Monday, March 31, 2008

Wild and Scenic Film Festival Comes to Boise

The Nature Conservancy film Fish and Cow is just one of the offering in Patagonia's Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, coming to Boise this Saturday, April 5 at the Boise Center on the Grove, with a 1 pm matinee and an evening show at 6:30 pm.

The festival benefits the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, an organization dedicated to conserving the natural, scenic, recreational, historic and agricultural values of southwestern Idaho’s open spaces.

Fish and Cow is a poignant look at ranching in western Montana. It features ranchers who are passionate about their land, their way of life and the river that is the lifeblood of their valley. And it shows how the Conservancy is helping such ranchers accomplish their goals.

Other films shown at the festival will take viewers to Antarctica, a Hawaiian reef, a community-supported organic farm and a home aquarium. Tickets are $8-$12 and can be purchased on-line or by calling 345-1452.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sea Lions and Salmon

Who couldn't love a sea lion? Whether they're lounging around, or engaged in their entertaining antics, sea lions are known crowd pleasers. Last week at San Francisco's Pier 39, I saw tourists from around the world photograph, watch and laugh at these playful animals.

A bit farther to the north, in Washington and Oregon, the sea lions have not been receiving such a warm reception. Here, burgeoning numbers of the marine mammals gobble up increasing numbers of imperiled salmon. A single sea lion makes an incredibly effective salmon-munching machine, especially when the fish are momentarily stalled by dams, as they are on the Columbia River. Many Idahoans likewise harbor ill feelings about the sea lions, as the fish they eat are the same ones returning to Idaho's rivers to spawn.

Some sea lions have packed on hundreds of pounds on a salmon diet, as reported in an excellent article on this dilemma in the December 2007 issue of National Geographic Adventure. They can eat mind-boggling numbers of fish in a relatively short time.

How could this be happening? In part, sea lions have increased dramatically in population over the past decades. The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited harming sea lions, and it worked.

The famous Pier 39 sea lions, in fact, were not even present twenty years ago. After the 1989 California earthquake, sea lions began showing up on the docks of San Francisco. Finding the calm environment to their liking--and not minding camera-wielding tourists one bit--they thrived. Today, there can be hundreds on the docks--a trend mirrored at other areas along the Pacific Coast. In the 1970's, their coastal population was around 50,000; today it is 300,000.

Last week, state officials in Washington and Oregon were given permission to kill sea lions that pose threats to salmon populations.

It is certain that sea lions are having an impact. But it's also important to remember a fact of conservation: Wildlife species (like salmon) that have healthy habitat are more able to withstand stresses (like sea lions). In a functioning, healthy ecosystem, species are resistant to factors like predation, non-native species, fire, flood and inclement weather. Thus, if salmon had fully functioning habitat, sea lions would likely not pose much of a threat.

Think of it like illness in humans: If a person is healthy, a burn or an illness is not likely to be life-threatening, and the s/he will recover just fine. But if s/he has a suppressed immune system, or is unhealthy, even a mild burn or a cold can be life-threatening.

It's the same for salmon (and sage grouse, and mule deer, and wolverines). That's why The Nature Conservancy recognizes the Pacific Salmon Ecosytem to be one of its highest overall conservation priorities. Salmon have complex conservation needs; fish hatched in small Central Idaho streams eventually migrate to the Pacific Ocean, and then return to Idaho to spawn a new generation of salmon. By working to protect habitat along their entire migration route, salmon can thrive--along with sea lions. --Matt Miller

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Badger Booster

Idaho has the highest density of badgers on earth, but badgers are often in their dens (or digging new ones), and thus can be quite difficult to spot. Most people don’t think about badgers much. As the old saying goes: out of sight, out of mind.

That’s why badgers are lucky to have a new booster in Idaho Falls: Tennyson Miller (no relation), who has been spending the last few weeks learning badger facts for his school presentation.

After reading about my own badger encounter on Idaho Nature Notes, Tennyson and his mother contacted me and asked if I would serve as his “badger mentor.” Tennyson had many interesting questions about badgers, such as where best to find one (Snake River Birds of Prey area or the Owyhees would top the list), and which was more ferocious, a badger or a wolverine (I think a wolverine would win that match). We also discussed why Wisconsin is known as the “Badger State.” The truth is, Wisconsin derives its nickname (as well as the mascot for the University of Wisconsin), not from the animal, but because early lead miners in the region were known as "badgers”--because they did not have shelters, and had to live in tunnels they dug in the sides of hills. People would say the miners "lived like badgers." The name stuck, and that's what the nickname comes from. Wisconsin does indeed have badgers—but many less than Idaho.

