Friday, November 09, 2012

Horrible things can be wonderful

By Susanna Danner, Director of Protection, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

You know you’re in a healthy forest when you have two horrible species.

When I visited a North Idaho forest recently, I was lucky enough to see one and relieved to not see the other. One can pincushion your skin with hundreds of brittle spines, and the other can eat you.

Scientific names are funny things. Sometimes they describe things perfectly, even if you’re not a Latin expert. Like the barn owl: its scientific name is Tyto alba, literally, ‘white owl.’ Poison ivy is Toxicodendron radicans, or ‘toxic leaves with rooting stems.’ Other times, scientific names can be a bit pejorative. They evoke the feeling that the scientist might have had when he or she named the animal or plant. Such is the case for our “horrible” species on a forest recently acquired by the Conservancy.

This week, the Conservancy purchased the Hall Creek Forest in North Idaho, near Bonners Ferry.  The 317-acre property has some of the best forest habitat we’ve ever seen in the history of our North Idaho program, with huge conifer and hardwood trees, and an extensive forest wetland.

So what about those horrible species?  While splashing through the wetlands on the property, I gave a wide berth to devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus). Devil’s club is a wetland plant with spiky stems and enormous, maple-shaped leaves. The plants are very sensitive to disturbance, so when you see a devil’s club, you know you’re in a healthy, ancient wetland. 

As I walked around the old orchard on Hall Creek Forest, I had to step carefully to avoid the abundant scat from our other horrible species, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). I peered at the sloping bank of a stream, where tracks showed that long-clawed feet had scrabbled on the slick mud. While I was doing this, I kept to my North Idaho policy of making lots of noise. Bears have an aversion to surprises, and I have an aversion to mauling.

Grizzly bears prefer large habitat areas without many houses, but productive timber operations don’t faze them much. They forage in a mosaic of forest types, and Hall Creek Forest is ideal habitat for them, with its mix of harvest history, deciduous and coniferous species, and wetlands.

We’ll plan restoration activities for the property and to sell the property restricted by a conservation easement to a private buyer. The property will continue as working private timberland, and it will also continue to support two of our favorite “horrible” species in all of lovely North Idaho.

Apple Tree and Grizzly Scat. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

Devils Club, one of those 'horrible' plants. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.
TNC Staff walking through Hall Creek Forest. Photo © The Nature Conservancy.

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