Thursday, June 28, 2012

A look at the work of Idaho's Sage Grouse Task Force

Editor's note: On June 29, Governor Otter released the State of Idaho’s Draft Alternative for Sage Grouse Management for a two-week public comment period. 

The Draft Alternative builds upon and adds details to the Task Force recommendations discussed in this blog, which was published on June 28. To view the Draft Alternative and the Task Force recommendations, go to:

The Nature Conservancy is preparing specific recommendations drawn from the task force’s work to ensure the State’s plan effectively conserves sage grouse and their habitats.

Greater sage grouse strutting on a lek. Photo by Sara Sheehy.

Headlines about Idaho’s new conservation strategy for greater sage grouse have attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks.  With declining populations in 11 western states, the sage grouse could become protected under the Endangered Species Act. This potential listing has put the bird under intense public attention. ESA regulations could profoundly affect economic and land use activities in the bird’s sagebrush steppe habitat, which includes 15 million acres in Idaho ­– more than a quarter of the land in the state.
Last March Governor Butch Otter created a sage grouse task force and gave it a daunting assignment – craft a conservation plan grouse strong enough to avoid an ESA listing, involve impacted industries and interests, and ensure sage grouse habitat on public lands remains available for multiple uses.
Will Whelan, Director of Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy’s Idaho Chapter, served as one of two task force members representing conservation interests – along with John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League.  Other members represented defined interests, including livestock grazing, electrical utilities, mining, hunting, county government, and the Legislature.  Two members represented the public at large. 
“It was one of the most interesting and challenging assignments in my 27-year career in environmental policy and conservation,” said Whelan. “I have to admit that I had doubts about whether the task force would succeed. Our sixteen members had strikingly different opinions and very little time to master a complex subject.”
But, three months of intense meetings and discussions paid off.  The task force members took their task seriously.  They knew that a weak plan would simply fail to pass muster with the federal agencies that manage public lands and implement the ESA.  “The task force members really strived to balance their economic interests with the real need to protect sage grouse.  By the end, the task force became more than the sum of its parts,” said Whelan.
While not perfect or complete in every detail, the task force recommendations set a sound course for sage grouse conservation in Idaho.  The task force report lays out dozens of measures, including limiting new transmission lines, energy facilities, and other development in high quality sage grouse habitat, strengthening efforts to fight fire and invasive weeds, and ensuring public lands livestock grazing is managed to meet sage grouse habitat objectives.
The task force focused much of its effort on identifying the high quality sage grouse habitat in Idaho and drafting policies that give priority attention to the most important areas.  The task force recommended that sage grouse habitat be divided into core, important, and general sage grouse zones.
Lands that are especially productive sage grouse were proposed for designation as “core habitat.”  This zone covers one-third of acres occupied by sage grouse in Idaho but includes two thirds of the sage grouse leks (male dancing grounds).  The task force quickly grasped that protecting these strongholds is the key to the long-term survival of sage grouse.  The task force suggested strong restrictions on development of new infrastructure such as roads, transmission lines, and energy facilities on public lands within core habitat.  This area would also be a priority for firefighting, weed control, grazing management, and habitat restoration activities.
The “important habitat” zone covers a bit less than one-third of sage grouse habitat in Idaho and has about one-quarter of the leks in the state.  The task force understood that protecting the important habitat will help maintain the sage grouse populations that breed there, connect the core habitat zones, and protect areas used by migrating sage grouse.  The policies governing development in important habitat, while more flexible than in core habitat, would limit sage grouse impacts from new construction and require developers to replace the value of lost habitat by completing restoration projects. 
The “general habitat” zone covers over five million acres but is estimated to support just 10 percent of the leks and five percent of the birds in Idaho.  Accordingly, this zone has the most flexible policies.  New infrastructure development will have to include practices that minimize harm to sage grouse and may be required to mitigate for impacts.  
The task force recommendations are available on the Department of Fish and Game’s website:
The Office of Governor Otter is currently reviewing the task force’s recommendations and will soon ask for the public comment to comment on the sage grouse strategy. 
“The Nature Conservancy plans to stay involved,” Whelan explains.  “The task force did a good job of charting a course for conservation, but many key details still need to be filled-in.  Moreover, the tight deadlines that we operated under meant we had to focus primarily on actions on federal public lands.  We think the State of Idaho also should develop a list of actions by willing private parties, local governments, and the State of Idaho that complement the Task Force’s recommendations. We will continue to advocate for clear and meaningful actions that will protect the bird and its native sagebrush habitats. ”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fishing Report from Silver Creek

A fishing report (complete with pictures) from Ham Wallace, one of our Silver Creek interns.

With the hotter days rolling in, significant hatches are happening later in the evening, beginning around 7 to 8 p.m. Fishing has been great even during the hottest hours of the day ­(usually occurring between 3 and 7 p.m.), and absolutely fantastic as the sun is setting. 

Photos by Ham Wallace

As far as bugs go - baetis, a LOT of baetis and few PMDs during the hot hours. During evening and late evening you’ll be getting a real mixed bag - Baetis, Caddis, PMD and even a few Green Drakes. Always throw dries from an upstream position relative to fish. If you’re up for it, cool, early mornings in the S-turns allow you to beat the usual cramped crowds. Good luck! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cattle and moose encounters at Flat Ranch

This summer we'll be featuring posts from James Freeman, our summer intern at The Nature Conservancy's Flat Ranch Preserve, near Yellowstone National Park: 

This week at Flat Ranch was a wild one, as the cattle were finally turned out onto the Flat Ranch Preserve. We knew we had our hands full after watching over eight 18-wheelers full of cattle arrive at our corral- it was certainly a sight (and smell) to witness.


