Monday, October 31, 2011

Dead Trees & Forest Birds

Dead trees used to be considered useless, a waste of timber. Conservationists now recognize them as vitally important for wildlife, in particular forest birds.

Take an autumn walk in Idaho's expansive forests and you'll see just how important these trees are. It's a great time of year to see various woodpeckers and other species foraging around old snags.

This weekend, as I climbed a ridge in the Boise National Forest, the forest was constantly abuzz with activity--much of it centered around dead trees. Hairy woodpeckers (above) were particularly common, alternately chattering to each other and loudly hammering holes in trees. Bark flew as they probed the tree for insects.

Pygmy nuthatches, chickadees and red-shafted flickers darted around the branches. The nuthatches appeared to be picking off insects stirred up by the hairy woodpeckers.

On other forest hikes, I've seen pileated woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers and Lewis woodpeckers around dead trees. If you stand quietly, you can often watch them hammering a hole in a tree from just a few feet away. The woodpeckers are among the most entertaining birds to observe. I particularly enjoyed spotting several white-headed woodpeckers, a beautiful species and a "life bird" for me. These western birds in particular need dead trees to survive. If they're removed from a forest, the white-headed woodpeckers disappear.

Well-managed private and public forests save dead snags as "bird trees." The photos on this blog show some well-used "bird trees" on private forest land in North Idaho.

Get out and enjoy your Idaho forests, and keep an eye out for the many interesting birds that live there. They're hard to miss at this time of year. --Matt Miller Photos: Hairy woodpecker by Mdf via a the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. White-headed woodpecker courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dead tree snags by Matt Miller.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Idaho's Public Lands

Watch The People's Land on PBS. See more from Outdoor Idaho.

Idaho is 60% public land--a statistic that many of us consider one of the greatest aspects of living here.

But public lands can also inspire contentious debate about roads, land use, ranching, logging, endangered species, recreation and many other issues.

This month, Outdoor Idaho features an excellent program on Idaho's public lands and the issues these lands face. You can watch the full episode above.

There are also a number of stories of people involved, including Bill Higgins, who is working with The Nature Conservancy and other organizations on the Clearwater Basion Collaborative.

Enjoy the episode. We hope it inspires you to speak out for this special legacy of lands and waters.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Cutting Edge

Blog and photo by Sus Danner, the Idaho's Chapter's director of protection (pictured here, center, with mill manager Jesse Short, left, and resource manager, Bob Blanford).

Recently I traveled to North Idaho to visit some of the conservation projects The Nature Conservancy is undertaking there. I write conservation easements on working timberland in Boundary County, where grizzly bears, bull trout and forest products are all supported by healthy forests.

In North Idaho, development and fragmentation are putting our healthy forests in peril. A working timberland conservation easement is a permanent agreement between a forest owner and the Conservancy that prohibits certain land uses – like development, mining and subdivision – while allowing for ongoing timber management and harvest.

And a conservation easement can ensure that forest products can be harvested from the property forever – creating a stable economic output. A special interest I had was to see where timber harvested on our conservation easements goes once it leaves the forest.

Since many North Idaho towns are undergoing economic hardships, I wanted to see how our conservation easements can play a role in keeping rural communities economically viable.

I’ve never been inside a lumber mill before, but I’ve always wanted to see one.

I didn’t know it, but I was about to be surprised. Lumber mills of today have enough lasers, 3-D scanners, safety features and cutting edge technology to put the Jet Propulsion Lab to shame.

Idaho Forest Group runs a state-of-the-art lumber mill in Moyie Springs, Idaho, and two of their staff – resource manager Bob Blanford and mill manager Jesse Short - graciously offered me a tour.

We arrived at the business office and had a safety briefing before we were issued hardhats, orange hi-visibility vests, earplugs and safety glasses. The Moyie Springs Mill places a premium on safety, and I saw evidence of attention to safety practices everywhere I went.

I watched logging trucks pull up to be weighed, with small diameter logs aboard – very similar to the logs that are harvested from lands the Conservancy holds conservation easements on.

The logs were removed by Cat 988s, and were then arranged over a fifty-acre yard and measured by mill workers called ‘log scalers.’ A log sorter and loader then raised logs onto a conveyor belt, which whisked them into the mill. Each log goes through an optical scanner as it enters the mill – I was soon to see why.
I was glad for the earplugs, as the noise inside was an intense rattle, screech and rumble. Archimedes would have been pleased by what he saw – every type of simple machine was in use, whether alone or compounded.

Metal mesh catwalks allowed us to walk safely over the rushing conveyor belts and machinery.

We did our best to keep out of the way of the friendly, busy workers. There are about 100 men and women employed at the Moyie Springs Mill, and on any given shift, about 65 people are working there.

In the center of the mill, we opened a heavy door and entered a sound-proofed room full of live-feed video and computer screens. The room was dark and stuffy, and in the center of the room was a man in a chair with consoles at the end of both armrests. The consoles and two wings on either side had more than one hundred buttons, levers, joysticks and lights.

