Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Search for the Giant Palouse Earthworm

Photos courtesy the University of Idaho.

My dad sends me this story of one of Idaho's most little known (and little seen) creatures, something that seems from the realm of science fiction.

The giant Palouse earthworm reportedly grows up to three feet, secretes a lily-like smell and spits at predators.

But it's only been seen four times.

Thought extinct in the 1980's, it was "rediscovered" in 2005. Currently, researchers and graduate students at the University of Idaho are leading a search.

The worm only lives in the Palouse country of Idaho and eastern Washington. The search has obvious challenges, like the fact that the worm can live 15 feet deep.

It's a great quest, and serves as yet another reminder that the great natural mysteries are not Bigfoots or other mythical beasts, but little known creatures that are right under our feet.--Matt Miller

Monday, July 27, 2009


Red fox photo by Phares Book.

How could two fox species be so different?

This is a tale of two foxes, one that thrives alongside humanity and one that was almost lost forever--and now needs human help to rebound.

The red fox is no doubt familiar to most Idahoans. You are quite likely to see it trotting across a farm field, hunting along the Boise Greenbelt or just strolling around dowtown Ketchum.

The red fox's former world is one inhabited by all manner of fearsome predators--wolves and bears, lions and cheetahs. To survive, it had to eke out a living in the shadows, eating what it could and surviving by eluding--out-foxing, if you will--the larger carnivores.

Such habits have served the red fox well in the human-dominated world. Its unfinicky eating habits--berries or mice or chickens or unattended dog food or roadkill--and sneaky habits allow it to thrive alongside humans. Farms, suburbs and city parks are much better suited to a red fox than the most pristine wilderness.

Today, the red fox is the world's most widely distributed carnivore. In some environments, it got there due to deliberate (and ill-considered) introductions by people, as is the case in Australia.

In Idaho, evidence exists that the red fox lived the most precarious existences in pre-Columbian times. But it quickly colonized the state as larger predators were eliminated.
The Santa Cruz island fox, on the other hand, was always the largest predator in its environment. Granted, this fox is the size of a small house cat, but in the Channel Islands off the coast of California--where it evolved--it is top dog.

Or was.

People released sheep and pigs on the island, which became feral. These in turn attracted golden eagles, which began hunting foxes in addition to feral livestock.

The island fox did not flee from the eagles, as it had never dealt with aerial predators before. It had not dealt with any predators before.

Unlike the red fox, the island fox was not very sneaky, or adaptable, as it had no need to be either of these things. As such, its population on Santa Cruz plummeted from 1500 to less than 100 in less than a decade.

The island fox is rebounding. But unlike the red fox, this success requires pretty intensive human efforts. Feral pigs and sheep have been eliminated, golden eagles relocated to the mainland and captive breeding efforts instituted for the fox. Read more about The Nature Conservancy's efforts to conserve the fox.

And so it is many species in our world. Some--the red fox and whitetail deer, the gray squirrel and feral hogs--will thrive in new habitats, in farm fields and suburbia. But do we want these to be the only species?

As with the island fox, many other species can coexist in our world; we just need the will and focus to preserve them. --Matt Miller

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


This morning while jogging along Boise's Greenbelt, I was lucky enough to see a river otter swimming in the Boise River. (It was just downstream from the Highway 21 bridge if you want to look for it).

Otters are one of the most fun animals to observe, as they seem to always be active: swimming, diving, fishing, playing.

A few weeks ago, I had an even closer otter encounter at Yellowstone National Park, where a family of them intercepted cutthroat trout migrating from Trout Lake to a very small stream to spawn. The hundreds of trout packed into the stream was an incredible sight on its own.

Of course, wherever large concentrations of prey congregate, you'll undoubtedly find predators.
The otters feasted on this bounty . They bit, ripped and teared, smacked their lips, and then soon swam away to find another trout. It was an excellent opportunity to observe these animals from just a few yards away. It's definitely worth checking out if you're in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone.

River otters were once found over much of North America. They thrive in a variety of habitats, from rivers to coastal wetlands. They do not thrive, however, with pollution. The presence of otters is an indication of good water quality.

