River otters are charismatic animals. Not only filled with curiosity and playfulness, they also act in an important role as an apex predator in riparian ecosystems. Their need for abundant and diverse prey requires an overall healthy habitat and transforms this key species into sentinels of the health of the watersheds where they live. When humans track the health of river otter populations we learn a great deal about the health of our own environment as well.
The river otter is just one of many animals and plants that are canaries in an aquatic coal mine. Their presence or absence speaks volumes about the health of a watershed. Species that provide such insights to the workings of an ecosystem are called indicator species. Here on the coast of Oregon, indicator species provide invaluable information about the interconnectedness of our forests and ocean – a connection that can often be difficult to see, just like the species themselves.
Illuminating our connection to the local ecosystem and inspiring action.
From ridge-top creeks to swift rivers, to estuaries and bays, and finally out to the open ocean, the flow of water connects habitats that are seemingly independent of one another, and connect humans to wildlife in unexpected ways.
Watershed Sentinels is a visual tapestry illustrating these overlaps. The stories of the indicator species living within our watersheds, many of which are species of conservation concern, aim to engage the public, inspire involvement in local policy initiatives for sustainable industry practices, and empower community members to be environmental stewards.
Indicator species have surprising stories. There's a robin-sized seabird that tells us about the effects of logging practices far inland, an ancient jawless fish that informs us about the impacts from dams hundreds of miles up river, a giant salamander that keeps tabs on the ebb and flow of silt in streams running through conifer forests. The biographies of indicator species contain threads so long and intricate that suddenly the number of small fish living near our shores and the width of boughs on centuries-old trees are two key elements of a single plot line.
Through visual stories of species dependent on connected, healthy and functioning watersheds, Watershed Sentinels highlights the importance of our connection to our local environment.
The watersheds of the Oregon Coast face a variety of conservation challenges. These include:
- clear-cut forestry practices that speed soil erosion and siltation of rivers and estuaries
- pollution entering our waterways
- development of habitat for human use
- an influx of invasive species
- an ongoing loss of biodiversity
- aerial spraying of pesticide and herbicides
- the storage and distribution of biosolids
Each of these issues require collaboration and creative thinking for smarter, more ecologically-sound solutions that balance economic health with ecological health. Local indicator species help to reveal the extent to which we are impacting our ecosystem, and can guide us upstream to the cause of the problem and the beginning of a conversation.
Not only do these watershed sentinels provide us with insights, they also stimulate action.
Charismatic flora and fauna are vehicles for sparking curiosity and motivating citizens to understand where their water comes from, what activities impact their watersheds, and the larger story of an ecosystem.
Using a visual experience of wildlife and their world, Watershed Sentinels seeks to bring more participants to the table and form solutions-based strategies that consider the needs of all community members – land owners, business owners, outdoor enthusiasts, families and many others.
Through investigation and education, industry and living practices that affect our watersheds become larger, far more involved conversations that move away from an Us-Them mentality and instead take everyone into account – human and non-human alike.