Mysterious! Antediluvian! Otherworldly! Salamanders!

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Former DNR staffer Noelle Nordstrom holds a Northwestern salamander she found with biologist Ken Bevis (not the salamander pictured) during a field assignment near Elma. (Photo by Ken Bevis, clearly not the salamander, DNR)

By Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources,, with Noelle Nordstrom, Coordinator, Streamkeepers of Clallam County

“Wow! I saw a salamander walking across the top of the leaf litter in my forest! What are they doing cruising about like that?”

Thank you, observant small forest landowner, for that question, and allow me to say a few things about this element of our native biodiversity.





They are an elusive, yet magical presence in our woodlands. Their bulging eyes, dinosaur-like snouts (in miniature), stubby little legs, long tails, and slow-motion lifestyles are fascinating. Their habitats are hidden and always moist; under logs, deep in the soil and duff, in moss-covered rocky talus, and in forest waters. These ancient creatures are descendants of some of the earliest vertebrate species, and we are fortunate to have many in Washington.

The Pacific Northwest is a hot spot for salamanders. Their Goldilocks habitat needs are particularly well-met in Western Washington, where it is never too hot, too cold or too dry. Forests of our state with abundant down wood, deep duff, and water sources scattered about in the forest can contain an abundance of salamander species.

Washington has 14 species of native salamanders (University of Washington, Burke Museum), with a particularly high diversity on the Olympic peninsula and in the southwestern portion of the state.

Our salamanders come in three basic forms:

  1. Small wiggly skinny ones 3-6” long, mostly dark with varying marks on their back. Often found under something (old boards, rocks, logs, in sumps). These include the long-toed, ensatina, and Western red-backed salamanders; the Dunn’s, VanDyke’s and Larch Mountain salamanders who love moist and rocky areas; and also the torrent salamanders, which depend on headwater streams and seeps.
  2. Big, dark, mottled, dinosaur-looking ones that are 6-12” long, sometimes seen cruising over leaf litter, under logs, or living in a stream. These are the Cope’s and Coastal Giants (Dicamptodon spp), and the Northwestern (Ambystoma spp) giant salamanders. These especially occur in the Olympics and southwest Washington.
  3. Rough of skin with a spectacular orange belly, about 6” long – Our one-of-a-kind rough-skinned newt. These critters breed en masse in some ponds and then disperse across the uplands for surprisingly long distances.
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The Western red-backed salamander is common throughout much of Western Washington. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

Several of the most common salamanders in the small wiggly category are mostly or completely terrestrial, living their entire lives in moist rotting wood, talus, and underground passages made by small mammals such as moles.

Wide-spread species are the Western red-backed and the ensatina. They have similar life histories, with eggs laid in tiny chambers in rotting wood where the females will guard the eggs from predators. (Imagine the underground drama of a marauding shrew attempting to eat the closely guarded eggs of an enraged mama ensatina!)

Small forest landowners commonly encounter these species, often when moving wood or old lumber. Note the markings (or lack of) on the backs when you find one.

The Cope’s and coastal giants live in association with live streams, mostly. In fact, these salamanders usually live full time resting at the bottom of deep pools in coastal and lowland streams in far Western Washington. They eat aquatic insects and small fish, yes, including baby salmon. (No, we don’t need to control them!) They can be up to 12” long and are an amazing and monstrous presence to behold.

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Northwestern salamander, one of Washington’s largest. Big, huh? (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

The Northwestern salamander is one of the giants but is in a different family (Ambystoma) and has a more terrestrial set of habits. It is mostly nocturnal and often goes out cruising in the forest, like this one we encountered near Chehalis. It prefers still waters, like ponds and ephemeral puddles.

And then there are the rough-skinned newts. These charismatic little orange and brown gems will travel a surprisingly long way to standing water for breeding before returning to their subterranean upland haunts.

They have a remarkable set of mating behaviors. Breeding balls are formed, which can have dozens of adults clinging onto each other in a frenzy of sexual activity. Wow! The eggs are laid in the pond, one at a time and attached to vegetation. After a period of development, the juveniles make their way overland to find somewhere to live, usually under something rotten.

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The rough-skinned newt, ready for his close-up — as long as you don’t get too close to this poisonous little guy. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

They have a bright orange belly that says, “Watch OUT!” Their skin carries a neurotoxin that will make some predators sick (or kill them!), including humans. They can be safely touched or held, but be sure to wash your hands after handling, and don’t lick (or eat) the newts!

There is a silent salamander “arms race” going on between rough-skinned newts and garter snakes. The garter snakes are the newts’ only real predator, and the snakes are immune to the toxin. The newts keep evolving to have stronger toxins, and the snakes then respond with stronger immunity to it. Different local populations of these two species will vary in their toxicity/immunity relationship from place to place. (Thanks for that cool tidbit, Noelle!)

What can the small forest landowner do to help our salamanders?

The bright orange belly of the rough-skinned newt is one of nature’s ways of saying “Do not touch!” (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

Retain rotten wood wherever you can, especially the really rotten stuff. Keep those small ponds and wetlands intact and protected. Avoid grazing right into ponds and puddles. Don’t introduce fish where they already don’t occur. Fish are predators of amphibians, especially larvae. Kill bullfrogs. Keep deciduous plants that shade the water – deciduous is better, as it allows the water to heat up a bit before the leaves come out, when the salamanders need some warming!

Sometimes there are places in our forests where water collects in closed puddles or pools. We call these features vernal ponds, where the water goes away in the dry parts of the year but stays long enough to provide significant environmental and habitat functions early in the season.

Many amphibians will use these features for breeding, especially if they last long enough for egg-laying and larvae development. These are great places to find egg masses from the Northwestern giant salamander! Look for a grapefruit-sized egg mass, often surrounding a stick or grass stem. A symbiotic algae often grows within the egg masses.

These vernal ponds provide a place for substantial microbial life, algae and diatoms, providing for small insects that can feed the amphibians in their reproductive mode. Sometimes these wet spots seem inconvenient but are particularly valuable as they allow water to slowly recede into the soil and subterranean recesses as groundwater.

Salamanders: Understated. Elegant. Cool. Amazing creatures deserving our help.