In Idaho and surrounding states, you can see otters in a variety of waterways. The Henry's Fork, Main Salmon River, Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Boise River and Silver Creek are just a few of the places you may encounter this interesting animal. --Matt Miller

Monday, July 20, 2009

Trout in the Owyhees

I recently wrote on this blog about the extensive river and wetland restoration projects underway at the 45 Ranch deep in the Owyhees. Owners Charles Conn and Dennis Fitzpatrick have the goal of providing the best habitat for a variety of desert wildlife.

Charles Conn now sends this photo of an unexpected species from the South Fork of the Owyhee River as it flows through the 45 Ranch: a redband trout.

Desert redband trout can actually be found in many parts of the Owyhees. They are adapted to survive at temperatures that would kill most trout.

However, many of the larger rivers no longer contain redband trout, due to a variety of factors including dams and loss of riparian habitat. But it's also due in part to introductions of smallmouth bass to the dammed rivers. The bass have traveled out of reservoirs into rivers like the South Fork of the Owyhee. An agressive, fish-eating species, the bass quickly consume and out-compete the trout.

Redband trout remain in many smaller Owyhee rivers, like the Jarbidge, Big Jacks Creek and Little Jacks Creek.

It's great to find one in the South Fork as well. With the 45 Ranch's river conservation efforts, hopefully trout like this one have a bright future in the bigger Owyhee rivers as well.--Matt Miller

Friday, July 17, 2009

Brief Thoughts on Buying Local

At last night's entertaining Ignite Boise 2, a recurring theme was the importance of thinking and buying local. Several presenters suggested the current economy provides an opportunity to return to a more local economy. They advocated bartering, growing your own food and buying from Idaho businesses.

Of course, eating (and buying) local has become trendy--but often, would-be "locavores" get excited about buying local foods, but then lose steam when it seems too difficult or expensive.

I love Idaho foods, and it's not unusual for our meals to be 100% local. The quality and variety available is amazing.

But I also recognize that there are some common pitfalls when consumers start out with buying local.

Here are some tips for beginning locavores that will help you avoid those pitfalls.

1. Don't start at 100%. There's a common belief that if you're eating local, you have to commit 100%. But that is difficult, and makes what should be fun stressful. Buying 10% of your food from local farmers and producers makes a huge difference. Start small.

2. Don't get hung up on the details. Some folks decide they want to make a local meal, but then get caught up on some small ingredient, like salt. You won't find locally produced Idaho salt. And it doesn't matter. Trade has been a part of humanity for millenia and that's not going to change. While there is not Idaho salt, we can buy excellent Idaho lamb, Idaho potatoes, Idaho duck eggs and many other products.

3. Try new recipes. One of the real pleasures of eating local is trying new foods. Vary up your recipes and incorporate kale, or blue potatoes, or fava beans. You'll soon realize there's more actual diversity at the farmer's market than crammed into all those aisles at the supermarket.

4. Enjoy it. Buying local isn't doctrine. Don't approach it as a set of rules you must follow. Instead, find high-quality food and enjoy it. Rediscover what a tomato is supposed to taste like. Try grilling grass-fed beef. Stroll around a farmer's market. Plant your own veggies.

In short have fun--while benefiting Idaho's economy, rural heritage and wildlife habitat.--Matt Miller

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Reading

Looking for a good summer read? Here are some great conservation and nature books you may want to pack along on your next outing. When wolves returned to Yellowstone after being absent for decades, how did prey react? Did elk and moose know wolves were dangerous, or did they have to relearn fear? Questions like these form the premise for Joel Berger's The Better To Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World. Berger, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, examines predator-prey relationships around the world and reveals some surprising insights. Bison, for instance, show no concern when they hear wolves or humans, but become alert when they hear the roar of lions--quite possibly an innate response left over from the time when lions roamed the North American continent. Berger's review of the research leads him to wonder what is lost for prey species--and whole landscapes--when they're missing large predators.
John Frederick Walker provides an excellent overview of the ivory trade and its implications for elephant conservation in Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. Humans have long been fascinated with the aesthetic properties of ivory, a fascination that led to the decimation of elephant herds in Africa and Asia. That changed with a ban on ivory in the early '90s, but Walker wonders: Is an ivory ban really benefiting elephants? A seasoned reporter, Walker thoroughly covers the extremely complex web of "ivory politics" and avoids the too-easy answers that many well-meaning conservationists propose. Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff recounts the author's wildlife travels both near--examing hair mites that dwell on his (and your) scalp under a microscope--and far--radio-tracking wild dogs in Botswana. The book is a nice mix of humorous pieces and serious conservation reporting. He visits with a biologist who has developed a pain index (based on personal experience) for stinging insects, surveys ant populations in Madagascar, and, yes, swims with piranhas at feeding time.

