Wildlife and Habitat
Composed of a rich mosaic of habitat types, the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is home to numerous species of plants and animals. The upland wildlife and habitats of the refuge are typical of the northern Great Basin. Little rainfall and extreme seasonal temperatures created a landscape dominated by a shrub-steppe habitat. What isn't typical of the area are the numerous lakes and extensive wetlands found on the refuge. The introduction of water during the 1950’s through the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project created dramatic changes within the landscape and provided habitat for a wide variety of wetland-dependent species.
The refuge contains a variety of habitat types, with the majority of the region made up of large, contiguous areas of shrub-steppe lands. Other habitat types found on the refuge include wetlands, riparian woodlands, creeks, and cliffs.
The primary habitat type of the refuge is the shrub-steppe, covering over 15,000 acres. This dry habitat is characterized by a mixture of shrubs and grasses. The most common shrub is big sagebrush; other shrubs include gray and green rabbitbrush, greasewood and hopsage. Many grasses also grow in this habitat, including bluebunch wheatgrass, Sandberg’s bluegrass, and the invasive cheatgrass. Another important component of the shrub-steppe community is a layer of mosses and lichens known as the cryptogamic crust that covers the fine soils of this habitat.
The Columbia Basin Irrigation Project increased the presence of water in this region, creating wetland habitats in many low lying areas. With the addition of constructed marsh units, there are currently over 3,500 acres of wetlands on the refuge. This habitat type is dominated by emergent plants, such as cattails, bulrushes and sedges. In addition to supplying water, wetlands provided food, resting and nesting sites for a variety of wildlife.
The buttes, canyons and coulees found throughout the refuge create an abundance of cliff habitat. The ledges, cracks and holes that abound in the numerous basalt cliffs provide important nesting habitat for many species of wildlife. For example, the cliffs are used by large colonies of cliff swallows to hold and shelter their mud nests. Birds of prey perch on ledges and outcroppings of the cliffs. Snakes and other reptiles can be found sunning on cliff ledges. Many cliff sides, particularly north faces, are covered in a colorful collogue of lichen and moss.
There are over 290 acres of riparian woodlands on the refuge. This habitat is primarily restricted to the shoreline of creeks, wetlands and lakes. Several species of willows comprise the native vegetation, but extensive growth of exotic Russian-olive is evident. The understory is covered by numerous species of wild rose and currents.
Before the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, Crab Creek only flowed intermittently. Now it flows year round due to seepage from Potholes Reservoir and irrigation canals, creating important aquatic and riparian habitats on the refuge. The creek meanders its way through the refuge as it flows towards the Columbia River; since becoming a permanent stream, the creek has potentially become habitat for endangered salmonid runs coming up the Columbia River.
The refuge was established for migratory birds, and it provides sanctuary areas necessary to protect them. In addition to migratory birds, however, many other species of wildlife live on the refuge. Some are year-round residents, others are only present in certain seasons. Remember all wildlife on the refuge is protected.
Endangered, Threatened and Rare Species
There are a few listed species that reside, at least periodically, on the refuge. The Washington ground squirrel is currently a federal Candidate Species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Three colonies are known on the refuge. Other declining species include the burrowing owl, prairie falcon, and ferruginous hawk. All of these receive special consideration in management decisions.
There are at least 32 species of mammals on the refuge. Mammal populations seen fluctuate seasonally due to hibernation and migration. Coyotes are relatively common, but, like the mule deer on the refuge, are secretive and not often seen by visitors. Look for evidence of their presence from tracks and droppings. Muskrats are common and surprisingly, considering the scarcity of trees, so are beavers. Bobcats and badgers are present but scarce. Perhaps the most conspicuous mammal on the refuge is the yellow-bellied marmot, often seen sunning itself on warm days on basalt cliffs and among talus slopes.
More than 230 species of birds have been recorded on the refuge and surrounding lands (see our Birding List). However, it's waterfowl for which the refuge is best known. The refuge provides sanctuary areas necessary to protect wintering mallard ducks and, to a smaller extent, cackling Canada geese. Waterfowl populations are highest during the spring and fall when peaks of more than 100,000 birds can occur.
In addition to waterfowl, many other bird species are found on the refuge. Wetland and riparian woodlands provide habitat for many passerine migrants, such as Wilson’s and yellow warblers. Several other passerines nest in the area, including yellow-breasted chats and lazuli buntings. Birds associated with the shrub-steppe habitat include common upland species, such as the lark sparrow and Washington’s state bird, the western meadow lark. The ledges, cracks and holes that abound in the numerous basalt cliffs provide important nesting habitat for many red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, great horned owls, barn owls, and a few ravens. Great blue herons are frequently seen standing like sentinels at the top of cliffs and rock outcrops near water. Large numbers of lesser sandhill cranes visit the refuge during spring and fall migrations. Northern harriers are common, as are magpies and black-crowned night-herons. Long-billed curlews and American avocets are less common but nest on the refuge. The bald eagle was considered a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act; however, it has since been removed from the list. Bald eagles are still a favorite of visitors, however, and they can be found on the refuge during the winter months, using trees and cliffs near water for foraging and resting.
