Julia Butler Hansen Refuge
Pacific Region

Wildlife & Habitat

The valuable habitat the refuge preserves for the deer also benefits a large variety of wintering birds, a small herd of Roosevelt elk, river otter, various reptiles and amphibians including painted turtles and red-legged frogs, and several pairs of nesting bald eagles and ospreys.

Columbian White-tailed Deer Roosevelt Elk Amphibians and Reptiles
Birds Fish Seals and Sea Lions

Columbian White-tailed Deer doe and fawn

The Columbian white-tailed deer is one of 30 subspecies of white-tailed deer in North America, and the only one found west of the Cascade Mountains. These deer once ranged throughout the river valleys west of the Cascade Mountains from the Umpqua River in Oregon, northward through the Willamette Valley to Puget Sound, and westward down the lower Columbia River. View an identification guide.

During the 1800s, deer numbers were dangerously low due to over-hunting and loss of habitat. By the turn of the century, they had disappeared from nearly all of their range and, in the 1930s, were thought to be extinct. Remnant populations were discovered here and near Roseburg, Oregon.

In 1968, the lower Columbian River population was listed as a federally endangered species because it was in imminent danger of becoming extinct. This population is now found only along the lower Columbia River between Longview, Washington and Knappa, Oregon.

About 300 of these deer live on the refuge; another 300-400 live on private lands along the river: The areas upstream from the refuge on Puget Island and on the Oregon side of the river are vital to reestablishing and maintaining viable populations of the species. The refuge works with private and corporate landowners to maintain and reestablish deer on their lands.

Today, the deer are threatened by habitat loss again. An impending dike failure will flood most of the mainland unit of the refuge, placing the deer at risk. In an effort to save the deer, the USFWS translocated deer from this refuge to a nearby refuge with similar habitat. Learn more about this conservation effort...

For more information about Columbian white-tailed deer, please go to US Fish & Wildlife species profile.

Roosevelt Elk

The Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti) is a unique variety of North American elk (Cervus elaphus) found throughout coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest from northern California to British Columbia's Vancouver Island. By the turn of the 20th century, Roosevelt elk herds were depleted or eliminated in many areas by unregulated market hunting for meat, hides, and teeth (which were valued as ornamental accessories in the early 1900's).

A small herd of Roosevelt elk lives on the mainland unit of the refuge. Although elk are magnificent animals and are thrilling to see in the wild, they compete with the deer for limited resources. Herds of elk can feed on and trample shrubs in the woodlots, reducing food and cover for the deer. To manage the herd size, individual elk were periodically trapped and relocated to remote areas. However, this has not been financially feasible in recent years. It has also become increasingly difficult to find places to relocate elk to as elk damage claims across the state have been increasing steadily. Beginning in the fall of 2005, limited hunting permits were issued to prevent the elk herd from growing too large. A nine-foot-tall wire fence helps to prevent additional elk from entering the refuge.


Amphibians and Reptiles

The Julia Butler Hansen Refuge has at least 12 species of amphibians and reptiles. Long-toed (Ambystoma macrodactylum) and northwestern (Ambystoma gracile) salamanders are abundant and often breed in shallow wetlands. Other salamanders present on the refuge include ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii), Pacific giant (Dicamptodon tenebrosus), and rough skinned newts (Taricha granulosa). The western toad (Bufo boreas) and red-legged frog (Rana aurora) occur in the area. Reptiles include the northwestern garter snake (Thamnophis ordinoides), common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and painted turtle (Chrysemys picta).

For more information on amphibians and reptiles, please go to University of Washington Burke Museum.



Bald EagleThe Lower Columbia area provides habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species, including the Aleutian Canada goose, northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, northern sea lion, and Columbian whitetailed deer, as well as several Snake River salmon stocks. The western snowy plover, proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, historically used coastal portions of the area.

Some of the islands in the lower river support large gull and tern nesting colonies, and large great blue heron colonies are found throughout the river area. Large numbers of shorebirds and songbirds pass through the area on their annual migrations. Bald eagle nesting sites are found along the length of the lower river. Peregrine falcons, hawks, eagles, and owls find abundant prey in the area's diverse habitats. The area provides important migratory and wintering habitat for a number of waterfowl species. Lowland areas are heavily used as resting and staging areas for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds of the Pacific Flyway. Wintering waterfowl populations in the Lower Columbia area reach peaks of more than 200,000 birds.

The most abundant species are mallard, northern shoveler, American wigeon, green-winged teal, canvasbacks, lesser scaup, and northern pintail ducks; the dusky, cackler, western, Vancouver, lesser, and Taverner's subspecies of Canada geese; and tundra and trumpeter swans. The area is particularly important for the dusky Canada goose, a large, dark-breasted subspecies that winters only along the lower Columbia, in the Willamette Valley, and at a few locations on the Oregon coast. The lower Columbia River is one of the most important areas in the Pacific Flyway for migrating shorebirds, with peak counts in the estuary of almost 150,000 birds. The lower Columbia River area also provides important migratory and breeding habitat for a variety of other neotropical migrant bird species. One survey of a bottomland forest during peak migration recorded some of the highest concentrations of neotropical migrants ever reported.

A diverse assortment of birds, including waterfowl, wading birds, and raptors can be viewed on the Refuge from Steamboat Slough and Brooks Slough Roads. Thousands of Canada geese spend the winter on the lower Columbia River and can be seen feeding in the short grass pastures on the Refuge. Throughout the fall and winter, mallards, pintails, American wigeon, buffelhead, and green winged teal are commonly found in the sloughs and wetlands. Great blue herons, grebes, comorants, coots, loons, and swans often rest in the Refuge sloughs. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks perch in Refuge trees while looking for a meal.



The Columbia River provides essential habitat for many of the region's most important fisheries. Estuarine habitats provide
important nursery and rearing areas for young salmon and steelhead, and adults use them as temporary holding areas during their return migration from the ocean to upstream spawning areas. Dungeness crabs rear in the estuary, and marine fish such as starry flounder, English sole, and perch use it for rearing and feeding. Shallow subtidal and intertidal areas also support oysters, clams, and mussels. Sturgeon are found throughout the lower river. Shallow lakes and ponds in the upriver floodplain produce a variety of warmwater fish - most of them introduced species, including bass, catfish, perch, bluegill, and crappie.

For more information on fishing regulations, please go to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Seals and Sea Lions

Several marine mammals can occassionally be seen in the refuge. The tip of the South Jetty, at the river's mouth, is a haul-out site for the California and northern sea lions. Harbor seals use sandbars and mudflats as haul-out sites at low tides. Seals, and California and northern sea lions, feed on a variety of fish in the estuary. Research projects on marine mammals can be found at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory with particular attention to issues related to marine mammals located in waters near Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

Last updated: March 27, 2014