Tennyson used this information—as well as a badger pelt from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game—to create “Badger’s Adventure,” a cool looking game that incorporates various badger facts:
It is by now well known that young people are increasingly disconnected with the natural world. A recent Nature Conservancy sponsored study found nature recreation--including camping, fishing and hunting and national park visitation--has declined sharply since the 1980's. But I still believe that young people have an innate fascination with wild animals. Learning about these animals through school projects only strengthens that fascination. I am sure badgers will have a lifetime friend in Tennyson. Here’s wishing him many of his own “badger encounters” in the years to come. –Matt Miller

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Trophy Silver Creek Brook Trout

Earlier this week, I wrote about the small brook trout ocasionally caught in Silver Creek--and wondered how they survived with so many brown trout.

Former Silver Creek Preserve intern Morgan Buckert read the blog and sent me this photo of a brook trout she caught in Silver Creek this fall. This is far larger than any brook trout I imagined living in Silver Creek. Indeed, this one is a trophy brookie anywhere. The coloration is also quite striking, a perfect example of a wild brook trout.

Incidentally, Morgan still holds the Idaho Nature Notes record for the largest trout ever recorded in Silver Creek--a 33-inch brown she landed in 2006. --Matt Miller

Photo by Paddy McIlvoy

Monday, March 10, 2008

Brook Trout in Silver Creek

Back east, brook trout bring to mind specific scenes: clear, cold running streams, hemlock forests, mountain laurel, Appalachian breezes.

But brook trout haven't had an easy time of it in their native habitat. Water pollution, acid rain and the loss of hemlock forests have all proved devastating to this colorful fish. So too have introduced species: brown and rainbow trout introduced by anglers have nearly always out-competed the native fish.

So perhaps the Western U.S. is the brook trout's revenge. Here the brookie is the invader, introduced to mountain streams to provide new fishing opportunities. The trout multiplied and multiplied, outbreeding native fish. They were so prolific that, in many waters, they exist in huge numbers of small, stunted fish. (The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has even placed sterile hybrid tiger muskies--large, voracious fish--in alpine lakes to gobble up all the stunted brook trout).

Brook trout still compete poorly with brown trout. But in Silver Creek fish species lists, one will ocassionally see brook trout as one of the species found here.

Are there brook trout in Silver Creek?

Formal fish surveys ocassionally find very small numbers of brook trout, but usually find none. I have caught two brookies on Silver Creek Preserve--both no larger than 4 inches.

What is the story of these fish? How do they survive? With so many fish-eating brown trout, brook trout will luckily never overtake the preserve. Anglers need not fear schools of stunted, non-native fish. They will likely cling to the most precarious of existences there. But in other Rocky Mountain streams, the brook trout serves as an important reminder that fish are best kept in their native waters. --Matt Miller

Monday, March 03, 2008

Box Canyon

From the parking lot, Box Canyon State Park admittedly doesn't look like much. It's a flat stretch of sagebrush surrounded by farms in the Magic Valley. At first glance, it looks pretty unremarkable.

But walk about a mile along the trail, and hidden treasures await: soaring eagles, rugged canyon terrain and aqua-blue waters that recall the Caribbean.

The aqua-blue waters are part of the springs that dot this section of the Snake River, near Hagerman in southern Idaho. These beautiful waters originate in the Craters of the Moon area, where the "lost rivers" sink into the lava and flow underground. Two hundred years later, they reappear as crystal clear springs in Box Canyon and Thousand Springs. The spring at Box Canyon is the 11th largest spring in the continent.

My friend Phares Book (who took these photos) recently joined my wife and I for a hike into the canyon. While the route down into the canyon was still a bit icy, we were rewarded with sightings of both golden and bald eagles, as well as large flocks of ducks, geese and coots along the Snake River. The hike goes by a nice waterfall and several springs.

This park is one of several in the area that The Nature Conservancy assisted the state in acquiring. In 1999, the State of Idaho had negotiated a purchase of nearby Box Canyon from the Hardy family. The state didn’t have the funds to purchase the property, but assigned the contract to the Conservancy. Under state terms, the Conservancy purchased Box Canyon, and simultaneously entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the state.

The Conservancy believes that Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation’s vision for the Thousand Springs Complex offers an incredible future for this area. The Conservancy also recently transferred Ritter Island, also known as Thousand Springs Preserve, to the state, and helped create nearby Billingsley Creek State Park.--Matt Miller