I'm often bothered that much of what passes for "nature writing" is too often somber, preachy or pseudo-philosophical, so it's refreshing to read a book that is as entertaining as Bill Schutt's Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood Feeding Creatures. I find myself repeating strange stories from this book way too often. Schutt, a biologist, delves into the evolution and bizarre behaviors of those species that feed on blood. You'll encounter vampire bats that mimic chicks so they can get close to hens (and then feast), the reasons why bed bugs are spreading to a hotel near you and the near-mythic (and exaggerated) feeding habits of the candiru (you'll have to look this one up on your own). My vote for the most fun and best-written "nature book" of the past several years. --Matt Miller

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Green" Grilling

It looks to be a beautiful summer weekend throughout much of Idaho--the perfect weather for a backyard barbecue or picnic.

Actually, across the country, some 60 million people will barbecue this summer. As Darci Palmquist points out on, this has considerable environmental consequences: These millions of BBQs release some 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, burn the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and consume the same amount of energy as the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, uses in a year.

But there are easy ways to make your grilling more green. Check out the The Nature Conservancy's ten tips for an eco-friendly barbecue.

So grill up some local, Idaho-produced food, grab an organic beverage and have a great summer weekend.--Matt Miller

Photo courtesy Alderspring Ranch, a grass-fed, organic beef ranch that works with the Conservancy on salmon conservation in Idaho's Pahsimeroi Valley.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

July Activities at Flat Ranch Preserve

The Nature Conservancy's Flat Ranch Preserve offers a variety of summer activities and lectures at the preserve's visitor center.

The preserve is located just off Highway 20 in Macks Inn, about 15 miles west of West Yellowstone.

All events are free to the public. For more information, phone (208) 558-7629 or email Flat Ranch intern Stevenson Bunn.
The following is a list of upcoming activities in July. Check back soon for August's schedule.
1 pm Saturday, July 11 - Flat Ranch Canoe Trip. Canoe the Henry's Lake Outlet through the preserve. Staff will lead the trip while offering some history, wildlife viewing and maybe some laughs. Seats are limited, so contact staff to reserve your space today.

10 am Saturday, July 18 - Bear Safety and Food Storage. Join bear education specialist Lynn Dickerson of Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service for an informative program on how to stay safe in bear country. Great program for kids.

7 p.m. Wednesday, July 22 - Leave No Trace Camping. Brandon Burke demonstrates the essential and proper techniques of low-impact camping and keeping Idaho's wildlife wild. Great program for kids.

10 a.m. Saturday, July 25 - Weed Management with Goats. Come join the Goat Mountain Ranch for a demonstration on the use of goats for weed management.

7 p.m. Wednesday, July 29 - Wolverines. Bon Inman, director of the Greater Yellowstone Wolverine Program, presents a look into the lives of this intriguing and elusive wilderness animal. Great program for kids.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Silver Creek: A Guide's Perspective

Fly fishing guide Greg Loomis has spent more than 20 years figuring out the wary trout on Silver Creek. This month on, Greg offers his perspective on the creek and gives an angling primer for those heading to the preserve. Read more.

And Greg has done more than fish the creek. In 2003, he realized that there is not one readily accessible resource for extensive research completed at Silver Creek, research that covers a span of thirty years.

He created a web site,, a comprehensive, user-friendly web site featuring everything from water temperature statistics to brown trout studies.

"A lot of people make guesses about the creek, and I wanted to provide unbiased factual information," Greg says. "I don't have editorials or interpretations. I just put up the sutdies so that everyone can have the facts."

It is conservationists like Greg Loomis who make Silver Creek a conservation success. Check out his web site and expand your own knowledge of Silver Creek. --Matt Miller