Intrigued? Good. Here are some links to websites with more salamander information: Burke Museum at the University of Washington; Stewardship Adventures; Woodland Fish and Wildlife.

Send your best wildlife photos and stories from the field to and you could be famous for a few moments in this publication!

And thank you for providing habitat.

‘I Love Birds. How Can I Help Them?’

By Ken Bevis, Department of Natural Resources stewardship wildlife biologist,

I get this question a lot. Forest landowners want to do the right thing for our avian friends, and there are indeed some things we can do.

A black-capped chickadee emerges from a nest hole. (Photo by Gregg Thompson, used with permission)

Birds are so endearing. They have beautiful feathers with amazing patterns and sometimes striking colors. Their food and habitat preferences outline an astounding array of ecological niches. They occur virtually everywhere humans do, making their livings in ways we often can only imagine. And they can fly! Wow! Now that’s a superpower.

Couple all of this with their evolutionary history (they ARE dinosaurs) and the hold on the human imagination, and we have a set of creatures uniquely positioned to influence and enrich our human world.

But there is a problem. The onslaught of modern humans in our industrial age has been hard on many birds. Habitat change and loss, pollution, environmental toxins (some subtle and unseen), past commercial hunting, poaching, night lighting, etc. etc. etc., have diminished, decimated, or even eliminated many species. It is a sad history and a complex situation requiring broad understanding and local action to address this situation.

Cedar waxwing. (Photo by Gregg Thompson, used with permission)

Now, the collective weight of human planetary dominance and probable changes to the earth’s climate bring on even more challenges for the ecosystem, and for the birds. So what actually is going on?

A scholarly report issued in October 2019 by the prestigious journal, Science, using thorough analyses of available data sets from all around the globe, revealed a disturbing trend. By compiling and comparing some of the most rigorous population monitoring metrics available, since 1970, overall bird populations have dropped by up to 29 percent. The causes are many, but the scale of the declines is cause for alarm. This article from Spokane also describes these findings.

And, anticipated environmental changes from rising temperatures, changes in weather patterns, and sea-level rise will likely continue and exacerbate this trend. Yikes!

Many species are in serious decline and could potentially face extinction in the near future. Habitat generalists and those tolerant of human-dominated environments probably have better chances. The National Audubon Society issued their own recent report on potential impacts to birds from further climate change predictions.

Tree swallow. (Photo by Teri Pieper, used with permission)

Many forest birds are migratory and therefore subject to habitat effects over a wider range than our local forests. When they arrive, it is helpful to have rich habitats awaiting. Many local, non-migratory species often persist in human-dominated landscapes, and forest birds in particular benefit from practices on small forest landowner’s parcels where habitat diversity is maintained and encouraged.

The picture is complex for sure. Here are a couple of simple personal actions we can do to help birds survive.

  1. Keep cats indoors. Outdoor cats kill millions of birds every year and can have a devastating effect on breeding success. Imagine a warbler coming all the way back from Costa Rica, surviving so many trials, only to be killed by my Fluffy … Here is an article from the American Bird Conservancy about this topic.
  2. Make windows bird-friendly. There are many techniques for keeping birds from striking windows. Feathers on string, markers or hawk silhouettes, lines drawn with white pen, netting, see-through stickers (what we have); You know which windows they hit. Fix them. Here are some ideas for how to reduce window strikes from the American Bird Conservancy.
  3. Turn off outdoor night lighting. Birds, many insects, and bats, will often migrate at night. Human lights can be a gigantic and fatal problem for these migrants. Less night-time lighting will help them find their way. Here is an article about this topic.
  4. Habitat. Provide (and insist upon) diverse, natural habitats for local and migratory birds. Keep standing dead trees, brushy margins, down logs, and fruit-bearing shrubs. Leave some areas un-mowed and full of down leaves. Give them a place to live. We know how to do this.
Juvenile barred owl. (Photo by Gregg Thompson, used with permission)

So what does this have to do with small forest landowners? (See #4) We provide habitat. Lots of it. And we can provide good habitat with thorough use of good techniques and long term Stewardship!

And we are all concerned about the future of birds and our beautiful forested world! Let’s help.

Trail Camera Greatest Hits, Vol. 1

By Ken Bevis, Department of Natural Resources stewardship wildlife biologist,, with a little help from his friends

Trail cameras are an amazing and relatively new tool that allow landowners to put out a camera “trap” and collect images of whatever sort of critter passes through the trigger lane.

It’s amazing –trail cameras allow us to gather immediate evidence of animals that are seldom, or never, actually seen by people. Our presence is usually so loud and clunky that the finely refined senses of wild animals are forewarned long before we arrive and they are not visible. Globally, these cameras are being used to study reclusive species such as tigers and snow leopards with some success.

I put out a call some time back for submissions of your “greatest hits” to put out in an article. Here are a few of my favorites, (hopefully identified correctly to the person who set the camera and the location).

Question: If I put out the camera, but the animal triggers the shutter, who is the “photographer”? Or is there one? I think the critter should be cited, but I will stick with the convention of who put the camera out.

Newer cameras have great capability and aren’t very expensive. I am sometimes asked for recommendations on brand and type, but I think they are all pretty good. Be sure they have an infrared setting for night, however, as the old flash versions can scare flighty animals away.

Also, placement is key. It is good to practice in a known spot, easy to check, angle and height. Experimenting is really fun.

The following are some of my favorite images. Send me some more and we will do this again! I tried to find out the locations and full names for the images, and in most cases know, but a few were sent a while back and all I have is the name. Please let me know if your picture is in here and I somehow left out the proper location.

These images were selected for species represented, and sometimes a bit of storytelling!

trail camera cougars
Cougars – Wally Soroka, near Colville
trail camera coyotes
Coyotes pick at a deer carcass in the Methow Valley – Ken Bevis, DNR
trail camera deer
Deer ford a river – Dave New, Pilchuck Tree Farm
trail camera moose
Moose – Eslick, Blue Mountains
trail camera flying squirrel
Flying squirrel on a box – Alan Mainwaring, Northeast Washington
trail camera bucks
Two whitetail bucks fighting – Dave Baumgartner, Blue Mountains
trail camera nursing fawn
A whitetail deer fawn nurses from its mother – Dave Baumgartner, Blue Mountains
trail camera coyote portrait
Coyote – Dave Ingebright, Granite Falls
trail camera bobcat
Bobcat – Maurice Miller
trail camera vultures
Turkey vultures – Wiggins, Hood Canal
trail camera family
Small forest landowners, seen in their natural habitat – Dave New and family, Pilchuck Tree Farm

Thanks for the submissions! Let’s do this again, and when you send me the pics, let me know some of the relative specifics so I won’t lose track.

