When we look at the diverse layers of rock on an exposed cliff or find a fossil from a species that is locally extinct, we realize how completely a place can change over time. The geology and climate of today’s Klamath Siskiyou bioregion is a result of a long history of change, changes that have had effects on the assemblage of plant, animal, and human communities alike.
The Klamath Siskiyou bioregion of today belongs within a context of geologic proportion. The landscape we observe today is a result of geologic and ecological process that has occurred over millions of years. It is humbling to realize that the climate that has characterized human cultures in this place for the last 10,000 years is one that only took hold a short time before settlement. Although humans have a great impact on the land they live, the character of that very land sculpts the human just as water carves a canyon.
It is currently believed that near the end of these periods of glaciation, 14,000 to 12,000 years ago, began the first inhabitation of the Pacific Northwest by humans (Jenkins, 2014). They are thought to have traveled via the Bering Strait in small groups, hunting large game like the mammoth, camel, and three-toed horse (Sutton, 1973, p.5). These early people were highly nomadic. During this time the climate of southwest Oregon was undergoing a dramatic and consistent shift from a cooler climate to the Mediterranean climate we know today of hot dry summers and cool wet winters. This caused a great expansion in the range of species adapted to warmer and drier conditions (Todt, 1990, p. 76). This includes much of the chaparral plant community such as madrone, white oak, Manzanita, ceanothus, buckbrush, California coffeeberry, and yerba santa. All of these species are now iconic plants of this bioregion. Fire played an important role in sculpting this landscape. With the increased frequency of fires due to drier conditions, many species evolved fire related adaptations and distribution patterns (Ruediger, 2013, p.28). During this warming period, large mammal species became extinct for reasons that are still not fully understood. Hypotheses include over hunting by humans to drastic changes in vegetation patterns (Stuart, Kosintsev, Higham, & Lister, 2004) As a result, new settlement patterns began to evolve for the early settlers, relying more on the hunting of less migratory game and the gathering, processing, and storing of foods (Atwood & Gray, 2013).
As subsistence patterns changed, settlement patterns did as well. Tribes, or groups began to form, each with distinct languages, beliefs, and customs. It varies among sources the names and boundaries of these tribes, but known tribes of the Klamath Siskiyou bioregion that settled the Rogue Valley include the Takelmas, the Athapaskans, the Shastas, and the Latgawas (Jackson County Extension Office of Oregon State Univeristy, 1980). All of these groups shared a similar environment and held similar land management practices and settlement patterns related to their subsistence routines. Family groups were small and scattered to reduce competition over limited resources. Summer was spent in the mountains, where deer was hunted, camas bulbs dug, and salmon berries picked. In fall, the salmon would run and would bring settlement along the rivers. A ceremony was held every year to give thanks to the salmon. The women would gather acorns and nuts while men hunted salmon in baskets woven from bear grass (Cain Allen, 2003). Salmon played an important role not only in the diets of the indigenous people of the Rogue Valley, but also for the bioregion as a whole. Today, over 40 mammals and 89 species of bird are documented to rely on salmon as a food source, making it one of the primary ways energy is cycled through the bioregion (Ruediger, 2013, p.22). In modern times it is considered a “keystone species” for this bioregion: the health of the species intimately interwoven with the ecological health of the bioregion (National Research Council (U.S.), 1996). This was most likely true for the bioregion that existed 10,000 years ago. Salmon and deer were the main sources of animal protein for the early settlers. In the Takelma tradtion, coyotes, bears, wolves, and most birds were never killed, believed to be “spirit gaurdians” (Jackson County Extension Office of Oregon State Univeristy, 1980, p.1).
Land Management as if it mattered
The two main objectives of land management practices were fiber for weaving and food for eating. Examples of plants that became heavily managed by these people for these reasons were white oak, manzanita, hazelnut, bear grass, willow and camas. Most of the chaparral plant community species favored by the indigenous tribes were fire-adapted species, meaning an increased fire frequency, whether natural or human caused, resulted in the proliferation and health of these species. Like mentioned earlier, these species were naturalizing in this bioregion already due to the warming and drying of the climate and the increasing occurrence of natural fires (Todt, 1990). The burning of both large areas of thousands of acres, as well as small patches, was a common practice for the indigenous people of the Rogue Valley. This in effect maintained and promoted the proliferation of fire loving species. Areas like oak woodlands, prairies and grasslands were burned annually to clear debris, competing trees, make acorn harvesting easier, roast nuts, create grazing areas for deer, and add fertility to the ground (Zybach, 2007). In 1899 the highly accomplished forester and botanist John B. Leiberg noted that it was hard, near impossible, to find a white oak that did not have fire scars (Leiberg, 1900). Through findings of ancient pollen and fossils, it is believed that fire played a key role in maintaining stable plant populations for centuries and millennia in this area (Zybach, 2007). The management of camas also had a profound effect on the bioregion. Seasonally, hundreds to thousands of wet prairie acres of soil were turned for harvest of the camas bubs. This is thought to have possibly added to the soil fertility and the creation of huge stands of camas that remain even today (Zybach, 2007).
A changing climate
When European settlement occurred in the region in the 1800s, the Klamath Siskiyou bioregion was a land that expressed the cultural subsistence patterns of the indigenous people that had maintained the area consistently for over 10,000 years. Rivers overflowed with salmon, uniform oak savannahs, camas fields, willow patches thrived.
The combination of the Rogue Indian Wars from 1852-1856 and the 1862-1915 Homestead Act, led to the total redistribution of land into US government management or European-American occupation. With this transfer, a new set values including attitudes towards resources, fire, animals, aesthetics, and certain plant species was impressed upon the land. Species that were once of little worth, like the Douglas fir, were now valued highly. Forests were thinned to promote the growth of Douglas fir, later to be clear-cut by timber companies. Douglas-fir populations also began to encroach in lower elevations as fire regimes in the valley were suppressed by Euro-Americans to protect timber and homes. New species of plants were imported into the area; animals foreign to this land were allowed to graze freely. Many animal populations were affected by the settlement of Euro-Americans. Grizzly bears were locally extirpated in the area within 40 years of Euro-American settlement. Populations of Pacific fisher, bighorn sheep, Roosevelt Elk, and the gray wolf were all greatly reduced or locally extinct by the mid 1900s (Ruediger, 2013, p.14-21). Most alarming of the species that has been negatively impacted by Euro-American settlement is the salmon. Due to the creation of dams, industrial logging, over grazing, over fishing, and water withdrawals salmon populations are a tenth of recorded historic levels (National Research Council (U.S.), 1996, p.18).
Before Euro-American arrival, the Klamath Siskiyou bioregion was a highly managed landscape. This has not changed in the centuries since Euro-American arrival. What has changed due to the nature of technology is the level of extraction and manipulation of ecosystem processes: mining, industrial logging, ranching, industrial fruit farming, and urban growth, to name a few. European-American influence has most visibly impacted the valley floors where human settlement has been its greatest. The settlement patterns are permanent and condensed in certain areas, unlike the migratory and dispersed patterns of early human culture in the area. These more permanent settlement patterns lead to a more insulated sense of home, where little needs to be known about what lies upstream or behind the next mountain range to survive.