Thursday, December 27, 2007

Events at Silver Creek thru the Winter!!!

Silver Creek is wonderful in the winter!!

Birding on Snowshoes- hosted by the ERC
(please call 726-4333 to sign up)
Saturday January 19, Saturday February 23, 2008 10 am- 2 pm
An adventure viewing birds in the Silver Creek area. Carpools meet at the Hailey Park and Ride at the corner of River Street and Bullion st.
Free to ERC members
Donation to ERC requested ($15) for non- members and ($25) for families of 3 or more.

Winter Walks/ Cross country ski tours/ Snowshoe walks

Every Saturday through January and February, join the Preserve manager, Dayna Gross for snowshoeing, cross country skiing or walking around the Preserve (snow dependent). Please call ahead to find out what equipment you will need (or bring it all!!).
10:00 a.m.- 11:30 a.m
Winter is a magical place at Silver Creek. Come see the beautiful scenery and wildlife. Free. Please call ahead to register, 788-7910.

Coming of Spring Walks
Saturdays thru March: 3/1, 3/8, 3/15, 3/22, 3/29 10 am- 12 pm
Discover the coming of spring with nature walks around the Silver Creek Preserve. Watch spring unfold by noticing changes in the abundant flora and fauna. Free.
10:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Please call ahead to register 788-7910.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Silver Creek Visitation in 2007

Visitor on a nature walk. Looking at insects!!

We had a very busy year at Silver Creek Preserve this year! We had visitors from every state as well as international visitors from: Canada, Chile, France, Austria, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, and the United Kingdom. We had kids from Bellevue, Hailey, and Hemingway elementary as well as middle school science classes and University of Idaho students.

Total visitor numbers were as follows:
Total people on the preserve from January 1, 2007 until December 12, 2007: 6,390
Total visitors (not including guides and their clients): 5,536
Percentage of visitors that are guides and clients: 14 % (19% in summer)
Percentage of visitors that are members: 33% (37% in 2006)
Percentage of visitors that are from out of state 53% (49% in 2006)
Percentage of:
Anglers 82%
Birders 3%
Hikers 8%
Canoers 3%

Summer Months (May 27th- August 30)
Average daily visitors: 43
Busiest Day: August 25 (85 visitors) followed by July 25 (71 visitors)
Percentage of fishers: 89%

Thursday, December 20, 2007

End of Year Reflections, and a Holiday Wish

At the end of the classic holiday movie It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey is proclaimed "the richest man in town." There are many days I feel this same way for the opportunity to live and work for conservation in Idaho.

As I take stock in another year outdoors, I'm filled with memories of day hikes and snowshoe treks, deer hunts and duck blinds, beautiful picture-perfect mountains and the seemingly endless sagebrush country. And even the occasional sandstorm:
Even in our own backyard, our wild neighbors are never far away. A chorus of coyotes, a flock of quail scratching underneath the birdfeeder, a raccoon that surprises me when I take out the compost on a recent evening. With snow coming in the high country, the deer have begun showing up, including "Bucky," as my wife Jennifer has dubbed this youngster who appears regularly for an afternoon nap.
This year, as every year in Idaho, I've spent a good deal of time at Silver Creek. If you've been there, you already know why: the moose, the sandhill cranes overhead, the deer moving into the Picabo Hills. The light. And, yes, the trout. Each year, I love to share the beautiful clear waters with family, with friends, with writers and photographers. I think they all walk away with that same feeling of awe, particularly if they've visited during the trico hatch. It's a true blizzard of mayflies, and a true feeding frenzy of trout. You fumble with tiny flies, you focus, you know you have to catch something with so many fish feeding. You cast in pod of boiling trout, and...nothing. Fish sitting in a current with perpetually open mouths will shut them to let your fly pass. Does it get any better?
Aldo Loepold began A Sand County Almanac with "There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot." Me too. What would Idaho be without racing pronghorns, bugling elk, raptors soaring over the Snake River Canyon, strutting sage grouse...
Our wildlife encounters are free for everyone to enjoy on Idaho's vast public lands. You might be lucky to see a moose or a pine marten, a Lewis' woodpecker or a rattlesnake. You never know. One minute you can be just walking along, and the next minute you're face to face with a badger, as happened to me this fall.
And then there was the encounter with a much larger predator, far, far away from Idaho in Brazil's Pantanal. It's the stuff of dreams, and always humbling to be so close to one of the large carnivores. The big critters with fangs and claws remind us that it's still a big world out there.
These are a few of my favorite things. It's what keeps me going as a conservationist. As I reflect back upon the year, I feel incredibly lucky to experience the beauty of the natural world and to encounter the many dedicated and talented people who care enough about their home and their fellow creatures to want to protect them for the future.

