Management Recommendations for Washington's Priority Habitats: Oregon White Oak Woodlands


Published: January 1998

Pages: 51

Author(s): Eric M. Larsen and John T. Morgan

Executive Summary

Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) is Washington's only native oak. Although limited and declining, oaks and their associated floras comprise distinct woodland ecosystems. The various plant communities and stand age mixtures within oak forests provide valuable habitat that contributes to wildlife diversity statewide. In conjunction with other forest types, oak woodlands provide a mix of feeding, resting, and breeding habitat for many wildlife species. More than 200 vertebrate and a profusion of invertebrate species use Washington's oak woodlands. Some species occur in especially high densities, whereas others are not typically found in Washington. Oaks provide habitat for species that are state listed as Sensitive, Threatened, Endangered, or candidates for these listings.

Oregon white oaks occur within the Puget Trough, Washington's south-central counties, along the Columbia Gorge, and northward along the east side of the Cascade range. Some small stands and relict groves can be found in the San Juan Islands, along Hood Canal, and in the Willapa Hills. Oregon white oaks are generally restricted to lower elevations, drier areas, and areas with historically limited conifer competition. West of the Cascades, oaks are found within the Western Hemlock Forest Zone and often occupy the narrow sub-zone between prairies and conifer forests. East of the Cascades, oaks are found within the Ponderosa Pine Forest Zone and occupy the transition zone between conifers and shrub-steppe. The Columbia Gorge is a transitional area where a mixture of east and west forest plant constituents can be found. Oregon white oaks tolerate an array of soil types but flourish in the deep loams of southwestern Washington. This tree species reproduces by seed and sprout.

Priority Oregon white oak woodlands are stands of pure oak or oak/conifer associations where canopy coverage of the oak component of the stand is 25%; or where total canopy coverage of the stand is <25%, but oak accounts for at least 50% of the canopy coverage present. The latter is often referred to as an oak savanna. In non-urbanized areas west of the Cascades, priority oak habitat is stands 0.4 ha (1 ac) in size. East of the Cascades, priority oak habitat is stands 2 ha (5 ac) in size. In urban or urbanizing areas, single oaks, or stands of oaks <0.4 ha (1 ac), may also be considered priority habitat when found to be particularly valuable to fish and wildlife (i.e., they contain many cavities, have a large diameter at breast height [dbh], are used by priority species, or have a large canopy).

Oregon white oak woodlands are used by an abundance of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Many invertebrates, including various moths, butterflies, gall wasps, and spiders, are found exclusively in association with this oak species. Oak/conifer associations provide contiguous aerial pathways for animals such as the State Threatened western gray squirrel, and they provide important roosting, nesting, and feeding habitat for wild turkeys and other birds and mammals. Dead oaks and dead portions of live oaks harbor insect populations and provide nesting cavities. Acorns, oak leaves, fungi, and insects provide food. Some birds, such as the Nashville warbler, exhibit unusually high breeding densities in oak. Oaks in Washington may play a critical role in the conservation of neotropical migrant birds that migrate through, or nest in, Oregon white oak woodlands.

The decline of Oregon white oak woodlands has been accelerated by human activities --primarily oak removal. Conifer encroachment is a significant threat to remaining oaks, particularly on the west side of the Cascades and in portions of the Columbia Gorge, and is aggravated by urban development, fire suppression, timber conversion, and cattle grazing. Grazing is a primary use of oak woodlands and reduces species richness of ground cover, increases soil moisture, compacts soils, and disturbs sod, all of which may promote conifer growth and encroachment west of the Cascades. East of the Cascades, these pressures may also affect oak woodlands. In addition, the selective harvest of east-side conifers is detrimental to those wildlife species that depend on mixed oak/conifer associations. Fire suppression has also contributed to the decline of Oregon white oak woodlands. Natural fires and those intentionally set by Native Americans historically played a paramount role in oak forest ecology, especially natural oak regeneration. Frequent low-intensity fires curbed conifer encroachment, controlled stand density, and initiated oak sprouting. Today, managed burning can help restore degraded oak habitat.

Management recommendations are designed to maintain and enhance the integrity of Oregon white oak woodlands, reverse the trend of oak habitat loss, and promote the protection of oak habitat that is presently in good condition. Oaks west of the Cascades and in wetter sites along the Columbia Gorge should be cut only for stand enhancement. Replacing the wholesale removal of mixed oak/conifer stands with selective cutting would reduce fragmentation and conifer encroachment, and it would benefit structural and vegetative species diversity within oak forests. Encroaching conifers within oak groves should be thinned, and conifers adjacent to these stands should be retained for wildlife. An alternative to removing trees is to leave them standing as snags. East of the Cascades, the drier climate generally inhibits conifer growth. Conifers in this region's oak stands typically are limited and should be retained with the oaks because conifers contribute to the declining oak/pine habitat type.

Specific recommendations include the following:

  • Do not cut Oregon white oak woodlands except for habitat enhancement.
  • Allow only early spring, low-impact cattle grazing.
  • Allow low-impact recreation (hunting, fishing, hiking, mushroom and acorn collecting).
  • Selectively harvest individual oaks to improve stand age-class and structural diversity.
  • Thin encroaching conifers in oak woodlands west of the Cascades and along the Columbia Gorge; do not remove conifers from mixed stands east of the Cascades.
  • Retain large, dominant oaks and standing dead and dying trees.
  • Create snags when thinning oaks or conifers instead of removing trees.
  • Leave fallen trees, limbs, and leaf litter for foraging, nesting, and denning sites.
  • Retain contiguous aerial pathways.
  • Conduct prescribed burns where appropriate.

Other oak enhancement activities include the following:

  • Planting Oregon white oak acorns and seedlings.
  • Using alternatives to oak fuelwood.
  • Selling or donating oak woodlands to conservation and land trust organizations.
  • Purchasing contiguous or notable stands of oaks by local, state, and federal agencies.
  • Moving toward the elimination of grazing on state-owned oak woodlands.
  • Designating large, contiguous oak and oak/conifer stands as critical areas.
  • Encouraging aggressive oak enhancement/regeneration measures by local, state, and federal agencies.

Suggested citation

Larsen, E. M., and J. T. Morgan. 1998. Management recommendations for Washington's priority habitats: Oregon white oak woodlands. Wash. Dept. Fish and Wildl., Olympia. 37pp.