Send your best shots to with information on your general location.

Trail cameras are amazing tools. I encourage you to use them!

Get to Know Your Wildlife Biologist: Ken Bevis

Small Forest Landowner Office Manager Tami Miketa recently sat down with Ken Bevis, DNR’s stewardship wildlife biologist. The talkative traveling troubadour has bounced around Eastern Washington for more than three decades, and now spends his time teaching landowners across the state how to best create wildlife habitat in their forests. He’s almost certainly got more mileage on his state work truck than anyone else at DNR, and he’s never too far from a guitar.

Tell us a little about yourself, Ken.

Not too tall, not too big. Love the outdoors.



I think I’m funny.

I’m originally from Virginia – I migrated west to Colorado at 23, then came to Washington. I have lived in Eastern Washington for 33 years in various places along the Eastern Cascades. I have been camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, bird-watching, etc., my entire life, starting with farm ponds and whitetail deer way back in Virginia.

Family camping trips, my folks, an influential uncle and the Boy Scouts were seminal in my life and career choices.

How long have you been working in forestry and wildlife? Why did you go into this field?

I have been in and out of natural resource jobs for more than 40 years. My family background of outdoor play and an inherent love of nature made declaring forestry my major at Virginia Tech easy. I was lucky to get to go to college right out of high school, and choosing that major shaped my future.

What sort of jobs have you had? Schooling?

I have worked for state and federal agencies and the Yakama Nation, and a university. Each job has been a stepping stone, and it has been an amazing ride so far.

My first forestry job was with the Virginia Division of Forestry in 1978 as a summer intern, where I learned about loblolly pine management and southern Virginia culture.

I migrated west after a divorce some personal changes, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado on trails and timber crews for five years, before coming to Washington to study spotted owls in 1986. “The owl” was just becoming an issue and I was one of the first people to work with them on the east slope of the Cascades.

For several years, I worked on the Cle Elum and Naches ranger districts in the East Cascades, surveying and studying spotted owls. We would go out in the forest at dusk, and work on survey routes until 2 or 3 a.m., while no one else was out there. We saw lots of wildlife.

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DNR stewardship wildlife biologist Ken Bevis explains how to preserve habitat for birds on forest lands during a forestry field day in Arlington. A woodpecker — Bevis’ favorite forest creature — is seen in the background. (Photo courtesy Ken Bevis, DNR)

I had attended graduate school at Central Washington University and studied woodpeckers in managed and unmanaged forests. There weren’t many studies of woodpeckers in Northwest forests, so it was a good opportunity.

Upon graduation in 1994, I went to the Yakama Indian Nation and back to owls, where I was a biologist supporting the on-reservation timber program. We surveyed and studied the owl to help the tribe layout timber sales that included habitat areas. We used to catch owls and put radios and bands on them. We caught quite a few!

I went to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1998 and became a habitat biologist responsible for forestry-related issues and permitting for the south-central East Cascades area. I assisted DNR Forest Practices staff in reviewing and sometimes modifying forest practices permits across a large area with LOTS of timber harvest activities. I got to know the forests of Kittitas and Yakima counties really well.

I then moved up to the Methow and became the watershed steward for WDFW, assisting with salmon recovery efforts, working as a coordinator/grant writer/meeting attendee/outreach specialist. I learned a lot about fish, river restoration, riparian habitats, and small-scale politics.

In 2013, I came to DNR as the Stewardship Wildlife Biologist. This job is my favorite of my whole career. I get to meet people all over the state, give presentations, attend and teach workshops, write, and apply all that I have learned over the years.

What do you emphasize when talking to small landowners?

Habitat diversity is the key. More diversity will mean more diverse wildlife.

I want people to maintain habitats for as many species as possible. I want them to be knowledgeable and motivated to improve and protect our rich and diverse wildlife habitats. My task is to understand where my clients are right now, and help them become better stewards of their habitats. I will constantly point out valuable habitat features to any audience, and craft my delivery to them as I see fit.

I like to emphasize habitat features, by which I mean natural elements such as big dead wood (snags and logs), ephemeral wetlands, the shrub layer (brush), and canopy complexity. I emphasize retention of larger-diameter dead wood (snags and logs), healthy and robust shrub species, reduction of the nastiest noxious weeds (Scotch broom – yuck!), and retention of big trees and patches of older forest components.

I want to be a catalyst and conduit to get people to do more for habitat on their forest land. I use the tools of education and motivation.

Education is filling a blank spot in someone’s knowledge, but motivation is moving them to do the thing that education informs. My job is to help fill in those blanks – and to encourage people to act.

If they are concerned about wildlife, and educated about the habitat needs of our native species, then they can act on their land. This is how our work can help support preservation of biodiversity today.

I want landowners to better learn what they have and encourage protection and development of it.

Why do you think our work is important? 

There are a lot of acres held by our small forest landowners. Cumulatively, we can have a great impact on the landscape, one piece at a time. Our small forest landowners are active land stewards, often living on their forest and caring deeply for the health and quality of their land and habitats.

The world is in the midst of an extinction crisis, driven by human population and climate change. Our small forest landowners can actually make a difference and help with conservation of many species.

What is your favorite kind of critter and why?

They are all my favorites, but if I had to pick one, it would be the pileated woodpecker. They live in mature forest habitats (sometimes in patches dispersed), feed in big dead wood, have amazing charisma, and fill a keystone role in the forest ecosystem. And they have a cool call.