Photos by staff

Luckily, we (Conservancy staff and volunteers) didn’t have to face the task of moving them into the pasture alone. Several cowboys arrived to steer them into the right direction. As you can imagine, moving over 250 cow/calf pairs is not a fast or quiet process. It took over an hour to herd the continuously mooing mass down the street and into the pasture. Even though moving the cattle wasn’t the fast-paced stampede I envisioned, it was definitely a sight worth seeing and a great indicator that summer has finally arrived here at the Flat Ranch Preserve.  Having cattle on the ranch does not interfere with public visitation and recreation, so don’t let this high-country phenomena deter you from stopping by to enjoy the property.

Photos by staff
In other news, we’ve also some had exciting encounters with wildlife over the past week. A cow moose and her calf added some action to our day as they came running towards the Visitor’s Center after being startled by fishermen near the river. Within seconds, TNC East Idaho Field Representative and Good Samaritan Chris Little was on the scene, riding the ATV parallel to the highway in order steer the cow moose and calf away from the busy artery to Yellowstone and back towards salvation in the willows on the Ranch. Job well done, Chris.
Come down to the Ranch to witness some of this action yourself. See you there!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Elk, cranes, curlews, owls and more!

This summer we'll be featuring posts from James Freeman, our summer intern at The Nature Conservancy's Flat Ranch Preserve, near Yellowstone National Park: 

Photos by Chris Little: (Top)  Stephens Creek on the far reaches of Flat Ranch Preserve ; (Bottom)  Luna, the unofficial Flat Ranch mutt

Hello again everyone,
With a great first week under my belt, I feel like a modern-day Gilman Sawtelle (fact: a peak near the Flat Ranch is named after Sawtelle, an early settler of Island Park.). This week has been full of projects that have kept the whole team busy in preparation for turning out the cattle on June 16. Even Luna, our Flat Ranch dog, is realizing the importance of the day as she now spends less time barking at me or sniffing my leg and more time eating grass in the field to remind us of the oncoming cattle.
One of the larger projects of the week was to build new braces for the northernmost portion of property. Tobe, Chris and I spent a majority of the day digging, sawing, and lifting heavy wooden poles to create a H-brace that will eventually support a whole new fence line. Chris seemed to know every detail there is to know about fence building – probably something he picked up from his childhood in the metropolis of Washington, DC. Even though the current fence lies in decay beside it, the new brace is a visual testament to the great things the Ranch will be doing this summer.
Other projects included building a new entrance gate that will hopefully catch peoples’ attention as they typically zoom by the Ranch at 70 miles per hour or drive aimlessly in the grass while attempting to find the dirt driveway. Ruth and Tobe were the masterminds behind this; if you happen to visit I encourage you to burst in the door and immediately compliment the added appeal of the gate – it’ll make their day.
We’ve also had our fair share of animal visitors this week. A trio of elk has returned for the third day to munch on the grass by the river, a great indication of the Ranch’s importance to resident and migration wildlife. Sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews are also staples on the ranch as they nest during the spring. However, I will share with you - the tempestuous curlew quickly alerts you when you are riding too close to their nest and chicks, as I found out... I was even lucky enough to have a stare down with a cow moose while fishing the Outlet. Even better news, we’ve seen two owls on the property, later identified as short-eared owls- a rare sight no matter where you are.
Thanks for checking in; more to come soon.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer on Flat Ranch

This summer we'll be featuring posts from James Freeman, our summer intern at The Nature Conservancy's Flat Ranch Preserve, near Yellowstone National Park: 

Photos by Chris Little: (Top) Spring at the Flat Ranch Visitor's Center; (Bottom) East Idaho representative Chris Little with a Flat Ranch rainbow trout

Greetings from Flat Ranch Preserve! My name is James Freeman and I will be serving you as the unofficial and significantly inexperienced blogger for the summer of 2012. This summer I’ve traded in beach gear for leather gloves and a down jacket as the intern of Flat Ranch Preserve. A quick bio about myself:raised in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I am an avid outdoor enthusiast, self-proclaimed fisherman, sibling of three and sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

This summer I will work on the Flat Ranch, assisting with stewardship projects such as fence maintenance, collecting data on the wildlife, cow chasing and, of course, fishing, (for research, I promise….). Lucky for me, I’m teaming up with volunteers/ hardcore RV campers Ruth and Tobe Harbaum– a great couple from Colorado who seem to have a solution for every project we’ve embarked on so far, and Chris Little, the East Idaho Field Representative with The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, who travels to Flat Ranch often to make sure we work hard and play hard. Chris also lives by that philosophy.

If you make it down to the ranch, you’ll likely find me riding the ATV sporting a helmet that resembles something between a bowling ball and space debris. Though the helmet isn’t glamorous or cool, I need it to protect my academic investments. Ruth is typically greeting guests in the Ranch visitor center with a warm smile. Or you may find her cleaning out the swallow nests from the bluebird boxes for the 10000th time. Talk about perseverance. As for Tobe, our neighborhood mechanic/ gardener/ farm hand/ fence-builder… well, it’s safe to say he’ll be busy doing something productive.

Anyway, my goal is to return back to school in late August with a renewed respect for rangelands, conservation work and property stewardship. Also, I’d like to acquire the skills needed to catch a truly hog-like Yellowstone cutthroat trout on a dry fly. In the meantime, I hope to figure out how to blog and then steadily update any TNC fans out there with news from Flat Ranch, so hang in there... Tight lines, James