Nestled between the wet North Cascades and drier northern Rockies, the Columbia Highlands act as a lifeline for wildlife between these two distant ecosystems.
Not too high, not too low—just right
Nestled between the wet North Cascades and drier Northern Rockies, the Columbia Highlands act as a lifeline for wildlife between these two ecosystems.
The variety and size of unspoiled habitats in the Columbia Highlands support a host of wild creatures. Nearly all the species that inhabited the area prior to European settlement still thrive here.
Mammals and more
Some of the most critically endangered and charismatic species in North America are regular breeders in the Columbia Highlands, including mountain caribou, grizzly bear, wolverine, Canada lynx, and gray wolf.
Animals such as elk, cougar, snowshoe hare, and pika take refuge in the boreal and subalpine forests. Other creatures such as black bear, moose, and pygmy shrew, thrive in the dense understory of mixed-conifer forests. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, bobcat, coyote, wolf, fox, ermine, badger, mink, marten, and Columbian ground squirrel—all can be found in the Columbia Highlands.
The Columbia Highlands is also the only part of Washington to host a healthy breeding population of golden-mantled ground squirrel, which, although common elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains, is limited to the extreme northeastern corner of Washington.
A wealth of birds
A variety of birds take wing in the Columbia Highlands, including the greatest diversity of owls and woodpeckers in North America. In the subalpine zones of the region, you'll see spruce and dusky grouse, northern goshawk, the elusive boreal owl, American three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadee, and pine grosbeak, which rarely breeds at all in Washington.
Other parts of the Columbia Highlands host some of the largest breeding populations of bald eagle and osprey in the state.
In the wet, western redcedar and hemlock lowland and mixed-elevation forests, visitors will encounter some of the healthiest breeding populations of barred, northern saw-whet, and northern pygmy owls, pileated woodpecker, chestnut-backed chickadee, winter wren, and Swainson’s and varied thrushes, found anywhere in the interior Northwest.
Focus on critters
The rarest of three wild cat species native to Washington, lynx have large feet and long legs that allow them to walk easily over deep snow. Lynx prey almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare, but they also eat red squirrels and other small mammals, birds, and carrion. The cats prefer undisturbed subalpine and boreal forest in the mountains of north-central and northeastern Washington such as the eastern slopes of the Kettle Crest. Because Lynx avoid openings, recent burns, open canopy, understory cover, and steep slopes, habitat fragmentation from natural and human-caused disturbances may be responsible for population declines of this elusive cat. It is estimated fewer than 100 exist in the state.
The least-understood of the large carnivores, the mysterious wolverine is an equal-opportunity scavenger-predator; Wolverines have been observed bringing down full-sized caribou and deer. The Wolverine makes its home in areas with consistent winter snowpack, such as the boreal and subalpine forest of the Columbia Highlands. The critical component of modern-day Wolverine habitat is the absence of human activity and development; like Lynx, they will avoid crossing large openings, such as recent clearcuts or burns.
The last remaining population of Mountain Caribou in the lower 48 states lives in the upper reaches of the Selkirk Mountains. Subsisting on a winter diet of lichens and mosses growing on old-growth Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, caribou can move nimbly across the deep snows of the Selkirks thanks to large, concave hoofs that spread widely to support them.
The Columbia Highlands are home to one of Washington’s two populations of grizzly bears. Primarily solitary creatures, grizzlies forage in the Selkirks for nuts, fruits, leaves, fruits and berries, including huckleberries. Grizzlies once lived in much of western North America and even roamed the Great Plains. Now fewer than 30 in number in the region, the reclusive grizzly struggles to survive in a shrinking, fragmented landscape.
The redband trout are adapted to the arid conditions east of the Cascades. Redband trout spawn in rivers and streams during the spring. Cool, clean, well-oxygenated water is necessary for the eggs to survive. Today, habitat fragmentation caused by dams without fish passage, natural barriers, severe stream flow alterations from irrigation development, chemical treatment projects, and introduction of non-indigenous trout stocks has severely decreased the population of redband trout.