I am a singer/songwriter and even wrote a song called “King of the Woods,” inspired by pileated woodpeckers. (Can I do a shameless plug? (ed. note: fiiiiiiiine) – Check out my website at

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Another satisfied customer: This tranquilized wolverine shows off its tracking collar and some affection to Ken Bevis. (Photo courtesy of tranquilized wolverine)

What kind of legacy would you like to leave from your work here?

I want to leave a body of work that stands beyond my tenure with DNR, and provide tools that help maintain biodiversity in the face of this modern onslaught. I want to know that I made a difference and gave people something to work with that wouldn’t have been there without me.

And I want to have a good time and remind people that nature is a great teacher.

You can contact Ken at 360-489-4802 or by email at,and he’ll be glad to help you with questions and help you with habitat on your small forest lands.

My Larches Look Sick. What Could it Be?

By Melissa Fischer, Eastern Washington Forest Health Specialist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources,

I have noticed quite a bit of damage to western larch foliage this season.

Upon close inspection, I have found that much of it is due to the larch casebearer, an invasive species of moth introduced into the United States in 1886 from Europe. In the larval stage, the larch casebearer damages both our dominant Western larch (Larix occidentalis) and the more eastern and northerly tamarack (Larix laricina) by defoliation.


The larch casebearer (Coleophora laricella) has one generation a year, with adult moths emerging from the end of May through early July. After mating, the females lay between 50 and 70 eggs singly on larch needles. After the eggs hatch, the larvae bore directly into larch needles.

The larvae will develop through four instars (developmental stages between molts) prior to pupating. They will mine a single needle for about two months, during which time they will develop from the first to second instar.

Once hollowed out, the larvae will make a case from the needle (hence the name “casebearer”) by lining a portion of it with silk and chewing it free from the rest of the needle. The larva will reside within this case through the third instar, feeding from mid-August to late October.

In the fall, larvae leave the foliage before needle shed and attach their cases to twigs, overwintering within the case as third instar larvae. In the spring, the third instar larvae will begin feeding again. They develop into the fourth instar, and then pupate inside their cases around late May.

The cycle begins again when the adults emerge from their pupal cases.

How do I know if its larch casebearer damage?

Casebearer damage to larch foliage can be seen in the early spring. The tops of mined needles will look straw-colored, curl over, and/or look wilted (Image 1). By early summer, the foliage will turn reddish-brown.

By mid-June to mid-September, much of the damage visible in the spring will be concealed by green foliage that appears when new shoots elongate and/or if a second crop of needles develops. Mining in late September may brown the trees again, but by then the tree has completed its growth, so damage is minor.

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Image 1 A. Larch casebearer damage to western larch contrasted with an undamaged tree in the foreground and B. Close-up of larch casebearer damage to foliage of western larch.

The casebearer itself can be seen in the early spring attached to needles within their cases. Later in the spring, pupal cases can be found attached to needles or hanging from the ends of silk off larch trees. This can be quite a spectacular display if the tree has been heavily infested. The cases are straw-colored and less than a quarter of an inch long (Image 2). Many landowners describe the cases as looking similar to grains of rice.

The adults can be found around June and are pretty nondescript, being less than ¼ of an inch long and silvery (Image 3). If you look closely with a hand lens, you may see that the ends of the wings are fringed (Image 4).

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Image 2. Larch casebearer cases attached to western larch needles. The needles in this picture are quite long for western larch, but these particular trees were open-grown and well-watered.

Cases may again be seen from the end of August through to the next season on needles or overwintering on twigs.

The larch casebearer is not the only cause of damage to larch needles. Larch needle blight (Hypodermella laricis, Image 5) and larch needle cast (Meria laricis), both fungi, can cause similar damage. Larch needle blight damages needles in the spring and needle cast affects needles in the summer. Close inspection of the needles themselves will help you determine whether the damage is caused by the casebearer or a fungal infection.

Should I worry?

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Image 3. Larch casebearer adult: side view

Larch casebearer damage can look quite serious, but one year of damage is typically not something you need to worry about. Larch trees are capable of putting out another flush of needles within the same season and, because they are deciduous, they will refoliate the following spring.

In addition, the larch casebearer is especially vulnerable to a suite of parasitoids, especially two European parasitic wasps, Agathis pumila, a braconid, and Chrysocharis laricinellae, a eulophid, that were introduced in the early 1960s as biological control agents. Both parasitoids are well established and very successful at reducing casebearer populations. Studies have shown that either wasp can parasitize over 90 percent of the larch casebearer population in an infested area. Samples I collected this spring in Eastern Washington had the same results.

larch 4
Image 4. Larch casebearer adult: Notice the fringe at the end of the wings.

If your larch experience continued heavy defoliation for five or more years, you may begin to see the trees decline. Evidence of decline will begin with branch dieback. After a few years, entire branches may begin dying, followed the next season by epicormic branching along the trunk. Within another one to two years, the tops of the affected trees may die.

Soon after these symptoms appear, tree mortality may occur. Trees weakened by continued defoliation are also susceptible to other insects and disease, such as western larch borer and Armillaria root rot.

There are no known silvicultural controls for larch casebearer. Insecticides over large landscapes are not economically practical, but may be advisable in high-valued stands or individual trees. Typically, natural controls are effective, particularly parasitoids.

In addition to parasitoids, prolonged cold and wet weather in the spring, with frosts after the larvae have emerged, can also cause considerable damage. Droughts that last into the late summer causing needles to dry out and fall off also reduce populations. Needle blight and needle cast also have the capacity to reduce the larvae’s food supply.

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Image 5. A. Larch needle blight damage to western larch and B. Close-up of larch needle blight damage.
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Image 6. Parasitoids of larch casebearer that emerged from samples taken in Eastern Washington, 2019 A. braconid and B. Eulophid.

For more info:

Pederson, L. 2006. Management Guide for Larch Casebearer. Forest Health Protection and State Forestry Organizations.

Tunnock, S. and R. B. Ryan. 1985. Larch Casebearer in Western Larch. Forest Insect & Disease Leaflet 96. U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

Douglas-fir Tussock Moth Outbreaks Return to Eastern Washington, Starting in Unexpected Places

By Glenn Kohler, DNR forest entomologist,

The Douglas-fir tussock moth caterpillar is arguably a photogenic insect, but when populations boom every seven to 10 years, there can be an ugly side: Hungry tussock moth caterpillars feed on both new and old foliage of their preferred hosts (Douglas-fir, true firs, and spruce).