Edward Abbey once wrote "It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it's still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate that precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space."

I hope the new year affords you many opportunities to do just that.

Happy holidays from all of us at The Nature Conservancy.

--Matt Miller

Photo credits: Bruneau Sand Dunes by Phares Book, trico hatch by Kathleen Cameron, sage grouse by Robert Griffith. Other photos by Matt and Jennifer Miller.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Rudolph Versus Bambi

Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer versus Bambi: It sounds like a bad episode of Celebrity Deathmatch, a warped holiday special pitting the world's two most famous antlered creatures. Fortunately, trademarks and licensing agreements will prevent this spectacle from ever being aired.

Unfortunately, a struggle between the real-life counterparts of Rudolph (caribou) and Bambi (white-tailed deer) is playing out right now in North Idaho. How will it be resolved?

The Rudolph of the popular song and television special is a particularly resourceful individual--overcoming his friends' disrespect and (in the tv show) the formidable Abominable Snowmonster to lead Santa's sleigh and rescue misfit toys. But Rudolph's wild counterparts--the caribou--are facing problems much more serious than red noses. Or, for that matter, snowmonsters.

Caribou are specialists. They thrive on the tundra, eating lichen and migrating long distances to access the best grazing. Climate change is tough on caribou, as are roads that criss-cross the country for oil drilling. But the tundra caribou's life is still a holiday party compared to the southern Selkirk herd of woodland caribou.

This herd roams into the northern Idaho Panhandle (as well as eastern Washington and British Columbia). Tundra is in short supply here, but the woodland caribou here eats lichens off old-growth trees. It's a specialized niche--and one that has left the caribou vulnerable.

With logging of old-growth trees and associated roads, the caribou has lost a lot of habitat. Estimates vary, but as few as 35 may survive in this herd. Even less--as low as three in some years--still roam into Idaho. It's by far the rarest large mammal in the "lower 48."

The future for caribou is not rosy. In fact, it's been even less so since the explosion of another member of the deer family.

We all know what mayhem ensues for Bambi and friends when it's announced, ominously, that "man has entered the forest." But for the real "Bambi"--white-tailed deer-- fires and hunting have been something less than scary. True, for a time, with unregulated hunting and rapid habitat loss, white-tail deer populations did indeed plummet. Then came hunting regulations. Suddenly "Bambi" found a whole new world--a world that, from a deer's perspective, resembles paradise. Plenty of edge habitat, new-growth forests, woodlots, yards, farms and suburbs--all provided the perfect food and cover for the wary, adaptable whitetail. Being close to humans proved no worry given the plentiful supply of corn, grass and cover.

So whitetails have prospered. And prospered. Today, there are more than 35 million whitetails--a number certainly higher than what existed when Columbus landed in the New World. In many eastern forests, they have done so well, they have stripped the forests of habitat for songbirds and other species. The damage to agriculture-and to automobiles--is considerable.

And the white-tailed deer is on the march, expanding its range across the country.

This species has long been a part of the Idaho Panhandle, but at much lower numbers. The logging and habitat change that has impacted the caribou has proven a boon for whitetails. The brushy undergrowth that springs up is perfect for deer.

Like elsewhere, they have thrived. And here's where things get worse for the caribou. With the explosion of whitetails has come a marked increase in mountain lions. Caribou prefer open country--tundra, or the more open forest of old-growth--where they can see predators at a distance. The brushy habitat where lions lurk for deer thus makes the caribou vulnerable to ambush. The lion finds the remaining caribou easy pickings.

As such, caribou are suffering high mortality due to lion predation. And it's all because the lions have ample white-tailed deer to support a high population.

I've noticed with the whitetail population boom has come an almost predictable disgust with the species. I've seen them referred to in print as white-tailed rats and land carp. But is that fair? After all, the whitetail has merely adapted to humanity's habitat changes. Shouldn't we be happy that some wildlife species can survive in our cities, our suburbs, our agriculture landscapes?

Species like white-tailed deer--and Canada geese, red fox, cockroaches, coyotes, pigeons--merely take advantage of new habitats we have created. Since these new habitats--the small woodlands, the city parks, the suburban yards--are not going away, we should find a way to appreciate and live with these creatures.

For conservationists, the real question is this: Do we want a world that is only populated by the most adaptable creatures--a world of whitetails and pigeons? In such a world, we would have skunks and squirrels, but no grizzlies, no pronghorns, no pine martens, no sage grouse. And no caribou. Such a world seems incredibly lonely, and bleak.

