Monday, June 29, 2009

45 Ranch: Restoring an Owyhee Wildlife Oasis

“Wetlands” and “desert”: For most people, these are two words that don't go together.

However, wetlands along desert rivers are incredibly important for wildlife: for water, for fresh forage, for a place to escape the often harsh weather on canyon rims.

On the 45 Ranch, set deep in one of the most remote corners of the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwestern Idaho, a new restoration project is returning wetlands to wildlife.

Conservation buyers Charles Conn and Dennis Fitzpatrick bought the ranch from The Nature Conservancy in 2005, with the goal of funding conservation and restoration work on the ranch.

“The owners had a vision to return the river bottom on their ranch to wetlands,” says Art Talsma, the Conservancy’s director of stewardship. “It’s one of the largest river bottoms along the Owyhee River, so it’s difficult to overstate how important it is to wildlife.”

The owners and the Conservancy worked with GeoEngineers, a Boise firm specializing in river restoration, to restore 26 acres of wetlands and 45 acres of native grasses to the river bottom. Royce Construction handled the on-the-ground developments. The project has already garnered awards for its engineering, including recognition by the American Council of Engineering Companies and the Owyhee Conservation District.
What does this mean for conservation?

For the river (pictured above), it means the opportunity to behave more like a wild river—including moving from its channel and periodically flooding.

For bighorn sheep, mule deer and sage grouse, it means a place to rest, to feed, to hide and to take cover from harsh weather.

For waterfowl and other birds, the wetlands mean a place to rest in the middle of the harsh desert on a long migration.

For rafters, it means a quieter float. Previously, the agricultural field was irrigated with a diesel generator, which also generated unwelcome noise for rafters on one of the country’s most remote rivers. The wetlands project is watered solely through gravity and now saves energy, too.

“We are so happy with the progress that has been made on this project with our partners. It really is a wildlife haven,” says co-owner Dennis Fitzpatrick. “The conservation here reflects the same care and stewardship for the Owyhee lands as the recent passage of federal legislation protecting this special part of the state.”

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