Chewed foliage dries and turns brown, giving affected trees a scorched appearance starting in early July. If most of the foliage is removed, this can result in tree mortality or top-kill in a single season, potentially killing up to 40 percent of host trees in an infested stand. The trees most vulnerable to mortality are those with the least foliage, such as young trees and those growing in dense stands.

Fortunately, tussock moth outbreaks are short-lived, due to a number of natural enemies and disease that collapse local outbreak populations after a year or two of defoliation damage. Also, mostly because the adult females are wingless and incapable of flight, the damage footprint of tussock moth outbreaks tends to be smaller and more scattered than the western spruce budworm, another notorious Eastern Washington forest pest that prefers similar hosts.

Douglas-fir tussock moth (Orgyia pseudotsugata) is in the “tussock moth” subfamily Lymantriinae, which includes the non-native and much more destructive gypsy moth. Unlike gypsy moths, the tussock moth is native to western North America and its outbreaks are a natural part of dry forest ecosystems in the West.

tussock moth tree kill
A Douglas-fir tussock moth infestation defoliated the crowns of many of the trees in this site near Ellensburg. (Photo by Glenn Kohler, DNR)

However, for a forest landowner who happens to have property in the epicenter of an outbreak, tussock moths can be very destructive to trees and quite literally irritating to humans. Those photogenic and colorful hairs on the caterpillars are covered with microscopic barbs that are like fishhooks. When these get under your skin, itching, swelling, and redness are not far behind (unless you are one of the lucky few who seem immune). This condition is known as tussockosis and should motivate anyone working or playing in a defoliated area to cover their skin and avoid handling caterpillars or cocoons.

The first visible defoliation of the current outbreak was recorded on approximately 1,900 acres in Kittitas and Chelan counties in 2018. The damage in some areas is quite severe and can easily be seen from U.S. Highway 97 over Blewett Pass between Cle Elum and Leavenworth.

This is the first observation of tussock moth defoliation in Washington since 2012 and the first in Kittitas County since aerial surveys began in 1947. Many Douglas-fir and grand fir in this area were already damaged during a decade-long budworm outbreak that just came to an end, meaning stressed host trees may be more vulnerable to tussock moth damage.

On the positive side, generalist predator and parasite populations that built up during the budworm outbreak may have an impact on the tussock moth population.

The pheromone that flightless tussock moth females use to attract males was synthesized as a lure for sticky traps and is used to monitor changes in population. This can provide an early warning to land managers when an outbreak might be expected.

tussock moth trap catch map

Every year since 1980, an interagency network of these “Early Warning System” pheromone traps has been deployed in Eastern Washington, with 250 locations trapped in 2018 (see map). Despite high trap catches and reports of caterpillars in Kittitas County, heavy defoliation in this area was unexpected because tussock moth outbreaks historically tend to recur in the same areas of Washington – most commonly in Okanogan County, Spokane County, and in the Blue Mountains south of Dayton.

Trap catches remain elevated in the current outbreak area and have increased in some areas of Okanogan County, which indicate higher likelihood of more tussock moth defoliation developing in 2019. Unfortunately, high trap catches do not always correlate with the location of future defoliation.

Ornamental blue spruce trees that are defoliated by tussock moth are known as “sentinel trees” because their damage often precedes forest defoliation by a year or two. There is no direct, predictable relationship between the location of sentinel trees and locations where forest areas will be defoliated.

tussock moth trap catch

Tussock moth populations are normally kept low by natural controls that include disease, predators, food supply, and weather. Periodically, tussock moth populations are able to escape these controls and outbreaks occur. Outbreaks typically collapse within two to four years due to a combination of build-up in natural enemies and/or starvation (see chart).

Caterpillars are highly susceptible to a nucleopolyhedrosis virus (NPV) that can rapidly spread through the population and is a frequent cause of collapse. Infected caterpillars tend to hang from branches when dead, where their virus-liquefied bodies swell and burst in the heat, spreading virus onto foliage that will be eaten by nearby caterpillars.

If they survive to adulthood and mate, female tussock moths lay masses of eggs in late summer on top of their own cocoons. Virus can get onto eggshells through the mother, nearby “exploding” caterpillars, or rain and snow washing down over winter. When caterpillars hatch in spring, their first meal is their own eggshell, which may seal their fate if it’s covered with virus.

tussock moth cocoon
A Douglas-fir tussock moth egg mass and cocoons hang off the needles of a Douglas-fir tree. (Photo by Glenn Kohler, DNR)

Early in an outbreak, egg masses can be analyzed to determine the level of virus and egg parasitism by tiny wasps. This information can be used to predict the duration and possibly predict severity of the outbreak. The U.S. Forest Service is analyzing eggs collected from state and federal land during the current outbreak.

If no actions are taken to manage or prevent tussock moth damage, the outbreak will subside in two to four years due to a build-up of natural controls. Management options are available to protect host trees valued for timber, recreation, or aesthetics.

Tussock moths may damage ponderosa pines and western larch, but is unlikely to kill them, so a higher proportion of non-hosts will lessen the overall impact. If timed before an outbreak, thinning the forest to reduce the proportion of Douglas-fir and true fir can reduce tussock moth damage.

Dense understory trees are more vulnerable to damage because they have fewer needles and tussock moth caterpillars may drop on them from taller trees. In an even-aged stand with widely spaced trees, caterpillars are less likely to land on host trees.

After an outbreak, killed trees can be salvaged as timber or left standing for wildlife. Selection of trees for removal should be done in spring following bud break because some trees that appear dead may produce new growth. It’s possible a tree with up to 95 percent defoliation can survive.

For immediate reduction of defoliation, insecticides can be sprayed on host trees soon after most caterpillars have emerged and begun feeding. If this option is considered, please consult a forest health specialist to assure the most effective timing, appropriate product, and application rates.

Both conventional and biological insecticides are effective against tussock moths. Biological insecticides affect fewer non-target organisms and include a commercially available bacterial insecticide, Foray or “Btk” (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki), and the naturally occurring virus “TM Biocontrol” (NPV), which is only available through the Forest Service.

