Native Ecology of the Walla Walla Valley

and Blue Mountains

Written by: Nick Berning




            This series of lessons is intended to introduce ecology and a bit of the natural history of the Walla Walla Valley to 2nd or 3rd grade students.  Each lesson should require roughly one hour but may run overtime.  Introductions are also included in three lessons and may not be helpful for all classrooms.  Two lessons include games that could be difficult if there is no easy access to a playground or outdoor area.  Plan extra time for transit.  Instructions for games are set off from the rest of the lesson for quick reference. 





1.            Bears in the Blue Mountains

2.            Birds

3.            Salmon and Bull Trout

4.            Native Grasses




1.            The Fruit ‘Name’ Game

2.            Sleeping Miser

3.            The Wind Blows

4.            Salmon, Bear, Mosquito



Information comes primarily from:


General Management Plan, September 2000 - Whitman Mission National Historic Site.  University of Oklahoma Press.


Resources and Issues Handbook 2000 – Yellowstone National Park.  Produced by Yellowstone National Park Division of Interpretation.



These programs are valuable for extending environmental education into the classroom


Project WILD                

Project Learning Tree     

Project WET                  

The Learning Place         


For the grass and tree species found in Umatilla National Forest see



Valuable information can also be found at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site,                                      


Bears in the Blue Mountains




·         Identify the characteristics and habitat needs of black bears.

·         Consider how we may act more responsively to help the remaining bears.

·         Recognize some of the problems that have occurred in our relationship with bears in the past.


Lesson Materials:

·         bear food box

·         bear puzzle

·         animal post cards

·         clothespins

·         bones


Intro - The Fruit Game

Grizzly bears love to eat fruit.  What’s your favorite fruit?  We’ll play the fruit game to learn names and fruits.  To play the fruit game arrange everyone in a circle with a facilitator in the middle.  “To play the fruit game, have everyone to say their name and favorite fruit.  I’m in the middle, so I don’t get a fruit, but I want one, so I’m going to try to steal your fruit spot.  To do that I have to say your fruit three times before you say it once.  If I beat you, I get your fruit and you go in the middle and have to say someone else’s fruit three times to get their spot.”



We will be focusing on black bears today.  Before the settlers came they were a very important species in the Blue Mountains.  We call them a keystone species because we can guess how healthy the ecosystem is by looking at the health of the bears in an area.  Has anybody seen a bear?


Black bears can be any color from black to cinnamon.  They stand about 3 feet high at the shoulder.  Males are called boars and weigh 210 to 315 pounds; females are called sows and weigh 135-160 pounds.  An exceptional male can weigh 500 pounds.  Life expectancy is about 15 to 20 years in the wild.


Bears spend most of their time eating.  During spring a bear may spend 20 hours a day feeding.  In the fall bears look for a cave to hibernate in through the winter.  Scientists are still debating whether bears are true hibernators or not.  They experience a drop in metabolism with a cooling of body temperature and decreased respiration and circulation, but not to the extent of other species like ground squirrels.  This means bears can be easily awakened in the winter, while ground squirrels and other “heavy” hibernators cannot.


Males and females without cubs are solitary living in ranges extending from 6 to 124 square miles for males and 2 to 45 square miles for females.  Mating season occurs between June and July.  Cubs are born in mid-January while the sow is hibernating.  She becomes semi-conscious for the delivery.  There are usually two cubs in a litter, although one or three are not uncommon and four is rare.  The new cubs are blind, toothless, a have little hair.


Activity - Bear-Food Box

The bear-food box is a box that says “Bear Food” on it.  Inside, make some pictures of different kinds of food that bears would and would not want to eat.  Good examples are:


Black bears are omnivorous; they can eat almost anything including grass, berries, fruits, tree bark (the cambium), roots, bird eggs, nuts, insects, fish and carrion.


Good foods for a bear to eat:

·        grass – especially roots

·        fruits - blackberries, strawberries, etc.