Each video feed showed moving machinery, logs and lumber, and each computer screen showed a 3D scan of each log as it entered the mill. The scan calculated how many boards, of what dimensions, could be made from each log.

The computer also calculated the rotation that each log would need to have in order to achieve maximum efficiency from the cut. On every screen, logs rumbled at breakneck speed through the apparatus. The man had to monitor all 17 screens, and slow or stop any conveyor or machine that was too crowded or had a mechanical problem.

The man looked as calm and collected as Ripley in Aliens. I’m certain he could have operated a cargo-loader against an alien queen without batting an eye.
After a day or less in the drying kilns, the cut pieces of lumber are assessed for quality. I watched the mill workers gauge and grade each piece of lumber as it moved by on a conveyor belt.

The workers were looking for lumber that was checked, cracked, excessively knotted, irregular or otherwise lower-quality. They marked the boards with different colors corresponding to quality.

All boards will be sold; but the best boards will fetch a premium from the retail outlets.Finally, the graded boards were sent through a labeler, bar coder and waxer – the ends of each board are brushed with wax to prevent cracking – and then the boards are stacked on pallets, loaded on trucks, and shipped to a Lowe’s or Menards near you.
Next time I am in the hardware store buying Idaho lumber, I will look at a 2x4 with a much greater appreciation of what it means – to the grizzlies, the foresters, the log truck drivers, the equipment operators, and the mill workers of Boundary County.

A board isn’t just a board. It’s symbolic of a functioning economy and ecosystem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

State Director Laura Hubbard Accepts New Conservancy Position

The Nature Conservancy announced today that Laura Hubbard, state director for the organization’s Idaho program, will be taking a new position as conservation director for the Conservancy’s Western division.

Hubbard will be conservation director for a 13-state region including states in the Rockies, Southwest and West Coast, as well as for the Conservancy’s work in Canada.

During her six-year tenure with the Conservancy in Idaho, she oversaw many significant conservation accomplishments, including the protection of more than 14,000 acres of ranchlands in the Pioneer Mountains, innovative water protection agreements in the Salmon River watershed that led to improved conditions for salmon and farmers, forest easements that protect some of the most important grizzly habitat in the state in North Idaho and the acquisition of easements protecting land directly adjacent to the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.

Under her watch, the Conservancy worked increasingly on collaborative efforts addressing large-scale land conservation, including the Owyhee Initiative in southwest Idaho, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in central Idaho and the Pioneer Alliance, a coalition of ranchers, conservation groups and recreational interests working to protect the mountains near the Wood River Valley.

Hubbard will work with the Idaho program through November 11. A search will be initiated for a new state director.

Associate state director Lou Lunte will serve as acting director.

“We will miss Laura, but we’re thrilled she’ll now bring her leadership to affect conservation across the Western United States and Canada,” says Lunte. “Our staff and trustees look forward to working with Laura in new ways, as we continue to achieve conservation results that matter for people and nature.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Raptor Migration

Time to head south: Look above the Idaho skies on an autumn day, and you're bound to see birds migrating towards warmer climes.

Some are quite apparent: the large flocks of ducks and geese, the sandhill cranes calling overhead.

Look closely, and you may also notice large numbers of raptors.

Raptor migrations follow flyways, some of them famous among birders. Most notable perhaps is Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, a funnel for thousands of raptors each year. In the early 1900s, shooters lined this ridge and blasted hawks for sport, until conservationist Rosalie Edge led an effort to purchase this ridge as a sanctuaryin 1934. Today, this private reserve is a popular spot for birders to enjoy the migration.

Idaho is another great place to see the migration. The Boise Foothills are a staging area: a place for raptors to rest a bit before the long trip across the desert. The Idaho Bird Observatory bands raptors (and migrating songbirds) here, an activity that has led to greater understanding of Idaho's migrations.

Sharp-shinned hawks can often be seen at this time of year in great numbers--in national forests, in the desert canyons, even around towns.

Cooper's hawks, redtails, kestrels, golden eagles, prairie falcons, peregrines: All are on the move. For the long journey, they need spots to rest and feed along their way. Researchers are still learning about the needs of migratory birds like raptors. In the meantime, we know that having protected areas along the route is a vital way to keep these birds on the move.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Golden Eagle Rescue Attempt

Blog post by Sarah Grigg, Flat Ranch Preserve manager

Last weekend, I headed to the field to mend a stretch of fence that had been kicked out and lifted by some wily Corriente cattle. Local USFS wildlife biologist Jennifer Chutz offered to lend a hand for the day, and as we drove the north side of the property, we saw a dark object sitting near the road.

We drew closer in the vehicle and saw that it was a very large raptor, and it didn’t seem bothered by our presence. I observed this same raptor several days earlier, sitting on a post along the same fence line, looking attentive and scanning the field for prey.

I shut off the engine and we hopped out to take a closer look, maintaining a safe distance so as to not stress the bird or place ourselves in too close rage to a raptor equipped with a serious beak and talons. It was dark brown from head to toe, with a yellow, black-tipped beak, and feathers fully covering its legs. We agreed that it was an eagle, and after some debate, determined that it was a golden.

