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Columbia River Estuary

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States, Oregon and Washington

Relative Location:

Approximately 60 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River Estuary, east into Washington and Oregon.


46º16’25.46 -124º00'48.63  to  46º11’08.61 -123º09'11.29



Basis for Designation:

Supports more than 20,000 shorebirds annually, including 3.7% of Dunlin subspecies (Calidris alpina pacifica).


26,160 acres 


June 2009

Site Owner/Steward:

US Fish and Wildlife Service - Lewis and Clark and Julia Butler Hansen NWRs  
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Coastal Washington Office
Washington Department of Parks and Recreation
Washington Department of Natural Resources (Potential participant in negotiation)
Columbia Land Trust
Hancock Forest Management
The Nature Conservancy of Oregon

Site Partners:

USFWS Office of Migratory Birds and Habitat Programs
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington Department of Parks and Recreation
Washington Department of Natural Resources
Columbia Land Trust
Hancock Forest Management
The Nature Conservancy of Oregon
Pacific Coast Joint Venture
Audubon Society of Portland
Audubon Society of Washington
Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership (LCREP)
Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce (CREST)
Mike Patterson

Human Population within 100 km:

Primarily small towns and rural residential areas; the city of Astoria (population 10,000) is the largest population center adjacent to the site.


Vanessa Loverti
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


About Us

The Columbia River Estuary WHSRN Site is located from the mouth of the estuary to 60 river miles inland, along the border between the states of Washington and Oregon. The site lies within the Marine west coast climate zone with mild temperatures throughout the year. Columbia River Estuary contains some of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world because of the large and concentrated supply of nutrients from the convergence of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.

The lower Columbia River Estuary has diverse intertidal habitat used by shorebirds year-round, but is particularly important during shorebird migration. Each spring, on their migration northward, hundreds of shorebirds stop to rest and feed on the open mudflats in the estuary. Well-known shorebird areas include Clatsop Spit, Young’s Bay, Baker Bay, and islands of the lower Columbia River Estuary such as Rice Island and Miller Sands Islands.

The majority of lands within the WHSRN Site area are part of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge is also included in the site and contains over 6,000 acres of pastures, forested tidal swamps, marshes, sloughs, and islands in both Washington and Oregon. Habitat on the coastal refuges consists of tidally influenced islands, mudflats, and shoals. These areas are not intensively managed, but are protected to allow natural processes to dominate the landscape.

Other lands included in the WHSRN site that are not part of these refuges include a mix of state and private lands. State lands include state parks, where management goals aim to balance human recreation values with the needs of wildlife and their environments. They also include state-owned aquatic lands (tidelands and shorelines) in Washington, where a similar balancing of human use and recreation with sensitive natural resources takes place.

Private lands owned by conservation organization such as Columbia Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy of Oregon, as well as a preserve owned by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, are managed to benefit fish and wildlife populations and to conduct ecological research and restoration activities. Also included in the WHSRN site are the shorelines of private timber lands. These shorelines are not actively managed, but are left undisturbed.

People are keenly aware of the importance of the Columbia River Estuary for fish and wildlife. However, awareness of the importance of the site for shorebirds tends to be concentrated mostly among conservation groups, natural resource managers, and bird enthusiasts in the region, rather than the general public. Beach closures during Snowy Plover nesting season has been one highly visible management activity that has served to educate the public about these shorebirds.


Ecology & Conservation 

Habitat Description
Shorebird Use
Causes of Disturbance to Shorebirds
Management Issues and Research Priorities

Habitat Description:
A number of different habitat types relevant to shorebirds can be found within the 60 river miles along the Columbia River. Habitat types include intertidal mud and sand flats, intertidal marshes, intertidal forested wetlands, sand/pebble shores, and estuarine waters, as well as sand dunes.

The most prevalent habitat type within the site, other than estuarine waters (which comprise the majority of the site area) is the intertidal marshes, followed by intertidal mudflats. There are a few areas comprised of inland wetlands (e.g. Julia Butler Hansen NWR). These small inland wetlands can be described as seasonal freshwater marshes. The vast majority of the site is natural in origin. The site is tidally influenced and water levels are also highly influenced by dams upriver. 

Shorebird use:
More than 20, 000 shorebirds use the Columbia River Estuary each year. Species include: Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Red-necked Phalarope.

Causes of Disturbance to Shorebirds:
Although the site is largely undeveloped, many activities that occur in or near the site can affect shorebirds. The major causes of disturbance to shorebirds at the site include:

·  Human-caused disturbances, including recreation, excessive noise, and dogs.

