Management Recommendations for Washington's Priority Habitats: Riparian


Published: December 1997

Pages: 195

Author(s): K. Lea Knutson and Virginia L. Naef

Executive Summary

By virtue of its high productivity, diversity, continuity, and critical contributions to both aquatic and upland ecosystems, riparian habitat provides a rich and vital resource to Washington's fish and wildlife. Riparian habitat occurs as an area adjacent to rivers, perennial or intermittent streams, seeps, and springs throughout Washington. Because it is generally a narrow band, riparian habitat covers a relatively small portion of the state. Riparian areas contain elements of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems which mutually influence each other and occur as transitions between aquatic and upland habitats.

Seventy-seven species of fish inhabit freshwater in Washington. Riparian habitat performs many functions that are essential to fish survival and productivity, and it is critical in supporting suitable instream conditions necessary for the recovery of imperiled native salmon stocks. Vegetation in riparian areas shades streams maintaining cool temperatures needed by most fish. Plant roots stabilize stream banks and control erosion and sedimentation, and vegetation creates overhanging cover for fish. Riparian habitat contributes leaves, twigs, and insects to streams, thereby providing basic food and nutrients that support fish and aquatic wildlife. Large trees that fall into streams create pools, riffles, backwater, small dams, and off-channel habitat that are necessary to fish for cover, spawning, rearing, and protection from predators. Pools help maintain riffles where gravel essential for spawning accumulates. Riparian vegetation, litter layers, and soils filter incoming sediments and pollutants thereby assisting in the maintenance of high water quality needed for healthy fish populations. Riparian habitat moderates stream volumes by reducing peak flows during flooding periods and by storing and slowly releasing water into streams during low flows.

Approximately 85% of Washington's terrestrial vertebrate species use riparian habitat for essential life activities and the density of wildlife in riparian areas is comparatively high. Forested riparian habitat has an abundance of snags that are critical to cavity-nesting birds and mammals and to many insectivorous birds. Downed logs are common and provide cover and resting habitat for amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Intact riparian habitat has well-developed vegetation, usually with multiple canopy layers. Each layer consists of unique habitat niches that together support a diversity of bird and mammal species. The relatively mild microclimate of riparian areas offers relief from hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters which is especially important to deer, elk, and moose. Riparian habitat forms natural corridors that are important travel routes between foraging areas, breeding areas, and seasonal ranges, and provides protected dispersal routes for young. Protected access to water is also an essential attribute of intact riparian habitat.

Riparian habitat is limited geographically, however, and is vulnerable to loss and degradation through human activities and land uses. Since the arrival of settlers in the early 1800s, at least 50% and as much as 90% of riparian habitat in Washington has been lost or extensively modified. Protecting riparian habitat may yield the greatest gains for fish and wildlife across the landscape while involving the least amount of area.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has developed statewide riparian management recommendations based on the best available science. Nearly 1,500 pieces of literature on the importance of riparian areas to fish and wildlife were evaluated, and land use recommendations designed to accommodate riparian-associated fish and wildlife were developed. These recommendations consolidate existing scientific literature and provide information on the relationship of riparian habitat to fish and wildlife and to adjacent aquatic and upland ecosystems. These recommendations have been subject to numerous review processes.

Recommendations on major land use activities commonly conducted within or adjacent to riparian areas are provided, including those relative to agriculture, chemical treatments, grazing, watershed management, roads, stream crossings and utilities, recreational use, forest practices, urbanization, comprehensive planning, restoration, and enhancement. Management recommendations for riparian areas are generalized for predictable application across the Washington landscape and include the following standard riparian habitat area (RHA) widths.

Standard recommended Riparian Habitat Area (RHA) widths for areas with typed and non-typed streams. If the 100-year floodplain exceeds these widths, the RHA width should extend to the outer edge of the 100-year floodplain.


Stream Type Recommended RHA widths
in meters (feet)
Type 1 and 2 streams; or Shorelines of the State, Shorelines of Statewide Significance 76 (250)
Type 3 streams; or other perennial or fish bearing streams 1.5-6.1 m (5-20 ft) wide 61 (200)
Type 3 streams; or other perennial or fish bearing streams <1.5 m (5 ft) wide 46 (150)
Type 4 and 5 streams; or intermittent streams and washes with low mass wasting* potential 46 (150)
Type 4 and 5 streams; or intermittent streams and washes with high mass wasting* potential 69 (225)
*Mass wasting is a general term for a variety of processes by which large masses of rock or earth material are moved downslope by gravity, either slowly or quickly.

Management recommendations for riparian habitat are developed to meet the goal of maintaining or enhancing the structural and functional integrity of riparian habitat and associated aquatic systems needed to perpetually support fish and wildlife populations on both site and landscape levels. Riparian habitat characteristics required by fish and wildlife include habitat connectivity; vegetation diversity in terms of age, plant species composition, and vegetation layers; vegetation vigor; abundance of snags and woody debris; unimpeded occurrences of natural disturbances and minimization of human-induced disturbances; an irregular shape; and a width that is adequate to retain riparian habitat functions. Although generalized for use across the landscape, these same characteristics can serve as performance guidelines if alternative site-specific management activities are pursued. Ideally, planning for riparian areas should be done from the perspective of an entire watershed.

It is expected that these management recommendations will contribute to the scientific component of planning, protection, and restoration efforts for fish and wildlife. These efforts include the Growth Management Act; habitat conservation plans (e.g., the Department of Natural Resources Habitat Conservation Plan); the WDFW Hydraulic Code; the Puget Sound Action Plan; the Timber, Fish, and Wildlife Agreement; individual landowner farm and forest plans; and restoration projects conducted through the Jobs for the Environment Program, Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups, State Conservation Commission, For the Sake of the Salmon, and other efforts. Habitat requirements for salmon recovery outlined in WDFW's Wild Salmonid Policy were derived, in part, from these management recommendations. These recommendations may provide a basis for WDFW participation in other planning processes that address riparian management strategies; however, WDFW will defer to negotiated agreements (e.g., the TFW Forestry Module) regarding riparian management that may result from our participation in those planning processes.

Suggested citation

Knutson, K. L., and V. L. Naef. 1997. Management recommendations for Washington's priority habitats: riparian. Wash. Dept. Fish and Wildl., Olympia. 181pp.

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