Friday, October 24, 2014

The Bears of Hall Mountain

By Kennon McClintock, North Idaho field representative

Several years ago, The Nature Conservancy purchased 320 acres of forestland at the base of Hall Mountain located in northern Boundary County, Idaho, just five miles from the Canada/USA border.

Hall Creek Forest. Photo by Lisa Eller/TNC.

This property, which was named the “Hall Creek Forest,” was destined to be subdivided — the long-term owners, who were exceptional stewards of this land for 40 years, had recently passed away and it had been listed with local realtors. It is a unique piece of ground with large trees, wetlands, spectacular mountain and valley views, located in the sunniest part of the county. This property shoulders up to Hall Mountain to the east which is mostly U.S. Forest Service forest lands. The Conservancy recognized the conservation values and was able to purchase it with the intent of placing a conservation easement on the property and eventually re-selling it to a like-minded buyer.

This low elevation property has a large, secluded, hardwood wetland, which provides quality habitat to a wide array of wildlife, especially bears: both black bears and the occasional grizzly bear. During the dry summer and fall months, there is readily available water and forbs — and bears are frequent visitors. Ample huckleberry patches can be found on Hall Mountain to the east, providing the main diet for the bears during summer and fall, and sustaining them during winter hibernation.

Remote cameras were placed in the wetlands and over the past two years we have taken many photos of bears – all black bears so far. There are many pictures of single bears, mostly browsing, climbing, and scratching on the cedar trees.

Images from Hall Creek Forest camera trap.

Surprisingly, many family units have shown up on film. This summer we had pictures of a mother and three cubs. The mother was teaching her offspring to climb a tree to seek safety and would continually push them up the tree from where she was standing. Most family pictures are of twins or single cubs, all practicing their climbing skills on these large cedar and cottonwood trees. In this part of Idaho, cubs can be subject to predation by other black bears, grizzly bears, and mountain lion, all which prowl on this property.

The Conservancy has been working with many private landowners in this part of Boundary County to acquire conservation easements in an attempt to keep the larger tracts intact and free of development.  These low-elevation valley lands, which offer water, food, security and thermal cover, provide important seasonal habitat for all types of wildlife. With the permanent protection of the Hall Creek Forest, the bears of Hall Mountain will always have a special place to come down to and visit. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Reflections on Silver Creek

by Sarah Long, Silver Creek Preserve summer intern
Editor's note: Sarah graduated from the University of the South at Sewanee and  was the recipient of the 2011 Raoul Conservation Scholarship.  She completed her first position with the Nature Conservancy as the Seasonal Educator at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge along the Atlantic Flyway in NJ. Her interest in birds and TNC brought her to The Silver Creek Preserve for an internship during the summer of 2014.  

Silver Creek—a beautiful name for an equally beautiful place. I've grown up near water; I have seen my share of steam-rising, sunlight-glinting magical moments of aquatic glory. I had, however, never clapped eyes on a place such as Idaho.

Water in the West is different. Life-giver of the desert, water is religion. Perhaps this land was never meant to hold so many men, so many thirsty plants and hungry cattle, and yet hold them it has.

In July, I watched my first wildfire belch smoke into the sky. Thirty thousand acres burned in the span of an evening; smog filled the valley for over a week, blurring the sky with haze. The land seemed hostile, the sky denying us badly needed rain. 

Sarah birdwatching on the preserve © TNC

In August, rains came, dampening the hay on the ground. There is tranquility amid the clash of sky, the earth, and its inhabitants. Fishermen travel from around the world to stand hip deep in cold water, casting back and forth, back and forth.

In the failing light of evening or the gentle rising of the dawn, the still water is a mirror to the sky, blurred only by the insect hatch hovering close to the surface. Wrens chatter in the cattails and swallows perform their acrobatics, snatching bugs from the air before returning to willow branches. In the fields, harriers glide low, searching for mice, while a kestrel hovers, waiting for movement in the grass to give away its prey.

Sarah removing fence © TNC
It inspires a kind of faith to know that there is something greater than humanity on this land and to know that when the water is gone and the people with it, the hills will stand over Picabo as tall sentinels over the changing landscape at their feet.