Bird finding on the refuge is easiest with an understanding of seasonal occurrence and abundance, daily habits, and habitat preferences of each species or group of species. Migratory cranes and waterfowl typically feed in crops morning and evening while spending the night and mid-day periods in wetlands. Migrant songbirds and most nesting birds are most active foraging and displaying in the morning hours, but will often become silent and difficult to find as the day warms or the breeding season wanes. Some shorebirds begin their fall migration in late June. And please be aware that more than half of the refuge is closed from October through February.
To find certain species, you need to look in the right place.
Grassland. This habitat includes areas of sagebrush-steppe that have burned and shrub species have not re-established. Many are dominated by cheatgrass due to past heavy grazing. The refuge is actively restoring most of these open areas by planting perennial grasses, after controlling the cheatgrass. Areas of low-growing Sandberg’s bluegrass have horned larks and long-billed curlews, while taller bluebunch wheatgrass attracts grasshopper sparrows.
Shrubland. The Columbia Basin was dominated by sagebrush before irrigated agriculture arrived. Big sage still dominates the refuge, but species such as the greater sage grouse have disappeared. However, lark sparrows and western meadowlarks still sing cheerfully in the spring in these areas. Some poorly drained areas are dominated by greasewood, and the dense foliage and spines are especially attractive to loggerhead shrikes for nesting and for impaling prey.
Riparian. As in most desert environments (the refuge averages 8" of precipitation/year), fresh water, and the woody vegetation associated with it, is extremely important to birds on the refuge and is by far the most important habitat for migratory songbirds. Peachleaf willow and several shrub species dominate here, while invasive Russian olive is actively controlled. The Crab Creek Trail, Corfu Woods, and seepage areas along the Potholes Canal and north of Royal Lake offer the best viewing, with Bullock’s orioles, yellow-breasted chats, and Lazuli buntings among the colorful inhabitants.
Marsh. This habitat is mostly a result of irrigation development. Low areas flooded by higher groundwater and diversions from Crab Creek for actively managed marsh impoundments are especially attractive to waterfowl, waders, shorebirds and a surprising number of songbirds. Marsh Units 1 and 2 are the best areas in spring for variety and during short irrigation periods during the summer. Fall and winter periods tend to be less productive because of ice or closure for sanctuary.
Lake. These open water areas attract large numbers of waterfowl during the migration and winter periods and are the heart of sanctuary closure areas October-February. Royal Lake and Upper Hampton Lake have each held more than 50,000 waterfowl at times. Royal Lake can be viewed from the south end of Byers Road. Migraine Lake is within the closed area but is easily viewed from the road at the south end of Soda Lake. It tends to attract some of the rarer refuge visitors and is worth a look at any time of the year.
Cliff. Lava flows 2,000,000 years ago and catastrophic floods during the last ice age created a landscape suitable for designation as the Drumheller Channels National Natural Landmark. Cliffs and exposed rocks are important nesting areas for a variety of raptors and several songbirds and even substitute for tree cavities for such species as starlings and flickers. Marsh Unit 3's narrow canyon and the drive along Morgan Lake Road offer good viewing, but cliffs are scattered across most of the refuge.
Agriculture. Nearly 800 acres of cropland planted to alfalfa, corn, wheat and barley form the heart of the program designed to maintain healthy waterfowl and crane populations. During fall and especially March and April, refuge fields near Corfu, Road E SE, and Barton Road attract up to 60,000 mallards, 20,000 northern pintails, 15,000 sandhill cranes, and 50,000 Canada and cackling geese. These fields also attract tundra-nesting species when snow dominates the landscape and are worth checking for the oddball goose passing through.
Few fish were present in the area before the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project raised the water table and created seepage from Potholes Reservoir and canals. Other than possibly steelhead trout migrating up Crab Creek, only small non-game fish were previously present. However, the increase in permanent lakes and wetlands has provided more habitat for fish, and today a wide variety of fish species live in waters on and adjacent to the refuge. The greatest variety is found in waters directly connected to the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and waters associated with Crab Creek. Other pages on this site contain more information on fisheries management and recreational fishing.
Several amphibians use wet and dry sites on the refuge. The tiger salamander and northern leopard frog are both sensitive amphibian species that occupy certain refuge lakes and wetlands, ones mostly devoid of fish. The most common amphibian found on the Refuge is the invasive bull frog.
Numerous species of reptiles live on the refuge, and, other than turtles, they are primarily found in upland areas. Reptiles are usually seen only from spring through fall, because they hibernate during the winter. Six species of snakes are found on the refuge. Five are regularly encountered, including the fairly common western rattlesnake. This snake is most often seen during warm weather, particularly in rocky areas and heavy vegetation. While this snake will usually shy away from encounter, anyone bitten should seek immediate medical attention. It is illegal to kill snakes, including rattlesnakes, on the refuge.