Please contact the Washington State Department of Agriculture for current pesticide registration information. When using pesticides, always read and follow the label.

The Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection website has detailed information on tussock moth biology, management, and monitoring, which can be found at

Wolves on the Landscape

By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Biologist, 

We stood quietly along the plowed park road in the Lamar Valley of Northeast Yellowstone Park. Across the mountain valley, a kill lay down in the creek between high snow banks. No one knew if it was an elk or a bison, but the local wolf pack had been down foraging on the kill off and on for two days. We were waiting with about six other visitors hoping for a glimpse of these apex predators as the day slipped away.

In 1995, the National Park Service reintroduced wolves to the landscape of Yellowstone, and soon after in Idaho.

yellowstone wolf teri j pieper
A wolf looks out across Yellowstone National Park, as seen through a spotting scope. Note the wolf’s small ears and blocky head. (Photo copyright Teri J. Pieper, used with permission.)

If you have never been to Yellowstone, go. If you have, you know how spectacular the place is, particularly due to the presence of ALL of the large animals that lived there when our continent was settled. Bison and elk are commonly observed right along the roads, often within touching distance (don’t touch!), and bears make appearances during their waking months. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, and even pronghorn add more flavor to the large critter landscape.

When food exists, according to the laws of nature, something will inevitably show up to eat it. Birds eat seeds, grazers eat grass, predators eat herbivores; all according to size and natural history of the animal.

Wolves mainly prey upon larger wild grazing animals. Their natural evolution involved hunting any variety of such animals across nearly the entire Northern Hemisphere. At one time, they were one of the most widespread animals in the world, spanning Eurasia and most of North America.

Unfortunately for the wolves, their habit of eating domestic grazing animals put them in direct conflict with human activity long ago, and our efforts to control, or eradicate, wolves continue to this day. Wolves were removed from Washington by the 1930s.

A deep folklore has grown from this relationship, confounded by the domestication of wolves into our beloved companions, dogs, including our hardly wolf-like Labrador who lays on the couch as I write this. Wolves have generally been considered to be “bad” and competitors with humans for resources.

In recent years, however, a different, often-controversial paradigm has emerged. Wolves have been identified for their important ecological roles and subsequently actively restored in Yellowstone and Central Idaho. Laws and practices have changed, and in the absence of universal persecution (i.e. trapping, poisoning and indiscriminate shooting), these reintroduced animals have migrated far and wide.

What has emerged from the return of this animal to landscapes where they have not occurred in living memory is remarkable. Conflict and controversy abound, and much has been written on the topic.

Wolves evoke incredible emotion in people. There are the “lovers” and the “haters,” who vehemently express their feelings about wolves whenever possible. They can be considered either the representatives of pure nature and saviors of ecological health, or evil incarnate intent on bringing down game, livestock and traditional lifestyles, or variations on these themes. It is true that wolves will compete for game animals by way of direct predation (i.e. eating animals that may have been available for harvest by hunters), changing movement patterns of game (especially elk), and taking vulnerable livestock to the detriment of ranchers and stock growers. It is also true that they are a well-adapted, shrewd predator with a well-developed social structure and a fascinating life history. AND, they are definitely a species of wildlife requiring significant attention by state and federal agencies responsible for wildlife management.

Wolves are well-studied and their pack structures, hunting strategies and landscape movements well-understood (Among good books: “American Wolf,” 2017 by Nate Blakeslee, and “Wolfer,” by Carter Niemeyer, 2010). They can reproduce every year, bearing one to five pups or more, and move great distances every day, particularly when dispersing as juveniles. Radio-marked wolves have been found to make amazingly long journeys in quests for new, unoccupied territories. For example, one from the Yellowstone region ventured all the way to Northern California, and a dispersing juvenile from Central Washington traveled far into Canada, nearly to Jasper, Alberta.

I have often heard stories from landowners in Northeast Washington of either seeing a wolf, or tracks, or even hearing howling. I like to say, “Five kids a year, 50 miles in a day.”

They are back.

Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. They are shy and rarely seen, except in Yellowstone, where the open country and Park status of all of the wildlife create ideal viewing conditions. (Outside of the park, they are hunted and are generally shy and wary of people).  Are they dangerous to humans? Generally not.

“In the past 60 years, there have been two wolf-caused human fatalities in North America (Canada and Alaska).” (WDFW)

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent website with write-ups covering nearly all of the questions that come up in regard to wolves. In my humble opinion, WDFW is doing an exceptional job of dealing with the management challenges, legalities, and social complications that have come with wolves becoming reestablished in Washington.

Could wolves become common in Western Washington? I doubt it, as they (and other large predators) seem to be unable to co-exist in areas with dense human populations. However, areas with large remote places and abundant large animals (possibly the Olympic Peninsula) could potentially support wolf packs. At this time, no introductions are planned for Western Washington.

How does this affect small forest landowners? Probably not much, unless you are a livestock producer in areas with active pack activity. Most of us with our small forest holdings accept the presence of the occasional long-range predator for the mystique it adds to our property, provided our dogs, chickens, goats, horses or cattle are left alone! Again, direct threats to humans are very rare.

Meanwhile, back at the Lamar Valley, dusk slipped over the cold observers standing along the road. Suddenly, a black wolf emerged from the dark forest edge. He went out into the meadow and dug around in the snow at the base of a lodgepole pine, possibly trying to catch a vole. Soon, two more wolves emerged, and they moved together through the edge of the forest towards where we knew the kill lay.

For the next half hour or so, we watched through spotting scopes as they went down to the meat, and emerge again to sit in the snow, about 400 yards away. They watched us with bright yellow eyes. I was struck by their charisma, leaving me with the distinct impression that they represent all that remains wild in the world.

Wolves in Washington is a complicated topic, worth studying and keeping abreast on the latest developments. Send me your wolf anecdotes at, and any great pictures from your trail cameras, too. I am planning a “Greatest Hits” of Trail Cams article in the future, perhaps with prizes!

yellowstone wolfpack teri j pieper
A pack of wolves treks through the snow-covered expanse of Yellowstone National Park, as seen through a spotting scope. (Photo by Teri J. Pieper, used with permission)

Voluntary Agreements Protect Fishers, Forest Owners

Our friends with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) sincerely value and appreciate partnering with landowners to conserve native species. Enrolling non-federal lands in the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program for the fisher (Pekania pennanti) is an important contribution towards fisher recovery in Washington.