As I drive east, I wonder if I will be disappointed by the stature of my Blue Ridge Mountains, underwhelmed by the Shenandoah Valley, disenchanted with the Piedmont. The West has a feverish draw, causing me to wonder how long I will be content with the closeness of the air and the closeness of the people, having seen a night so full of stars that there was hardly any darkness.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Green Flash

By Susanna Danner, director of protection

For the past seven years, I’ve been writing conservation agreements for salmon in the Lemhi River, working from my faraway desk here in Idaho’s capital city. I’ve fallen in love with the upper Salmon River watershed – I’ve backpacked in the Lemhi Mountains, fished the Lemhi River, and even visited Sacajawea’s birthplace. But being in the Lemhi at the moment when Chinook salmon return home: it’s like seeing the green flash over the ocean. The timing, location and conditions have to be just right. I’ve squinted at ocean sunsets until my retinas look like a moth-eaten blanket, but I’ve only seen the green flash twice.

Green Flash © Kal Schrelber via creative commons license

Seeing wild Chinook salmon in Idaho is like that. They are creatures out of myth, as elusive as sea serpents. In the seven years I’ve worked for the Conservancy, I’ve never seen one. I read the data, so I believe in them, and I work on their conservation as an act of hope. It’s worth it even if I never see the living result of my efforts.

In late August, I had a meeting near the town of Salmon, Idaho. On the way home, I asked my colleagues if we could detour to a nearby cattle ranch where the Conservancy holds a conservation easement. We telephoned the rancher for permission to visit his ranch to look for spawning Chinook. He graciously gave us the OK, and we bumped down his dirt road to the Lemhi.I got out of the truck and heard splashes in the river. Big splashes. My eyes filled with tears. 

 The author admiring the sight from thistle © Ron Troy/TNC

These fish have swum 900 miles to get to this point. Odysseus couldn’t have done better. They’ve navigated the open ocean, avoided sea lion jaws and fishermen, plodded through slackwater, ascended seven dams, tolerated barges. They are tired, driven and massive: probably twenty pounds and 25 inches long. And they’ve made it past Scylla and Charybdis. There was no way I was going to hassle them at the end of this epic journey.

Luckily, I watched a lot of “G.I. Joe” growing up. I dropped to the ground and Army-crawled through a field of thistles to the water’s edge. I wanted to stay out of their line of sight, so they didn’t have to expend any precious energy in avoiding me.With my chin on the ground, I inched forward. Thistle prickles embedded themselves in my forearms and broke off. Big deal. I’ll dig them out later. This is important.I parted the riverside grasses with my hands to make a window. Two meters in front of me, an arched back rose out of the river, dazzling green speckled with black. A Chinook. The green flash!

I felt suffused with disbelief and joy. I could see their battered white fins and tails, where their scales had been abraded making their underwater nests (called “redds”.) A group of males sparred over the attention of a female, and I could see the gravel under her looked like pale copper, from where she had worn off the rocks’ surface algae digging her redd. 

 Chinook © Ron Troy/TNC

Later, we walked sock-footed across the Lemhi, careful not to cross near a redd or to kick up the fine sediment that could smother salmon eggs downstream. At a vantage point above the river, we repeated our low crawl to the edge. Peering down on the group of Chinook, the redd, the willow trees, the glinting Lemhi River unspooling across the green river valley, I felt 1.) sobby, and 2.) proud.

It’s the fish that deserve the accolades in this moment. They are 900-mile sojourners through countless hardships. But the rancher deserves thanks, too, for agreeing to protect the willows and the water flow levels the Chinook need. The funding agencies made salmon conservation a priority and provided the grant for the water and habitat protection. And The Nature Conservancy entered into the perpetual partnership – the conservation easement – that ensures the riverside habitat and water flow will be protected forever. We – Conservancy members, the funding agencies, and the landowner – we’re like the Chinook’s pit crew. They are the Green Flash, and we are here to give them a safe watercourse to come home to.

For more information on this incredible journey watch the story of Lee Creek here.