·        bird eggs

·        pine nuts (from pine cones)

·        rodents and small mammals – meadow mice, white-footed mice, harvest mice, pocket gophers, cotton tail rabbits, muskrats, and weasils can be found in the Walla Walla and would make good meals for bears

·        insects – insects, especially ants, make up nearly 80% of a bear’s protein

·        steelhead and bull trout – both can be found in the Walla Walla Valley and nearby Blue Mountains and play a very important role in a bear’s diet when they spawn.

·        carrion – whitetail and mule deer killed in the winter make up and important part of a bear’s diet after it wakes up from hibernation in the spring.


Any kind of human food can be harmful to bears.  Reliance on human food makes bears more accustomed to human presence.  Human foods also tend to be too low in protein for a bears diet.  I was told by a Yellowstone Ranger that when black bears where still fed in the park garbage dumps sows would abort their cubs at a very early stage in the pregnancy because they didn’t get enough protein.  I don’t know if you want to tell kids that.


Pull different kinds of food from a bear food box and discuss whether bears would or should eat the food inside.  Discuss problems with human-bear encounters and human encroachment into bear habitat.  When done, divide the food into plant and animal groups and discuss herbivores, carnivores and omnivores.  What are bears?  What are we?  Helen is a vegetarian.  What does that mean?  Look at the foods that bears eat.  What would happen if we took a few different kids of food away?  Eating so many different kinds of food makes bears less dependent on any one kind of food, which is important, because they eat so much food.


Activity – The Bear Puzzle

Ask the kids a series of true and false questions.  When the kids answer a question correctly give them a piece of the bear puzzle to assemble.  Try having the kids give a thumbs up for true and a thumbs down for false.  This is a good chance to assess how much the kids have learned.



I like using games to reinforce the things my class has learned.  Sleeping Miser is a good game to remind kids about a bear’s special way of hibernating.  The game’s best attribute is encouraging kids to use their senses to encounter the outdoors in a more critical way than they do on the playground.


If you don’t have time, space, or inclination for a game you might want to end the lesson with a closing inspiration or a good bear story.










·        Learn the different uses for different shapes of beaks, feet, wings and feathers.

·        Explore the role of birds in the Walla Walla ecosystem.


Lesson Materials:

·        poster-sized visuals

·        bird food box

·        match the beak game

·        bird fact puzzle

·        bird guide


Introduction – The Wind Blows (Game)

“We’re going to play a game to get to know everyone’s name and a bit about ourselves.  First we need to make a circle with me (the facilitator) in the center.  Each of you has a spot.  Remember that spot, because we’re not going to make up any new spots during the game.  The way we play this game is, the person in the center says his/her name and something he/she think they might have in common with other people in the group.  For example, ‘my name is Nick, and the wind blows with people who like marmots.’  Everyone who like marmots has to move off of their spot onto an empty spot.  If the person in the middle wants to get out of the middle, he/she have to take an empty spot him/herself.  It’s kind of like musical chairs because there will always be someone left in the middle.”


Bird Species

Bird species commonly sighted at the Whitman Mission:

·        mourning doves                                               

·        woodpeckers

·        barn owls

·        swallows

·        house wrens

·        Wilson’s warblers

·        Audubon warblers

·        sparrows

·        juncos

·        red-winged blackbirds

·        robins

·        starlings

·        crows

·        hawks

·        pheasants

·        mallards

·        Canada geese

·        In addition Bald Eagles have been sited at the Mission.



Information – Bird Parts

Use a visual with basic bird anatomy to talk about the important parts of birds.  Be sure to mention their wings, feet and beak.  While talking about the wings and flight, mention that birds have special hollow bones which makes them very light, but very fragile.  They also have different kinds of feathers.  We all know about the flight feathers.  (Pass out examples of flight feathers and use the feather visuals to demonstrate how feathers are like a comb or a zipper.)  Birds also have special fluffy feathers to keep them warm (pass around fluffy feather.)  Which kind of feather do you think you would find in a down pillow?  Why?  Birds have special oil glands that they use to keep their feathers clean and waterproof.  The oil makes the bird’s feathers water resistant, just like a raincoat.  If a duck didn’t have oil on its feathers it would soak up water like a sponge.  Birds get the oil from a special gland on their back.

            Look at the bird’s feet.  What might a bird use its feet for?  (perching, catching prey, walking, scratching)  Bird’s feet are kind of weird because they have scales on them instead of feathers.

            We’ll discuss bird beaks when we look through the bird food box.


Activity – The Bird Food Box

What kids of food are good for birds to eat?  Use examples pulled from the bird food box to discuss what birds can and should eat.  Why shouldn’t we feed birds?  After we’ve divided all the different kinds of food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ piles we can get rid of the bad pile and divide the good pile into plants and animals.  What is an animal called that just eats plants?  Meat?  What do we call an animal that eats both?  What are people?  What would be the advantages of eating many different kinds of food?  (When one kind of food goes scarce?)


Examples of good food for birds to eat:

·        seeds

·        fruit

·        duck weed

·        small rodents

·        flowers (pollen, nectar)



Information – Bird Beaks

Continuing the Bird Food Box activity, match the different foods that a bird would eat with the different kinds of bird beaks (ducks, eagles, swallows, woodpeckers).  How do these beaks work?  Ducks strain with their bills, eagles tear, swallows eat small insects, woodpeckers make holes.


Art ActivityCreate a Bird

This activity is intended to reinforce the different uses and shapes of bird beaks, wings, and feet.  If you think your class will be short on time, you can photocopy some examples of bird parts and have the kids attach them to a bird body and color them.  Otherwise you can set the kids free with any kind of marker, paint, colored pencil, etc.  The purpose of this activity is to give kids a hands-on extension of what they have learned, so the more hands-on, the better.



Salmon and Bull Trout




·        To discuss basic fish anatomy.

·        To examine the importance of trout and salmon


Salmon and Bull Trout in Walla Walla County

Steelhead and Bull Trout runs on Mill Creek are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  On the nearby lower Snake river Sockeye are listed as endangered, while Spring, Summer and Fall Chinook and Steelhead are listed as threatened under the ESA.  Projects to revitalize both watersheds are being undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries and a number of other government and non-government organizations.  Water rights and fisheries have long been an extremely political issue in the Northwest and should be approached with a great deal of tact and diplomacy, especially in elementary school classrooms.  For more information on salmon and bull trout in the Walla Walla watershed see the following websites:


Ty Dann’s web page, “Current State of Fish and Fish Habitat in Mill Creek”


National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Region Site


Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


Introduction – Water Fruit Game

We’ll play a fruit game with things that live in the water.  Encourage the kids to pick an aquatic animal that lives in the park or starts with their name (Billy Beaver, Larry Liver-Fluke, etc.)  To play the fruit game arrange everyone in a circle with a facilitator in the middle.  “To play the fruit game, we need everyone to say their name and favorite fruit.  I’m in the middle, so I don’t get a fruit, but I want one, so I’m going to try to steal your fruit spot.  To do that I have to say your fruit three times before you say it once.  If I beat you, I get your fruit and you go in the middle and have to say someone else’s fruit three times to get their spot.”


Activity – Being a Puddle

What is it like being a puddle?  Join hands in a circle to make a puddle.

As a puddle, we will: Ripple, wave, sit very calm and quiet, grow as it rains in the spring, start to evaporate, get cooler as a tree grows over us putting us in the shade (and making us the right temperature for fish to live in), get warmer in the summer, get covered in leaves in the fall (the leaves will break down and fill us with nutrients for things to grow, some insects might lay their eggs in us.  The insects get bigger and bigger until they look good for a fish to eat, finally, we'll freeze over in the winter.  Let or puddle grow into a lake by widening our circle.



Information - Fish Parts

Find a poster showing basic fish anatomy for this lesson.  What do we have that fish do/don't have?  What do different shaped fins do?  Discuss how small fins are used for heavy currents while larger fins are used for calm water.  Fish can’t see very well, because water tends to be cloudy (from dirt and runoff), but they have an organ on their side called a “lateral line” that helps them to sense the vibrations created by their predators and prey.  They also have a swim bladder that they can fill up like a balloon to help them rise and descend in the water.


Activity - Being a Fish

One evening, after supper, you realize you have eaten too much fish.  You start to smell like a fish.  You’re skin secretes a mucus layer like a fish and your feet slide along the floor.  Your neck starts to disappear and your face moves to the top of your head so that you face up.  Your eyes slide to the side of your face while your legs fuse together to form one big tail.  Your arms become fins.  A second pair of fins joins them further down your side and two fins sprout from your back.  Soon you dip forward into the water (you can use the lake we formed in the last activity.)  On your stomach you are more comfortable.  You can move not by moving your legs back and forth, but by swishing your tail from side to side.


Information – Salmon and Bull Trout

Salmon and bull trout play a very important role in the food-web when they spawn every spring.  Salmon and bull trout swim up rivers and streams to find the stream where they hatched from eggs.  There they mate, lay their own little fish eggs and die.  All these thousands of fish are an important food source for animals like bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles, hawks, magpies, crows, and a number of small mammals and birds.  In the Walla Walla projects are being undertaken to revive salmon population on Mill Creek.


Game - Salmon, Mosquito, Bear

Salmon, Mosquito, Bear is a good game for reinforcing the food-chain relationships of salmon and their predators and prey.  I’ve included a short explanation of the game here and a full version separately.

1.      Have the kids decide on motions for a bear, trout, and mosquito, then discuss the dietary relationships of these animals (who eats who).

2.      Break the kids into two groups

3.      Each group huddles to decide whether they will be a Bear, Trout, or Mosquito.

4.      They then line up on a middle line facing away from the other group.

5.      When the leader gives the signal, both groups turn around and make the motion for their animal.  If one group’s animal eats the others then the predatory group chases the prey group.  The prey must make it to a base (their habitat).  If anyone is tagged he/she goes to the other team.


Native Grasses




·        To learn the native grasses of the Walla Walla Valley

·        To examine the natural communities in the world around us

·        To plant native grasses to grow in the classroom



·        string

·        soil

·        seeds

·        water

·        egg cartons

·        plant lights


Plant Needs

What do plants need to grow?  The plant should be able to come up with a plants needs in a short brainstorming session (water, soil, nutrients, sunlight, air, space).  Ask the kids how they could give a plant everything it needs to grow in a classroom.


Native Grasses of Walla Walla

·        Bluebunch wheatgrass

·        Sandberg bluegrass

·        Idaho fescue

·        Giant wild ryegrass

·        Magnar Great Basin wildrye

·        Sherman big bluegrass

Some of these species can grow to be six to eight feet tall, while others only grow to two or three feet tall.


String Activity

Break the kids into at least two groups to make human communities.  Assign each kid a role in a human community starting with farmers and food production.  Use yarn to demonstrate links in the kids’ community.  For example, a baker relies on a farmer for wheat, so the farmer-kid and the baker-kid can be linked with yarn.  Use the yarn to show what happens when shortages occur.  For example, when there is a drought the farmer will grow less wheat for the baker, so the farmer will pull on the baker’s yarn.  The baker will have less bread, so he/she will pull on everyone’s yarn.  Plant communities work in the same way.  Some plants, like alders and legumes (peas, etc.), help to create nitrogen in the soil that allows other plants to grow.  Some plants create shade needed for others or produce natural chemicals that keep insect pests away.  This activity has great potential to be expanded, but is kept short here in the interest of time.




Planting native seeds gives kids a hands on connection with the native plants of the Walla Walla Valley.  Any native plant would serve well.  Native grass seeds may be difficult to find.  Potential seed sources include the Umatilla National Forest and Whitman Mission National Historic Site.  Other native plants like blackberries or elderberries could be used.


Planting can take a long time if instructions aren’t very clear and easy to follow.  I suggest creating stations with pictures and simple instructions.

1)      Place a small amount of soil in your pot (or egg carton or whatever you’ll be planting in).

2)      Plant the seed the appropriate depth into the soil (depth depends on seed varieties).

3)      Water the seed (be sure not to stuff up your sink with potting soil).

4)      Label your seed if more than one species is being planted.

5)      Place the plant under plant lights, close to windows, or outside where they will get sunlight.

Title: Fruit ‘Name’ Game

Recommended Number of Players: minimum 4 (includes facilitators)

Materials: spot markers for younger kids



1.      All kids stand in a circle with a kid/facilitator in the center.

2.      The kids around the circle say their name and a fruit (or alternative, favorite fish, etc.)  Each kid must choose a different fruit.

3.      Explain that each fruit remains fixed in its spot.  Even if the kid moves, the fruit stays in its original place.

4.      The person in the middle does not have a fruit, but wants one.  They have to say a name or fruit 3 times (as quickly as they can) “Nick, Nick, Nick,” or “plum, plum, plum.”

5.      When the person in the middle says someone’s name or fruit, he/she must say it once before the person in the middle finishes saying it three times.  If the person on the outside is faster than the person in the middle then he/she keeps his/her spot. 

6.      If the person on the outside is too slow, then the person in the middle takes his/her spot and he/she must move to the middle.  Go back to step 4.


   Down to Earth, Whitman College. Walla Walla, WA.


Sleeping Miser

Recommended Number of Players: min 3 (inc. facilitators)

Materials: blindfold, treasure



1.      One child sits in a clearing wearing a blindfold.  Place the treasure directly in front of him or her.

2.      The other children find a spot in the clearing.  They must sneak up and steal the treasure without being heard.

3.      If the miser hears a sound, he/she points to it.  If he/she points to another person, that person must freeze while he/she counts to ten.  (If the kids aren’t freezing or are rushing, change the rules between rounds so that anyone heard is out.)

4.      Whoever grabs the treasure first can be the miser for the next round.


For older kids, select the type of walk to be used to sneak up on the miser each round:

bears, whole foot; hoofed animals, tip toes; rabbits, hop; wolves, one foot in front of the other; squirrels, pounce.  Which way is easiest for people to do?


Cornell, Joseph.  Sharing Nature with Children.  DAWN Publications, 1998.



Title: The Wind Blows

Recommended Number of Players: minimum 4 (includes facilitators)

Materials: spot markers for younger kids



1.      All kids stand in a circle with a facilitator/kid in the center.

2.      The person in the center introduces him/herself and starts a statement:  “My name is Nick and the wind blows with…”

3.      He/she must choose something that the people around the circle may have in common.

Ex: … people with brown hair

… people who are 8 or older

… people who have been to California

… people who like peanut butter

4.      If the statement applies to you, then you must move from your spot and find another one.  The person in the middle can also take one of these spots.  Whoever is left without a spot must become the center person.

5.      The person in the center would like to get a spot, so he/she needs to get as many people moving as possible.

6.      Go back to step 2.


I like people who…, The bear likes people who…, The current flows with…,


Environmental Education for Kids (EEK), Whitman College. Walla Walla, WA.


Title: Salmon, Mosquito, Bear

Recommended Number of Players: minimum 6 (includes facilitators)

Materials: rope



1.      Discuss who eats who among the salmon, bear, and mosquito.  Kids need to be clear on this.

2.      As a group, choose an action to represent each animal.  These actions need to be easy to differentiate (not similar in any way.)


·        Salmon – put your hands together and swish them around at waist height

·        Bear – hold your paws above your head and growl

·        Mosquito – make a sucker (mosquito suckers are called proboscis) with your hands

3.      Split the group into two teams (on each side of the rope.)  Designate a base for each team.

4.      Each team then decides which animal the team will be (all kids on the team will be the same animal,) salmon, bear, or mosquito.

5.      Once decided, both teams stand with their backs to the rope, looking away from each other.

6.      When the facilitator gives the signal, both teams turn to face each other, making the action for their animal.

7.      The kids have to decide whether their animal will eat or be eaten by the other team.  Bears eat salmon, mosquitoes eat bears, etc.

8.      The predatory team must then chase their prey and try to tag them before they reach their base.

9.      If a member of the prey team is tagged, then they must join the other team for the next round. 

Kids switch teams after each round; it should even out. Go back to step 4.



Whidbey Island Americorps team, leader Will Black.  South Whidbey Elementary School, 1999.