·  Habitat alterations/destruction and altered hydrologic regimes caused by sea-level rise, dams, dikes, removal/lack of large woody debris, and sediment accumulation.

·  Altered climate and extreme weather events caused by climate change and El Nino and La Nina events.

·  Potential for disturbance from oil spills.

Management Issues and Research Priorities:
The Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan (“Plan”, revised March 2000) outlines a number of management issues and research priorities for conserving shorebird species in the Northern Pacific Region. Priorities for research and monitoring, management, habitat protection, and outreach are briefly listed below.

Of the research and monitoring priorities listed below, the lack of regular monitoring of shorebird populations is the largest barrier to further meaningful shorebird research or management. No regular monitoring of shorebird populations is currently done in the Columbia River Estuary. A coordinated, large-scale, and annual or semi-annual survey effort is needed. A surveying effort similar to the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) following International Shorebird Survey protocols would be extremely valuable.

Additional research and monitoring priorities identified in the Plan that apply to the estuary include:

·  Monitoring the condition, distribution, and availability of shorebird habitat in the estuary;

·  Examination of shorebird response to introduced species, and development of control methods;

·  Identification and monitoring of specific areas where contaminants have a reasonable likelihood of impacting shorebirds, and study of the effects on shorebirds of various contaminants (e.g., lead, agricultural, and industrial chemicals, oil, plastic particles);

·  Development of strategies to reduce threats to shorebirds from contaminants, disturbances, introduced species, hazardous structures, human- and predator-caused mortality, and habitat loss or degradation;

A number of other management recommendations are outlined in the Plan that may apply to the estuary, including:

·  Facilitation and promotion of public enjoyment of shorebirds (e.g., building observation platforms and kiosks at key shorebird locations, organization of shorebird festivals, encouraging volunteer shorebird monitoring by the public, development of documentaries and K-12 education programs, and media outreach);

·  Education of agencies, NGOs, landowners, and the public on shorebird ecology and population status. Target groups for outreach efforts include the agricultural community, watershed councils, landowners of important shorebird sites, the aquaculture community, hunting clubs, schools, tourism agencies, and public officials;

·  Prioritization and funding of wetland protection, restoration, and enhancement projects;

·  Provision of access to data, maps, and other information to county and municipal planning agencies to promote management efforts for shorebirds at the local scale;

·  Protection from human disturbance of key nesting, roosting, and foraging sites;

·  Protection of important sites using tools like acquisition, conservation easements, and voluntary conservation plans;

·  Removal and/or prevention of deleterious silt accumulation in marsh and mud flats;

·  Planting or encouraging growth of native vegetation conducive to shorebird use in restored areas;

·  Managing water levels and vegetation to create conditions suitable for use by wintering or migrating shorebirds, including discing and mowing where and when appropriate.


Special Information

Oregon Shorebird Festival

Interpretive nature programs at Fort Stevens State Park
and Cape Disappointment State Park

These parks also provide a multitude of wildlife viewing and hiking opportunities.

Oregon Coast Birding Trail

Great Washington State Birding Trail: Southwest Loop




Vanessa Loverti
Wildlife Biologist
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Migratory Birds and Habitat Programs
911 NE 11th Avenue
Portland, OR 97232
Phone 503-736-4497
Fax 503-231-2019

Joel David 
Refuge Manager
Julia Butler Hansen and Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuges
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
46 Steamboat Slough Rd.
Cathlamet, Washington 98612-0566 
(360) 795-3915

Greg Schiarato
District Wildlife Biologist
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Coastal Washington Office
48 Devonshire Road
(360) 490-0781

Robert Fimbel
Chief, Natural Resources Stewardship
Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission
7150 Clearwater Drive
Olympia, Washington 98504
(360) 902-8592

Ian Sinks
Stewardship Manager
Columbia Land Trust
1351 Officers Row
Vancouver, Washington 98661
(360) 213-1206

Dick Vander Schaaf
Oregon Coast and Marine Conservation Director
The Nature Conservancy of Oregon
821 SE 14th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97214
(503) 802-8100



Additional Resouces

Supporting Documents:

Drut, Martin S., and Buchanan, Joseph B. March 2000. U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan.

Harrington, B. and Perry, E. 1995. Important shorebird staging sites meeting Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network criteria in the United States. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jerrick, Nancy. Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the Lower Columbia River. Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership. Portland, OR.

Johnson, David H., and O’Neil, Thomas A. 2001. Wildlife-Habitat Relationships in Oregon and Washington. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR. Pages 397-399.

Nehls, H.B. 1994. Oregon shorebirds: their status and movements.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Technical Report 94-1-02.

Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle.