find the stores in the snow weeks or months later is truly remarkable. Studies in Canada have shown that rising winter temperatures can cause the stored food to rot, threatening the Gray Jay’s survival. The higher elevations protected by the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument provide a long-term refuge for these gentle, intelligent birds of winter, as well as connect the monument population of jays with those in the even higher mountains around Crater Lake.
Last but not least, at lower elevations lives the sleek, elusive, and ferocious Pacific fisher, a mammal of great conservation significance in the Cascade-Siskiyou region. Fur trappers almost exterminated this large member of the weasel family in the Pacific Northwest. Today, one of the only sizeable surviving populations lives in the Siskiyou Mountain foothills above my town of Ashland, Oregon. Several years ago, federal researchers made an electrifying discovery—a tuft of fisher fur recovered from a bait station in the monument matched a fisher earlier sampled near Ashland. The distance was not great—perhaps 20 miles—but the two sites were on opposite sides of Interstate 5, a four-lane highway long thought to be impassable for fishers.
At lower elevations lives the sleek, elusive, and ferocious Pacific fisher, a mammal of great conservation significance in the Cascade-Siskiyou region.
The expanded monument is much more likely to support the long-term survival of this important predator. Fishers are not a high-elevation species, and as snowpack diminishes and mixed hardwood and conifer forest expands in the face of climate change, they will find larger areas of suitable habitat. Equally important, the western portion of the monument expansion, closest to the Ashland population, will provide corridors for dispersal that would otherwise be vulnerable to fragmentation by logging and road building.
These three very different species give just a taste of the extraordinary variety of animals and plants protected by the expanded Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Almost every weekend I’m out exploring the monument, and I’m always discovering something new—a butterfly or wildflower I’ve never seen before, a new vista over wild, unspoiled country, a new secret spot to cherish the solitude that the monument provides. I have hiked this country with my sons, and someday I hope to do so with my grandchildren. That will only be possible if the expanded monument is protected and preserved—a precious, wild legacy in our rapidly changing world.