Restoring prairie habitat at the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area

A unique landscape

Once common in the South Puget Sound region, habitats such as prairies and oak woodlands are now almost gone, with just 3% of original prairies remaining. As one of the rarest ecosystems in the country, South Puget Sound prairies were created by glaciers 15,000 years ago, which left behind gravelly soils.

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Life on the prairie

South Puget Sound prairies are home to a variety of threatened and endangered plant and animal species that in many cases are found no where else in the world!

At-risk species of South Puget Sound prairies include:

Birds: Streaked horned lark, Vesper sparrow
Butterflies: Taylor’s Checkerspot, Puget Blue, Mardon Skipper, Valley Silverspot
Mammals: Mazama pocket gopher
Plants: Golden paintbrush

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Prairie land management

Native Americans maintained prairies for thousands of years using fire to keep the surrounding forests at a distance so that tribal members could harvest wildflowers and bulbs. This land management practice also cleared areas of crowded trees, undergrowth, and pests, which made space for new growth and wildlife.

On the contrary, European settlers chose fire suppression as their land management strategy. Over the years, fire suppression led to dense forests overtaking prairies and created stockpiles of fuel for wildfires.

Now, many local, state, federal, and tribal land managers use prescribed fire to keep forests and habitats healthy and reduce the danger and impact of wildfire. Prescribed burns use low intensity, low heat fire to remove potential wildfire fuels and restore quality habitat for wildlife. These regimented fires provide benefits for the landscape, mimicking natural cycles historically found in these ecosystems. Within a few months after the burns, vegetation returns and wildlife move in.

Scatter Creek Wildlife Area

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) manages more than a million acres of public land around the state, including the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area that is home to South Puget Sound prairie habitat. The West Rocky Prairie Unit, located two miles northwest of Tenino in Thurston County, supports a variety of at-risk plant and animal species, and includes the Mima Mounds (a geological curiosity).

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Hear from Darric Lowery, the wildlife area manager for Scatter Creek in this short video:

WDFW’s primary land management focus for the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area is to restore and maintain prairie habitats using prescribed fire, invasive plant control, and the re-establishment of native species.

Without fire in the area, Douglas fir trees shade out imperiled oak woodlands and prairies, which provide habitat for federally threatened species like Mazama pocket gophers. The fir trees also increase wildfire risk, as evidenced by a 2017 wildfire in the area.

The department thinned trees in targeted areas at the wildlife area to restore 27 acres of oak woodland and 25 acres of prairie. In addition, WDFW removed an estimated 5,207 tons of excess biomass (wildfire fuel). The wood was hauled to mills or given to the public as firewood, and the department reused root wads for stream habitat restoration projects.

Prairie makeover — before and after

Check out the before and after photos below to see how forest thinning, prescribed burns, and invasive plant control has improved prairie habitat at the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area.

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Learn more about the department’s forest health and land management work by reading through the WDFW forest management story map, which outlines the projects conducted throughout the state.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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