Fishers are the native weasel of low to mid-elevation forests. They are a medium-sized weasel, about the size of a house cat, a rich chocolate-dark brown in color and live in complex forest habitats full of down wood, snags and large trees. (Body length, about 36” with tail, and weight, 8-10 pounds). They are slightly larger than marten, who tend to live at higher elevations.

The program also benefits enrollees by granting them regulatory assurances in the event that the fisher becomes listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If you’re not already enrolled, it’s not too late to enter your lands into this vital program.

In September 2018, the Northern District Court for California overturned the 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decision to withdraw their proposed rule to list fishers under the ESA. The result is that the fisher is once again a candidate for listing. USFWS is required to re-review the proposed listing rule and publish findings by September 21, 2019. In the event that fishers in Washington become listed under the ESA, no additional measures will be required for enrollees beyond what is agreed to in a CCAA. This court ruling re-emphasizes the advantage to landowners of enrolling in the CCAA.

It is important to note that if the fisher does become listed under ESA, enrollment in the CCAA will no longer be available to landowners. Here are the compelling benefits of enrollment in the CCAA:

  • Regulatory assurances are granted to enrollees should USFWS decide to list the species under the ESA. Experience with other species shows that federal regulators may decide to list the species upon re-evaluation of existing threats, or if recovery efforts do not meet expectations. In Washington, expectations for successful fisher recovery partly hinge on the success of the CCAA program.
  • Enrollment in the CCAA provides a conservation benefit to Washington’s growing fisher population and will contribute significantly to recovering the species in our State.
  • If a CCAA participant ever decides to sell enrolled lands, potential buyers have the option to keep the land enrolled, should they choose. This option could be a selling point, especially if fishers are ESA-listed when the property goes up for sale.
  • Some landowners sign up for programs like this because of additional benefits. For instance, certain grants and cost-share programs award preference points to landowners that take part in agreements that benefit wildlife. Enrollment in a CCAA can also be used in marketing strategies, because some buyers of wood products prefer to deal with sellers that are in programs to conserve wildlife.
  • In general, the CCAA requires landowners to follow conservation measures that have minimal to no effect on the way they can use and manage their lands. Realistically, there isn’t much of a downside of being enrolled in the program.

If you have had any questions about enrolling your land into the CCAA, or are reconsidering an existing enrollment, we hope these points are helpful as you make a decision.  If you have further questions, please contact WDFW’s Gary Bell at 360-902-2412 or

What About Banana Slugs?

 “We’d be up to our eyeballs in (organic) debris if those guys weren’t at work!”

Richard Zabel, Executive Director of the Western Forestry and Conservation Association

“Dr.” Zabel is remarkably insightful in his commentary on the role of decomposers; those amazing organisms that break down material in ecosystems. Forests need a lot of these, acting continuously, for our forests contain an enormous amount of organic material ultimately produced by photosynthesis. A normal west side forest in the Pacific Northwest contains somewhere between 330 and 790 tons/ acre of standing biomass**. That’s a lot. And all of this material must eventually decompose into foundational elements, feeding the nutrient cycles and ecology of our forests.

Wow. Just wow. Good thing this stuff breaks down.

Ever hear of “charismatic mega-fauna”? These are creatures that easily capture our attention; critters like grizzly bear, elk, mountain goats or cougars. These animals usually function at high levels in the food chain, eating plants or being eaten out on the Serengeti of our imaginations.

Now, back to decomposition. It is one of the most important ecological functions going, keeping our nutrient cycling going and feeding the plants and fungi of the world. The animal the esteemed Zabel was referring to is:

Ariolimax columbianus

Our own banana slug! Now that’s charismatic mega-fauna.

They are the second largest slug in the world, growing up to 12 inches long — but most are between 4 and 6 inches long. They come in a variety of colors, such as olive green, gray with black spots, yellow, even white. Local areas may have similar color patterns*, which could be adaptation in action. They occur in moist forests all along the Pacific coast of North America.

A handsome banana slug with tentacles extended. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)
A handsome banana slug with tentacles extended. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

There are four funky stalks on their head. The upper ones are eye stalks for light reception, and the lower ones are chemical receptors used to “taste” the environment. Racing slugs at the University of California Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs) open their breathing hole wide when competing****. It is on the right side of the animal, called the pneumostome, and allows the single lung to open and gather oxygen when the slug is working hard. (Yes, even slugs hurry sometimes.) Otherwise, in normal relaxed slug mode, they get enough oxygen through their wet, mucous-covered skin.

Speaking of slime, banana slugs have a magnificent tool in their mucous coating. They have glands all over their body that provide this slick and slimy multi-purpose coating. It protects them from dehydration, and allows them to cover themselves in a ball of the gooey stuff to hole up during dry spells. (That’s why you don’t see them out and about in the heat of summer.)

Ever wonder how slugs cruise along so gracefully? They don’t actually crawl across the forest floor at all. They lay down a trail of perfect slime to slide over, and that let’s them move with a certain undulating grace. It is at once slippery, and sticky, and allows them to climb vertical surfaces. And the slime is full of chemical signals telling other slugs which way they went, and whether they might be a potential mate. They even eat mucous to replenish their own supplies.

Banana slugs, despite their savory name and appearance, have very few predators thanks to this mucous. It apparently tastes bad and few animals have developed a taste for it. Raccoons will sometimes roll them in dirt to cover the slug (and the flavor?) and then have slug sushi, but mostly, they are left alone. Slug slime is a miracle, multi-purpose substance!

Banana slugs never have to worry about getting a date either: Not because they are so wonderfully handsome/beautiful (although they are in their own mollusk-y way), but because they are hermaphrodites. Yes, slugs are both boy and girl at the same time. They do look for a mate during the wet spring, and exchange sperm in an amazing mating ritual involving hanging by slime threads, exuding their enormous sex organs, and intertwining in, well, a rather sensuous manner (check out the you tube of Richard Attenborough watching their European cousins, the Leopard slugs). And afterwards, Romance? Commitment? Nope. Each slug goes off separately and lays eggs in moist, rotting wood, leaving their kids to their own fates. Slugs don’t do family or child care, so the hatched-out miniature slugs are on their own from day one. No divorces or day care bills for banana slugs!