If we indeed value wildlife like the caribou--beyond cartoon caricatures--we need to find ways to protect their habitat, to preserve their unique places, to conserve the big spaces where wildness and the full range of natural processes still can occur.

The white-tailed deer is here to stay on humanity's future journey. But the time is now to decide if that journey will also include animals like the caribou. --Matt Miller

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Untamed Shrew

Idaho is known for its predatory animals. The state still has all of its original large predators, including wolves, grizzly and black bears, wolverines, mountain lions and more.

But perhaps the most ferocious predator in the state is not the one you think. As a matter of fact, it's probably darting around your backyard right now.

Shrews are among the most common mammals on the continent. They are found in nearly all habitats including suburbia. Six species are found in Idaho, out of 376 found around the world.

These little gray creatures may look like rodents, but they are actually members of their own family--and what a bizarre family it is!

The pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal in Idaho. According to Idaho Department of Fish and Game's excellent narrative on the shrew (which helped me verify a lot of this information from a memorable but distant college mammalogy class), the pygmy shrew weighs about as much as a pencil.

The water shrew has stiff hairs on its feet that apparently allows it to scamper across the surface of the water. Its stiff fur also traps air bubbles, allowing it to stay underwater for a long time. Theodore Roosevelt, on a hunting trip to the Selkirks of Idaho, was lucky enough to see one of these amazing critters. He watched it catch and devour a minnow, an account you can read in Roosevelt's book, The Wilderness Hunter.

Some shrews have the ability to echolocate--emitting sounds to produce sonar that helps them navigate their world. And find prey. The sound waves bounce back and tell shrews where their next target might be.

And shrews need to find a lot of prey. The reason you don't see many shrews, despite their abundance, is because they are always on the move--darting in the underbrush and down burrows so rapidly as to be undetected by predators. And, yes, prey. All this movement requires a lot of energy and an incredible metabolism--a typical shrew's heart beats 700-1000 times a minute.

So the shrew hunts, and eats. A lot. Some species must eat their own body weight in prey each day, or else starve. Most species eat insects, and many also eat mice--some twice as large as the shrew.

Of course, hunting is never a guarantee for even the most skillful of predators. To have to do so every day would seem to be a particularly risky evolutionary gamble.

That's why shrew species have some eating habitats that, to our human sensibilities, seem a bit, ummm, unsavory.

Some shrews are venomous (although none found in Idaho). These species bite their prey as they find it, paralyzing it. For the mouse (or large insect), this will be the beginning of a very bad day indeed. The shrew then urinates on its unfortunate victim, so it can easily locate by scent the decapacitated critter later. When it returns, its prey is still quite alive, if not well. The shrew can thus stash fresh, healthy meals throughout its range. Shrews have a thing for fresh food.

In Idaho, shrews aren't venomous, but will chew off the prey's legs, and crush its skull. The shrew does so in a way so the animal stays alive, but can't get away. The shrew then stows its extremely unlucky quarry in its den, to be devoured when the hunting isn't so productive.

The next time you see a little, long-nosed, darting gray form in your yard--or on a trout stream, in a forest, in a farm field--don't just assume it's a mouse. Take a closer look, and you may be rewarded with a glimpse of the untamed shrew. And be glad it is not larger!--Matt Miller

Monday, December 03, 2007

Volunteer for Sagebrush Country

This past Saturday, Governor Butch Otter (pictured above) and more than 100 volunteers donned warm clothes, braved chilly temperatures, picked up hoops and headed into the sagebrush. The reason? To help the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) collect sagebrush seeds to restore sagebrush habitat in burned areas around southern Idaho. This year, IDFG needs a lot of volunteer effort to collect the seeds, due to the devastating fires that swept through the Owyhees this summer. While fire often has very positive effects on forests, sagebrush is not adapted to frequent fires. These fires can lead to infestations by non-native weeds and a loss of wildlife habitat. This year's fires burned sage grouse display grounds, big game winter range and other important wildlife habitat. Reseeding these areas with sagebrush seeds is critical for wildlife.
This week's collection site was across the road from the Hilltop Cafe, along Highway 21 in the Boise Foothills. This area, coincidentally, was once slated for a housing development. The Nature Conservancy purchased this property--great mule deer and elk winter range--and transferred it to the Bureau of Land Management. The seeds from this project will now help restore sagebrush well beyond the Foothills.

There is still at least one week to help, with sagebrush volunteers needed for this weekend, on Saturday, December 8. There will be seed collecting in both Treasure and Magic valleys. To sign up, phone IDFG at 208-327-7095 (Treasure Valley) and 208-324-4359 (Magic Valley Region). Volunteer, and do your part to help restore sagebrush habitat.