Identifying bald and golden eagles in various stages of immature and adult plumage can be difficult at times, and seeing them in all phases in the wild is the best practice for fine tuning identification. This was the closest either of us had ever observed a golden, as most of the birds we had seen in the past were in flight, or took off from a distant perch before we could get close enough to have a good look.

We were excited to view this incredible raptor at close range, but also aware that something was wrong, as it watched us for a bit, half-heartedly lifted its wings, and then slowly walked to another nearby patch of sagebrush, sitting near the fence line in the shade. Unlike bald eagles, goldens are highly intolerant of people, and the fact that we were able to get within this viewing range indicated that something was amiss.

Golden eagles can lift up to five times their weight—capable of lifting mountain goats and other large prey—but primarily subsist upon marmots, foxes, ground squirrels, and other small to medium mammals. Goldens are found throughout the northern hemisphere around the globe, from North America to Asia, and ranging southward into Mexico and the Arabian Peninsula. They range across the North American continent, throughout most of the “lower 48” at various times of year (with the exception of the Southeast).

Strict regulations pertain to the non-purposeful take of all eagles in the U.S. under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Habitat destruction, prey accessibility, and collision with powerlines are the primary threats to the species in the twenty-first century.

Jen contacted wildlife handling experts from the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone to capture the bird, and secured a permit—as required under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to transport this eagle to the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

Dan and Leisje Meates, animal care manager and animal keeper at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, arrived to capture the bird.

Luckily, both Dan and Leisje have extensive experience handling large birds of prey. Dan formerly worked as a master falconer and biologist in the UK, with more than 20 years of experience handling raptors, including Russian golden eagles and harpy eagles. Leisje, also our local bear education technician, formerly worked as a wildlife biologist studying eagles in California and Ohio, accumulating more than 12 years of experience with these raptors.

Upon arrival, they examined the bird from a distance to evaluate the situation. Golden eagles sometimes gorge themselves on carrion, and are unable to take flight for several hours following a large meal (Bald eagles, on the other hand, are able to take flight after “pigging out.”). A gorged golden will exhibit a swollen crop, that is, its upper chest region will be visibly bloated, as if it had a goiter. After taking a look at the animal, they decided that it was definitely not gorged, and that its sluggish behavior indicated severe stress due to injury or sickness.

They also determined that it was a male, about five years old. Goldens are generally 2.5 to 3 feet in length, and weigh anywhere from 7 to 15 pounds, with the females considerably out-sizing the males. Adults of either sex may have wing spans ranging from six to seven feet wide. Immature goldens are distinguished by the large amount of white at the base of the feathers. These white patches are particularly pertinent when the birds are in flight. As they age, this white disappears, shrinking towards the base of the feather, turning to a dark brown. Adult goldens are chocolate-brown overall with marbling on the flight feathers of the wings and tail. The tail feathers on this eagle were primarily brown, with about two inches of white at the base.

Capturing eagles can be very dangerous, as their talons can exert about 1,000 pounds per square inch, and their beaks are equally razor-sharp. Even eagles with injured wings will turn on their backs and fight fiercely with their talons. Because the birds subsist upon meat, the talons are loaded with bacteria that can be harmful to people if it enters the bloodstream. Handlers normally wear special eagle handling gloves, made with thick leather that cover much of the arm.

Dan stood behind the eagle and Leisje distracted it from the side, while two people stood before it and herded it away from the barbed wire fence. It moved from the fence and then stopped in a patch of sage brush, allowing Dan creep behind it. He first pinned the bird by it wings, placed a towel around its back and swiftly grabbed both of its legs. He then lifted the eagle and pinned it to his chest while holding its legs and beak. Once he secured the bird, they inspected it to see if the cause of injury could be determined.

Dan noted that the bird’s stomach felt empty and that it was definitely emaciated. Mites covered its entire body, indicating that it had been on the ground for some time. Leisje pulled two porcupine quills from its leg, and observed that unlike eagles with minor injuries, which normally fight hard with their legs, this bird hardly moved its legs. The eagle was placed in a covered dog kennel, and Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer Tony Imthurn transported it to staff at the Teton Raptor Center, where it was promptly taken to a veterinarian. The animal did not survive, and lead poisoning is the suspected cause of death.

Some hunters use lead ammunition to take birds, small game, and other wildlife. These lead-filled carcasses are sometimes left in the field, where raptors, such as golden eagles, will scavenge upon them. Sometimes the birds do not ingest enough lead to cause sickness, but in many cases, significant intake leads to lethal poisoning.

This is quite common in eastern Montana, and several cases have been reported in Idaho over the last few years. The Wildlife Society and other groups are now encouraging hunters and anglers to use non-lead alternatives that perform just as well as lead.

Fish and Game ordered a full necropsy on the animal to determine the exact cause of death. The remains will be sent to the USFWS National Eagle Repository in Denver, CO, which accepts applications from Native Americans requesting feathers to use for religious and cultural purposes.

Thanks to Jennifer Chutz (USFS), Dan and Leisje Meates (GWDC), Rob Cavallaro and Tony Imthurn (IDFG), and the Teton Raptor Center for making the effort to help this eagle.