What is an ecoregion?

Imagine an area of land, say, your backyard or your neighborhood, and strip all life away from it.  Remove all plants and animals; all the squirrels, trees, and insects, until all that is left is a barren landscape of rock and water.  This area now contains no life. However, the potential for life still remains.  The assemblages of plants and animals that could survive and reproduce in the area are very specific and predictable by factors that you can measure.  By compiling a list of physical features such as elevation, latitude, rock type, and continental position you can get an understanding of the area’s facilities and abiotic (non-living) resources, and thus an idea of the plant and animal communities that it may host.  This exercise roughly describes what is known as an ecological region, or ecoregion.

The exact definition of an ecoregion is a little fuzzy because different organizations define them and use them in slightly different ways.  Generally, though, ecoregions describe the composition and patterns of how plants and animals are distributed across particular landscapes based on factors such as climate, landform, soil, and hydrology.

Our ecoregion

Map of Washington's 9 ecoregions with Canadian Rockies highlighted

The ecoregion in which Silvercrown Mountain Outdoor School is located is called the Canadian Rockies ecoregion. This ecoregion will be the focus of all other articles you can read on this website.  The Canadian Rockies ecoregion is characterized largely by the features of the Selkirk Mountains, the Columbia River, and the Pend Oreille River.

Geology

Moderate mountains and large valleys stretch across our ecoregion.  The Selkirks are often described as the western foothills of the Rockies, but their geologic origins are actually completely separate.  Like many of the northern mountains, however, their once-sharp ridges were tamed by millions of years of glaciation.  The many lakes, bogs, and U-shaped valleys we see today are a result of the ebb and flow of moving ice that carved and eroded the ancient landscape.

Climate

Although there were vast glaciers in the past, the present climate is much different.  The summers are dry and hot, often peaking in the high 90’s (F).  The winters are cold and can drop below 0 degrees F.  Annual precipitation averages between 24-34 inches, but can range from 18 inches on the western side to more than 80 inches on the eastern side of the region.  The majority of the ground water, however, comes from melting snow in the spring, as significant snowpack can accumulate in higher elevations.  The climate creates four very distinct seasons; hot and sunny summers, moderate and moist falls, cold and snowy winters, and wet and lush springs.

Photo of Aspen and Ponderosa Pine in the Fall

Plants

Plant communities in the region are greatly influenced by precipitation, temperature, and elevation.  Coniferous forests characterize the majority of the area.  Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine occur at lower elevations; Grand Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar occupy the mid-montane elevations; and Subalpine Fir-Engelmann Spruce forests occur at higher elevations.  Open grasslands, dominated by Green Fescue, Idaho Fescue, or Rough Fescue, are common along the foothills and on south-facing slopes at higher elevations.  There are also many other plant species that can only be found in our ecoregion, or are very rare in other parts of Washington. This is due to the unique limestone rock formations found here, which have slowly eroded and become a distinctive component of the soils.

Animals

The vegetation of this ecoregion provides habitat for many animal species.  Nearly all of the mammals native to the area are still present today, including Moose, Wolves, Lynx, Wolverines and the extremely rare Mountain Caribou.  Grizzly Bears also frequent the region, making this one of only five areas in the lower 48 states.  Diverse bird populations occur due to the many lakes, ponds, and rivers of the ecoregion.  Golden and Bald Eagles can often be found along rivers, as well as Osprey.  Boreal and Great Gray Owls abound, as well as Red-necked Grebes, rails, Three-toed Woodpeckers, numerous species of Chickadees, Kinglets, and Warblers, and many others.  The waters of this ecoregion are also host to a diverse group of animals, including Burbot, river otters, muskrats, Mountain Whitefish, and Bull Trout. Some locations are home to White Sturgeon, which can grow over eight feet in length. 

Photo of a bull moose in a pond

The Canadian Rockies Ecoregion of Washington is some of the wildest country in the state.  Huge rivers, accessible mountain peaks, and large valleys characterize the landscape.  The climate is a mixture of maritime and continental conditions, which results in four distinct seasons.  The plant communities are diverse; these range from boreal terrain at high elevations to xeric Ponderosa Pine at low elevations, and even include moist western red-cedar forests sharing many species with the costal Washington communities.  Animal diversity is just as rich, as the region hosts some of the only remaining grizzly bear and mountain caribou populations in the United States.  The Canadian Rocky Mountain ecoregion offers excellent opportunities to learn about a beautifully unique part of Washington state, and to experience the grandeur of the local wilderness.

About Bryan Carlson

Bryan Carlson has written 37 post in this blog.

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