Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region


Refuges strive for biological integrity, diversity and environmental health. Much of the management work of refuges is to maintain, enhance or restore intact and self-sustaining habitats and wildlife populations that existed during historic conditions.

Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) faces many unique management challenges. While the refuge includes many pristine areas, it also includes many recent acquisitions where considerable restoration effort is needed. It includes an amazing diversity of habitats from ocean sand dune beaches to the sheltered mudflats of the bay, from pristine old growth forests to open saltgrass meadows. The refuge is home to several threatened species and is trying to restore habitat for many others. Like many places, Willapa NWR is also coping with the threat of invasive species.

Western Snowy Plover  Forest Managment  Fish Survey
Invasives-Spartina alterniflora   Stream Enhancement & Restoration Western Brook Lamprey
Comprehensive Conservation Plan  

Western Snowy Plover snowy plover

Western Snowy Plovers are small shorebirds that nest on the Leadbetter Unit of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. They are part of the Pacific Coast population that breed from Washington to Mexico and are listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This is one of the two main nesting sites in Washington. Their numbers have declined due to habitat loss and degradation by invasive American and European beachgrasses, human disturbance, and increased nest predation.

In 2001, the refuge began habitat restoration efforts for the western Snowy Plover at the Leadbetter Unit. Non-native, invasive beach grass has been cleared, using a bull dozer, and as of the 2010 nesting season, over 200 acres have been restored to open sand beach habitat that plovers traditionally use. Oyster shell has been added to the area to provide camouflaging for nests and plovers. Oyster shell hides the eggs not only from predators, but from humans.

The Snowy Plover nesting season is from mid March through September and it is during this critical time that plovers are easily disturbed. Adults are frightened off a nest by people and their dogs coming too close, which makes them vulnerable to being crushed or eaten by predators. If disturbances are lengthy or frequent, the eggs in the nest get buried by sand and will not hatch. For this reason, the active plover nesting area of upper dry sand beach is closed off to public use during the nesting season and no dogs are allowed on the beach of the Leadbetter Unit.

Forest Management

Forest lands in the Willapa Bay area are dominated by commercial timberlands. In fact, most of the forested acreage within either the refuge or Willapa Bay watersheds is second or third growth timber. Very little old growth or late-successional forest exists. One estimate states that less than one percent of the original coastacopes salamanderl old growth remains. The largest old growth parcel in the refuge is the 274-acre Cedar Grove located on Long Island. Many of the 7000 forested acres on the refuge are comprised of even-aged forest stands lacking in biological diversity.

A variety of wildlife are dependent on old growth and late-successional forests. Black bear, black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, salamanders, forest-dwelling bats and other small mammals, marbled murrelets, pileated woodpeckers and other forest birds and a host of rare fungi and gastropods can be found in some refuge forests. Forest streams also provide habitat for anadromous fish such as chinook, coho and chum salmon and sea-run cutthroat trout.

Due to the degraded nature of refuge forests as well as those of the surrounding areas, a major effort is needed to restore these forests to a semblance of their natural state. The refuge has embarked on a landscape-based forest management program in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, which manages the 7000 acre Ellsworth Creek Preserve which is located adjacent to the refuge. Forest inventories on both properties have been completed and a forest management plan has been developed. Activities to restore forests include manipulation of degraded forest stands through such techniques as variable density thinning, direct reestablishment of under-represented tree and other plant species, removal of non-native species and elimination of unnecessary and deteriorating forest roads.

Invasive Plants-Spartina alterniflora

Willapa Bay is one of the top biologically pristine estuaries remaining in the lower 48 states. Thousands of people depend on the bay's renewable natural resources for their livelihoods. Thousands more visit the bay each year to enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities.

In recent years, spartina grass--accidentally introduced from the eastern United States--has exploded in Willapa Bay, threatening the survival of both wildlife and the aquaculture industry in Willapa Bay. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge has a partnership with a variety of groups including Washington State University and University of Washington, Washington State Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Wildlife, private landowners, oyster growers, the Nature Conservancy, and other private interest groups to eradicate spartina from Willapa Bay.

