Thursday, May 18, 2006

Reports from the Field: Kootenai Days

Steve Grourke of The Nature Conservancy's North Idaho office sends this report from Kootenai Field Days:

We asked them to join us in the field – and they did not disappoint! From May 12-13, The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge hosted the inaugural Kootenai Field Days in Bonners Ferry. More than 200 participants from Idaho, Montana, Washington and Canada attended a series of events that addressed cultural, historical and natural resource-related issues in the valley.

Justin Petty, Inland Northwest land steward for the Conservancy, kicked the festivities off by hosting a weed awareness day at the Ball Creek Ranch. Natural resource experts from the Bureau of Land Management, Bonner and Boundary County noxious weeds department, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and Natural Resources Conservation Services spoke to a variety of issues from the current state and effects of weeds on the valley to native and introduced biological controls that help manage these invaders. Participants learned from “weed warriors” how to manage weeds in agricultural lands, along riparian areas and through the development and implementation of integrated weed management plans. At the end of the day, a long-time valley resident commented that “This was great! We should do this again next year.” Plans are already in the works.

On Friday night the Refuge hosted a special program – From Contact to Present: The history of the Kootenai Valley. Through the lens of explorer, entrepreneur and cartographer, David Thompson, author Jack Nisbet addressed a packed crowd of more than 85 people at the refuge environmental education center. Speaking to the historical travels of Thompson and his contact with the native tribes, Nisbet painted a picture of the landscape as it existed almost 200 years ago. From tens of thousands of acres of permanent and seasonal wetlands to “back lakes caused by the overflowing of the river,” the valley of 1808 was dramatically different than today. As US Forest Service archeologist Tom Sandberg later pointed out during the presentation, half of the 50,000 –acre valley was considered wetlands in 1890, yet by the 1960s less than 3,000 wetland acres existed. Fortunately, because of the work of the Conservancy, USFWS and its partners the balance of nature is being restored. Today, the valley is home to almost 10,000 wetland acres and migratory and resident bird species again have suitable breeding habitat and cover to survive.

Yet talking about the river and being on the river are two entirely different things. On Saturday, May 13, the 198th anniversary of Thompson’s travel down the river, 35 people participated in a 13-mile historic paddle from Deep Creek to Trout Creek. Led by Jack Nisbet, the Conservancy’s Inland Northwest conservation manager, Robyn Miller and refuge manager, Dianna Ellis, the group set off under sunny skies and with high expectations. Before even launching the armada of canoes and kayaks, the group gasped in awe and wonder seeing a moose swim from river left to right. Along the way the flora and fauna of the river offered photo ops and storied moments for the eager paddlers. From tales of the survival and sustainability of ancient sturgeon to the need to continue riparian and wetland restoration along and within the valley, the group learned about the history of the river as they traveled past the present day Refuge and Ball Creek Ranch.
Upon landing at their final destination, the paddlers were welcomed by the booming sound of black powder and the smell of a campfire set by flint and steel. The Northwest Brigade of the American Mountain Men opened up their spring encampment which they established days before along the banks of the river and adjacent to the recently restored Ball Creek Ranch wetlands. The sights, sounds and smells brought the whole weekend full circle and caused the group to reflect.

Through the lens of Thompson’s first written accounts of the Kootenai we see a native, natural and fully functioning landscape. With sound science, partnership and cooperation between public, private and tribal stakeholders, the Conservancy will continue to restore the valley’s ecological values for future generations of humans and wildlife alike.

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