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Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Snow Forest

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Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Snow Forest

By Peter Kleinhenz

“Peter look! Something just flew off…and it was big!” I scanned the canopies of the nearby White Fir trees and suddenly caught a glimpse of the mystery bird as it flew silently through the tree tops. I became still and my jaw dropped as I followed the gaze of my companion, Ellen, to the top of a dead fir tree nearby. Sitting atop the tree was the most amazing bird I have ever seen in the wild: a great grey owl.

After only thirty or forty seconds, a second great grey owl landed on the same dead tree. Ellen and I could not believe our luck.

Our professor, Dr. Stewart Janes, had told us that these owls could occasionally be found in Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, only thirty minutes from downtown Ashland, but we had not expected to actually see any. But here we were looking at North America’s largest owl, sharing a moment neither of us will ever forget, and realizing just how lucky we were to be living in Ashland, Oregon.

Snow blankets the habitat we were standing in for much of the year, which is why it is known as the snow forest. This habitat type comprises much of the hills surrounding Ashland, and is home to some of its most interesting wildlife. White fir trees, a minimal understory, and cooler temperatures define the snow forest. In other words, it’s a very nice place to explore.

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is probably the best place around Ashland to explore this habitat. President Bill Clinton established the monument in 2000, making it the first national monument created solely for the purpose of protecting biodiversity. And what biodiversity it has.

Due to the complex geological mixing beneath the ground, the monument is a unique place from a biological standpoint. Open meadows form where the ground is too rocky to support large trees, and it is in these snow forest islands where over 133 different species of butterflies may be found.

These meadows are also home to mammals like pocket gophers and kangaroo rats. These just so happen to feed the great grey owl, and are one of the reasons these tremendous birds can be found in our area.

Great grey owls are not the only interesting predators found in the snow forest, however. The fisher, a member of the weasel family, also occupies this habitat type. In fact, the snow forest immediately above Ashland is one of the strongholds for a subspecies of fisher known as the Pacific fisher.

Fishers are one of the coolest predators out there, since they are one of the only animals known to regularly feed on porcupines. Relying on their speed and intelligence, fishers run around their porcupine prey and make sure they avoid the sharp quills. As the porcupine gets tired, the fisher rushes in and bites at its face until the porcupine is blinded. At that point, the fisher flips the porcupine over and attacks the spineless underbelly.

The snow forest houses many other incredible creatures, all of which may be seen within thirty minutes of Ashland. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, reached via Dead Indian Memorial Highway or Highway 66, has a number of trails that penetrate deep into the snow forest. Hit the trail and maybe you, like Ellen and I, will be able to have one of the most memorable animal experiences of your life.

Snow forest canopy

Snow Forest Canopy