Willapa NWR, along with its partners, has been using a variety of methods to eradicate spartina from Willapa Bay before it does irreversible damage. Where the spartina has formed large meadows, large amphibious machines with precision sprayers are used. These machines are equipped with sensors that detect spartina, releasing chemical only when over plants, minimizing impacts on other species. Helicopters are also used to aerially spray large meadows and large clone fields. Spartina occurs mostly as isolated patches and hand-crews on airboats treat the seedlings, individual plants, and small clones. Airboats can maneuver to difficult access areas. Rototilling, although useful in rehabilitating selected areas for immediate use by shorebirds, is too slow to keep pace with spartina's rapid expansion.

spartina closeup
Refuge staff use a backpack style pump to spray invasive spartina.

Stream Enhancement & Restoration Helps Fish, Amphibians and Invertebrates

A crew places large woody debris in a stream to enhance habitat for fish, amphibians and invertebrates.Stream enhancement and restoration improves habitat for refuge fish, amphibians and invertebrates. Enhancement or restoration efforts can include the addition of large woody debris and root wads to stream channels, removal of fish passage barriers (such as undersized culverts), and planting streamside vegetation to increase shade. Optimal stream habitat provides protective cover, improved forage, and structural diversity that results in the formation of in-stream riffles and pools for anadromous fish, especially adult and juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout. Healthy streams support a diverse riparian and estuarine plant and wildlife community. Enhancement work benefits other stream-dependent wildlife species, including the western brook lamprey, rare amphibian species and invertebrates, such as the Western pearlshell mussel and a large variety of aquatic insects.


Western brook lamprey prepare to spawn in a refuge stream.Western brook lamprey ammocoete

Caught! Western Brook Lamprey Get Help From Refuge Biologists

Western brook lampreys have received a helping hand. In 2010, fifty western brook lamprey ammocoetes (teenage lamprey) were caught in Bear River and moved to Omera Point Creek. One hundred additional ammocoetes were released in 2011. Refuge staff continues to keep track of populations through spring spawning surveys. Read more about fish surveys below.

Western brook lamprey ammocoetes look very similar to their cousins the Pacific lamprey at this life stage. Refuge staff must carefully identify them before they can be relocated to their new location.

Learn more about the lampreys of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

Surveying Refuge Fish Populations

Fish populations are important indicators of habitat health. Historically, coastal streams had abundant and diverse fish populations, including salmoninds such as coho and chum salmon. A variety of land-uses, such as forestry practices, road building, agriculture, diking and other development, as well as over fishing and the arrival of invasive species have all taken a toll on area streams and the wildife that require them for their survival.

One way to monitor stream health is to conduct fish surveys. Refuge staff and volunteers set and check traps, make observations while walking along a stream or use a snorkel. Electrofishing of streams is also conducted by trained individuals. Electrofishing stuns fish and allows staff to locate fish that may otherwise be hidden or move to fast to be identified. Reproductive, or spawning, surveys are completed each season to monitor salmonid and lamprey returns to spawning sites throughout the refuge. Refuge staff and volunteers have documented populations of fish, amphibians and insects, including several rare species, in refuge streams.

Federal species of concern found on the refuge include coastal cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey, and river lamprey. Through careful monitoring, we can say that some streams at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge host healthy populations of both cutthroat and coho, as well as other fish species. Monitoring can also indicate if populations are not present or in decline.

Minnow traps are placed in refuge streams to survey fish populations.
Chum fry are often caught in minnow traps during fish surveys on refuge streams.
Refuge biologists identifies fish caught in minnow trap during stream survey. Juvenile western brook lamprey caught in monniw trap during refuge stream survey.
Refuge staff document fish using a camera during a fish survey.

Comprehensive Conservation Planning

Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs) describe the desired future conditions of a refuge and provide long-range guidance and management direction to achieve refuge purposes; help fulfill the National Wildlife Refuge System (Refuge System) mission; maintain and, where appropriate, restore the ecological integrity of each refuge and the Refuge System; help achieve the goals of the National Wilderness Preservation System; and meet other mandates.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is pleased to announce the release of the final Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. In 2008, the Refuge initiated a planning process called "Comprehensive Conservation Planning" to review the wildlife, habitat and public use activities on Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. The purpose of the CCP is to guide management of these resources for the next 15 years. The Record of Decision (ROD) was signed in September 2011 and the Service will begin implementing proposed projects and partnerships as funding becomes available.

For more specific information on the planning process at Willapa NWR please visit our CCP Website.

Last updated: March 12, 2013