Most significant to us, banana slugs eat detritus (rotting plant material) and mushrooms. They are important players in the forest ecosystem as nutrient and material recyclers, breaking complex plant matter down into basic components that can further move in the ecosystem. ***

So next time you see a groovy, big banana slug cruising along in your forest, treat it with a little respect and admiration. They are on duty for all of us, doing critical ecosystem functions with little fanfare and appreciation.

And when I searched on Slug Songs, there’s even a video of dancing slugs. Who’d a thunk it!

Sammy the Slug: Now that’s a mascot! (Bing images)
Sammy the Slug: Now that’s a mascot! (Bing images)

Send me photos and stories about the wonders of wildlife, and your own Encounters of the Slug kind, in your forests!

*Source: Slater Museum blog post, “The Pacific Northwest is Slug Country”, July 2016.

**Stewart T. Schultz (1990).  The Northwest Coast: A Natural History.  Portland, Oregon, Timber Press.

**Waring, RH, and JF Franklin. (1979).  Evergreen coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest.  Science 204: 1380-1386.

**Waring, RH, (1982) Land of the giant conifers.  Natural History 91(10):54-63.

*** Wikipedia and various other sources for cool facts about slugs.

**** I’m not sure if they really do this but it seems like a good idea and probably has happened down there sometime!

Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Biologist,

Swallows on the Wing and Around your Home

Barn swallow
The barn swallow is one of five nesting types of swallows that visit Washington in spring and summer months.

Washington has five nesting species of swallows, all insectivorous and highly migratory. They spend the spring and summer here, swooping above water and the forest tops eating insects, and then return to Central and even South America, to winter. They make this amazing journey back the following year and often return to the same areas to breed. Most do not survive their first year (as is the case with all birds), but some make it back and we are treated to their amazing, swooping, insect-eating flights.

“I hate swallows! They are nesting under my eaves and they make such a mess!” Sometimes I hear this complaint and I have to clarify which species we are talking about.

It is the barn swallow. They construct a cup-shaped nest of mud and grass, often under eaves of homes and barns. These birds have gorgeous purple shiny feathers and forked tails; they are sometimes called “scissor tails.” Barn swallows are usually the birds people find annoying due to the poopy mess that can accumulate under their nests. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a good web page with suggestions for dealing with barn swallows if they nest in an inconvenient location.

Barn swallow nest
Barn swallow nests are typically found under the eaves of homes and barns.

If the nest is in an unacceptable location, be sure to remove it as soon as the birds start to build, and keep removing it. Barriers of mesh netting can be installed if under an eave or other location where it could be installed (use appropriate mesh size in thick mesh so birds do not become entangled). Foil or other smooth metal can be placed over the preferred spot to prevent future mud from sticking too.

Cliff swallows also build a mud nest, which looks like a gourd with a hole in it. These birds are colonial and are usually found under highway bridges or on natural cliffs, so are seldom a problem for landowners.

Two species, the bank and rough-winged swallows, will actually tunnel into fine soil appropriately configured along eroding river banks or even stock-piled highway building materials. They are colonial nesters and there can be hundreds of burrows in a colony, many of which exist for years and years.

Swallows in the Forest

Tree swallow
The tree swallow, along with the violet green swallow (not pictured) will readily take to nest boxes or cavities in in dead trees.

The swallows most closely associated with forests — the ones that use cavities in dead trees and sometimes nest boxes — are tree swallows and violet-green swallows. These two cavity-nesting species prefer to use abandoned woodpecker nest cavities for their annual nesting activities. They arrive in spring (the dates vary by locale), and will stake out a territory based around an available cavity or nest box. In late April and May they will build a grass nest in the cavity, line it with feathers, and produce one or two broods between arrival and early summer. The young birds will hang around the nesting area for the first few weeks after coming out of the nest, and then in early fall, they all head south. Just before migration large groups of swallows are sometimes seen congregating on wires, getting ready to go.

Tree and violet green swallows are white on the belly and both have a gorgeous, shiny blue color. Violet green swallows are slightly smaller with longer wings that reach down past their tail and striking white patches on their face.

Nest Boxes

Both tree and violet green swallows will readily take to nest boxes, particularly those placed in the open near water. Boxes for these wonderful birds can be mounted on fence posts, poles or trees with a clear flight path to the open. They can be placed relatively close together (30-50 feet), but not facing each other, as they seem to not like having neighbors!

Boxes should be built to basic standards with a 1.25” to 1.5” entrance hole about 7” above the bottom of the box. They can be constructed from 1” x 6” wood, and it is best if the back of the entrance door is rough to enable baby birds to climb out. Good plans for a swallow box are found at Once per year, preferably in the fall or winter, boxes need to be cleaned out to allow for a new nesting attempt the following year. If not cleaned, they will be used again until they are full. Old nest material can contain parasites and should be removed. A maintained box will be used by swallows for many years.

abandoned woodpecker nest cavity
Tree and green-violet swallows prefer to use abandoned woodpecker nest cavities for their annual nesting activities.

It is not necessary to make boxes out of cedar (as recommended in some plans); it is likely that the box will crack and fall off of the mounting place long before it rots. The author has several dozen boxes around his property in eastern Washington and enjoys the annual spectacle of swarms of nesting tree and violet green swallows flying about his home.

These beautiful birds are one of the beneficiaries of retaining standing dead trees (snags) on your small forestlands. Please help them and many other species by leaving standing dead trees of at least 8” in diameter. Remember, about 40 percent of forest wildlife is dependent on dead wood, or “wildlife trees” of some kind. Swallows are beautiful, greatly beneficial birds that help us by eating many, many insects (including mosquitoes) and gracing our lives with their beauty.

Let me know if I can help you with wildlife habitat on your forestlands, and send me pictures of your cavity and nest box habitats in use!

By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist,