Monday, December 29, 2008

Silver Creek in the Winter

Photo: Swans in winter, taken by Sam Stronach near the Hemingway Monument

Most people visit Silver Creek Preserve during the summer to fish, hike, bird, or just look around. Not too many people think about coming during the winter months but winter is actually a great time to visit the Preserve. The visitor center is closed but the Preserve is open to snowshoeing, skiing, birding, and on some days, waterfowl hunting (please sign in at the visitor center prior to entering the Preserve and check the posted rules).

Often it is possible to have the Preserve completely to yourself—a quiet and beautiful retreat. This winter, several rare birds (for this area) have already been seen. Harris Sparrows, White throated sparrows, and a Mockingbird were sited in November and December. I find ‘the regulars’ just as exciting and these include Western Harriers, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, waterfowl of all kinds, Tundra and Trumpeter swans, to name a few. You may also see moose, elk, coyotes, deer, fox, bobcat, otter, mink, and other critters. One of my favorite activities is to grab a cup of hot chocolate and hang out on the deck of the visitor center and just look. Or, better yet, take a long ski around the Preserve and end it with a hot drink on the deck.

Please call for private tours, 788-7910 or 208-720-5465. Hope to see you this winter!

Dayna and the Silver Creek staff.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Summer Dreams for North Idaho

With much of the Idaho Panhandle receiving 34 inches of snow in 34 hours, summer vacation there seems a long, long way away.

But this just-released video celebrates North Idaho in the summer, specifically The Nature Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve.

Jeff Wilson, of HGTV's Regular Guy series, visited the preserve last July as part of his Green Family Summer. His recently released set of videos include ideas for summer vacations around the west, including Nature Conservancy preserves. Wilson recommends Ball Creek as an off-the-beaten path destination great for wildlife and beautiful scenery.

But you may want to wait a few months before visiting.--Matt Miller

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Gifts, Part IV: Good Conservation Books

For me, the holiday season without some good books under the tree would be like Thanksgiving without the turkey. For the book-loving naturalist on your list--or if you're looking for something to pack along on your holiday travels-- here are some of my favorite recent releases.

Take away large predators from a landscape, and the whole ecosystem collapses. That's the intriguing premise of Where the Wild Things Were, by former Nature Conservancy magazine writer William Stolzenburg. In this well written book, Stolzenburg shows a growing mound of research that demonstrates the disastrous impacts on all species when large predators are removed--and how quickly whole ecosystems can recover when predators are restored. This is not a dry collection of research statistics--it's full of stories of otter-eating orcas, elk without fear, raccoons gone wild, anti-social howler monkeys and more. If you read one nature book this year, make it this one.
The lives of humans and the lives of insects are inextricably connected, in more ways than we realize--including our warfare. Jeffrey Lockwood's Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War may seem an obscure subject. But history enthusiasts will find a lot of interest here, from new looks at key battles to intriguing tactics by top generals. The book examines the human-insect connection in many conflicts, from hurling wasp nests over castle walls to the use of fleas to carry bubonic plague in World War II. Most chilling is Lockwood's analysis for insects' potential uses in bio-terrorism. Lockwood is an entomologist who is also an excellent writer; his books Locust and Grasshopper Dreaming also examine the ways humans interact with insects--and why we should all care.
The comparison has probably already been made, but Bryan Christy's The Lizard King features a cast of characters, a plot and a setting that seem pulled from a Carl Hiaasen novel. This, though, is a true story. Christy delves into the little-known world of reptile smugglers,
a world of organized crime, shady characters and obsessed reptile afficionados who pay exorbitant sums to own rare and endangered species. This is a page-turner, and the scope and extent of endangered species poaching is shocking. Christy, a reptile enthusiast, treats all the people involved (including the smugglers) with fairness and respect, which makes this a richer, more complex story. Aldo Leopold still looms large over the conservation landscape. His ideas stand the test of time, and few have written as beautifully about the central issues as he did in A Sand County Almanac and other writings. Leopold's land ethic was the result of an evolution of thought, as described by Julianne Lutz Newton in Aldo Leopold's Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac. The author traces how Leopold's life experiences, education and scholarship developed into his land ethic--a mindful journey that included changes of opinion and rethinking strong personal beliefs. Perhaps today, Leopold would be called a "flip-flopper." But I don't think one can read this book without recognizing a truly great mind at work. For the avid life lister on your list, it would be hard to beat Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. Famous explorers, egg collectors, hawk shooters, angry activists, inspired teenagers and obsessed listers all play a role in this story. Weidensaul is one of the best nature writers working today; more people should read his work.

Finally, for the hard-core nature enthusiast, Whit Bronaugh's Wildlife of North America: A Naturalist's Life List is a great addition to the library. This book features complete species lists of the most "watchable" wildlife: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and dragonflies. There is space to record dates and notes of sightings. A large-format, 512-page work, this is not one to carry into the field, but serves rather as a master list for your outdoor ramblings.

As the snow falls outside, it's the perfect time to curl up with a good book. I hope you enjoy these holiday recommendations, and feel free to suggest your own.--Matt Miller

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Gifts, Part III: Wooden Toys, Jewelry and More

A few weeks ago, I walked up a trail in the Kootenai Valley of northern Idaho, looking for deer. In the mud and snow patches, I saw all the creatures that had also passed this way: deer, elk, moose, grizzly, pine squirrel, turkey, grouse. I wasn't on public land, but rather a privately owned forest.

Increasingly, conservationists realize that these private forests are critically important to a wide variety of wildlife species. It helps, of course, if they're managed sustainably. The Forest Stewardship Council is a third-party certification to ensure that private forests are managed in a way that benefits wildlife, clean water and local communities. FSC is the most rigorous sustainable forest certification, and is endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy.

It's a worldwide program, so it also ensures that your wood product purchase isn't from wood illegally cut in Borneo (as much as 25% of all hard lumber and plywood on the market today is from wood illegally harvested or unsustainably managed). When you buy FSC-certified products, you're helping grizzlies and orangutans, and communities in the Rocky Mountains and Indonesia.

It can admittedly be a challenge, though, finding FSC-certified products. That's why The Nature Conservancy's on-line FSC gift guide is such a handy reference: There are lots of cool wooden products to buy, all guaranteed to be from sustainably harvested forests. The guide tells you what's available and where to buy them.

There' s a diversity of items, like the Natural Pod toy chef kitchen (pictured above). Natural Pod has a variety of home toys--all wood--that receive rave reviews on-line. There are also other toys from Toys R Us, earrings, ornaments and many other items.

We need wood products, and we need well-managed forests. Buying FSC-certified products is a great way to support those forests, and the wildlife and communities that depend on them. --Matt Miller

Monday, December 08, 2008

Holiday Gift Ideas, Part II: Plant a Billion Trees

This holiday season, you can buy that conservationist a gift that will benefit millions of people: A tree. Not just any tree, but a tree in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.

Each dollar donated to the Plant A Billion Trees Campaign plants a tree in Brazil. Consider planting one--or a whole patch--for your friends this season.

Forests, of course, provide so many benefits to us: They store enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, stabilizing climate change. They reduce erosion, keeping water clean. And they provide habitat for a multitude of creatures.

Few forests are in such trouble as Brazil's Atlantic Forest. There are some protected tracts, like the forest around Iguassu Falls (above). But only 7% of this forest remains, mainly in isolated patches.

This forest may not be as well known as the Amazon, but it's still one of the most important places on earth for wildlife. Many of the remaining forest tracts are located near Brazil's famous coastline, providing a beautiful backdrop.
More of this forest can be restored, and every dollar helps.

With a goal of having all the trees planted by 2015, the reforestation effort will remove 10 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year (the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road). It will provide 70,000 new jobs. It will reduce erosion, providing cleaner water for nearly 120 million people. And it will provide homes for a whole host of creatures (including coatis, pictured below).

How many times can you give a dollar and benefit millions of people, create jobs, reduce the impacts of climate change and lend wildlife a helping hand? Buy a tree this holiday season, and help restore another special place for people and nature. --Matt Miller

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Holiday Gift Ideas, Part I: Mochilas for Monkeys

For the next several weeks, Idaho Nature Notes will feature some special gift ideas for the conservationist on your list this season. Cotton-top tamarin monkeys (above) are found in the tropical dry forest of Colombia, but they face major challenges to their survival.

You can help cotton-top tamarins, also known as titi monkeys, by purchasing a mochila bag on-line from Proyecto Titi, a Nature Conservancy partner dedicated to conserving cotton-top tamarins.

Two problems plague the tropical dry forest of Colombia. Communities surrounding the tropical dry forest face high unemployment, so to survive they often extract from the forest: they cut trees, poach wildlife for food and collect the endangered monkeys to sell to the black-market biomedical industry.

The other problem is a lack of refuse collection, leading to an astounding number of plastic bags in the countryside. The solution: Mochilas for monkeys.

First, a local community collects clean plastic bags, which are then cut into strips by women (and one man) in the village.

The bags are then sewn into mochilas, beautiful hand bags. They are sold on-line and at places like Disney's Animal Kingdom. The proceeds go back to the community.

The bags are all quality tested for strength and uniformity. The sale of these bags has completely transformed the community. They no longer have to poach in the forest, they have cemented their floors, their schools have improved.

The community celebrates this improvement by recognizing the monkey, holding a titi festival every year and crowning a titi queen (above), who greets all visitors to the village. She takes her job very seriously. School children learn about the monkeys and perform songs about them.

By purchasing mochila bags on-line from Proyecto Titi, you are benefiting monkeys, the tropical dry forest and people. You are helping to create a future of hope--a future where local communities can prosper along with, rather than against, wild animals. --Matt Miller

Monday, December 01, 2008

Owl Courtship

When you think of birds courting, displaying and breeding, you most likely start thinking about spring. It's when sage grouse strut, turkeys gobble, ducks pair off and robins build nests.

But great horned owls begin calling to potential mates as early as October. They will pair off this month. They can often be heard calling to each other at this time--what is called "duetting." Perhaps you've heard this recently. Over the weekend, two were calling just outside our bedroom window--a dramatic series of calls that only faintly resembled hooting. On a long walk, I came across another pair hooting to each other. One was so intent it was not bothered by my presence, despite me standing just a few feet away.

The owls will breed in January and February--among the earliest of any birds on the continent. If you take an evening walk this month, listen carefully--you may hear the haunting hoots echoing across the landscape.

And you have a good chance of hearing great horned owls wherever you are in Idaho. They are one of the most adaptable birds in the Americas, found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, in small woodlots and vast wilderness, in sagebrush and city parks, in deserts and along rivers. The same, by the way, is not true of all owls. Great horned owls may be very adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, but many owl species have very specific needs. Like burrowing owls (pictured above).

These little owls actually live underground in abandoned holes. They thrive in grassland and shrubland. They can be spotted in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho, but their real stronghold once was the Great Plains, where they lived among the vast herds of bison and huge prairie dog colonies.

One can only imagine how many of these owls could be found on the plains. I had a taste of what it must have been like on a recent trip to Colombia, in the Orinoco Grasslands. There, one of the most intact grasslands left on earth, burrowing owls were all over the place. One rancher told a story of catching 20 by hand as a youngster (her mother made her return the owls to their burrows).

Owls are, to my mind, among the coolest looking creatures on the planet, and burrowing owls especially so. Some, like great horned owls, will thrive without our help. But many other species need our help to survive. --Matt Miller

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Hooray for Flat Ranch Volunteers

A fun way to help the wildlife and nature of your local area is to volunteer at your local nature preserve. There are lists upon lists of projects to be completed every year, and many call for more hands than we have on our staff. These volunteer days are fun ways to give your time and lend a helping hand to Mother Nature. This summer at the Flat Ranch we had two such volunteer opportunities.

The week of August 18 we built just over a kilometer of four-strand, wildlife-friendly fence. The trick to making a wildlife-friendly fence is making sure the bottom strand of wire is high enough that antelope can run under it without stopping, and the top strand of wire is low enough that larger mammals like elk can jump over it without stopping. The fence posts must also be set a certain distance apart to ensure room for wildlife crossing. Let-own fences are constructed with “runners” and “dancers”. The runners used on the Flat Ranch are 6-7” 8 foot long fence posts spaced 16 feet apart. The dancers are 4-5” 5 foot long posts that are held against each runner with wire. The barbed wire is stapled onto the dancers, and the dancers are laid down every winter when the cattle are not on the ranch. Constructing a fence with this many posts, staples, and exact specifications is no easy task for The Nature Conservancy’s work force. This new fence would not have been possible without the help of our volunteers who worked countless hours in less than perfect conditions to help us build it.

On October 23 we had our second volunteer day at the Flat Ranch. On this day we planted 200 5-gallon willows. These willows were custom grown for the Ranch, and planted to continue our woody riparian vegetation restoration on the Henry’s Fork. This restoration work began as an effort to reduce sedimentation in the Henry’s Fork that was detrimental to the native fishery. With one skid-steer mounted auger, one two-man power auger, shovels, gloves, and a lot of determination, our volunteers closed the final chapter on the active vegetation work. Several of the willows were marked for survival studies that will help in future vegetation work on the ranch. The day went smoothly with all 200 willows in the ground in about 4 hours. It never would have been possible without the help of so many conservation minded people, and I would like to thank everyone who came out and pitched in. --Dava McCann, East Idaho land steward

Fencing Volunteers: Matt Frazier, Dannye Hanrahan, Dennis Hanrahan, Lee King, Phyllis King, Jerry Linderman, Marilynne Manguba, Anne Marie Emery Miller and Gretchen Vanek.

Willow Planting Volunteers: Jen Chutz, Jim DeRito, Sarah Grigg, Lee King, Anne Marie Emery Miller, Nancy Olson, Melanie Sessions, Bob Stantos, Steve Trafton, Ron Troy

Monday, November 17, 2008

Here Come The Deer

At first, the signs are subtle: A hoof print in your backyard, a small herd of deer moving into the foothills, a solitary animal crossing the road. But, soon, places absent of deer for the past five months will suddenly be alive with them. The deer are on the move, heading towards lower elevations.

The past two blogs have explored winged migration--but throughout Idaho, it's also the season for a hoofed migration.

Each year, mule deer--and elk, moose and pronghorn--migrate from the mountains to the valleys to escape heavy snow. In the low-elevation sagebrush, they find better weather, and, at least in the past, better nutrition and less stressful living conditions.

Idaho is blessed with large tracts of public lands which support animals that need a lot of space to thrive, like mule deer and elk. But many of those public lands are not viable for the animals in the winter and early spring.

Yellowstone National Park, for instance, is known as a haven for wildlife--but its high elevations make it an inhospitable place in the winter. And so big game moves out. Five of the twelve longest large mammal migration routes on earth are located in the Greater Yellowstone area.

And what do wildlife need when they get to their winter range? Good nutrition, for one thing. Sagebrush is very important to the diets of deer and pronghorn, comprising as much as 90% of winter nutrition in some areas. Bitterbrush (pictured above) and similar shrubs complement this diet nicely. (Some ecologists call bitterbrush "deer candy").

Unfortunately, cheatgrass and other non-native weeds start a fire cycle that eventually eliminates these shrubs. Deer will eat green cheat grass, but it's not as nutritious and often provides very little cover. Some deer herds have disappeared when the sagebrush vanishes, as in the case of the foothills around Twin Falls.

In addition to good, nutritious shrubs, deer (and other big game) need areas free of disturbance. Right now, that often means working farms, ranches and private forests. Many of these lands offer "funnels" for animals to migrate from one public land area to another. As an example, elk and pronghorn migrate out of Yellowstone using a funnel at Henry's Lake, which then leads them to winter range on Saint Anthony Sand Dunes or Montana's Madison Valley. Develop that funnel, and the animals' ability to migrate is in jeopardy.

Big game animals can't burn precious calories during a tough winter, and farms and ranches offer them plenty of space. Cover those lands with houses, and deer suddenly have to contend with more roads, more dogs and more recreation.

The Idaho Working Lands Coalition is dedicated to finding solutions to protect these private lands. The coalition has a new web site, and you can sign up to become a Working Lands Advocate. With your support, we can work towards providing incentives that keep farmers, ranchers and forest owners on the land--and keep mule deer and elk on their winter range, too.--Matt Miller

Monday, November 10, 2008

Snow Geese Overhead

For the past several nights, I've heard overhead the sound of geese: Not the familiar Canada geese so common on our golf courses and farm fields. This is a higher-pitched call, yet still unmistakably emanating from geese. Early in the morning, I've seen them flying, their white forms and black wing tips visible even as they soar high overhead. Snow geese.

Most of these birds won't stop here: They're moving with purpose, heading straight for the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California.

They're on an almost incomprehensibly long flight, one that biologists are just beginning to fully understand.

Snow geese breed and spend the summer in various locations of the Arctic. The ones you'll see in Idaho in the spring and fall nest very far north, on the Wrangel Island on the Gulf of Alaska. Wildlife biologist John Takekawa, as reported in Wild Bird magazine, was part of a team of scientists that tracked this population.

As it migrates in the fall from Wrangel Island, the population moves along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia. About half the population goes on to Puget Sound.

The other half, though, makes a rather long detour, heading east to Alberta. These are the birds you'll see here. From there, the birds head south to Montana, then southeast through Idaho and Oregon to the Klamath Basin.

In the central part of the country, snow geese populations have exploded as they feed and thrive on rice farms. Many biologists believe they exist at such high densities that they destroy their own nesting habitat in the Arctic. Solving that problem will take creative management and solutions that challenge our various values about nature.

The other challenge faced by snow geese is loss of wetlands. On a migration that spans such a huge distance, winding from the Arctic to the British Columbia coast to the Canadian prairie to Idaho to California--these birds need places to rest along the way. Places like the Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch in North Idaho and Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Ft. Boise Wildlife Management Area in South Idaho are both perfect places to see the importance of wetlands for snow geese.

Tonight, listen overhead, and wish these long-distance flyers good luck on their ultra-ultra-marathon.--Matt Miller

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Dragonfly Migration

Autumn is a time in Idaho when the wonders of migration are everywhere to be seen: Dark-eyed juncos, after spending a winter in Canada, start showing up at birdfeeders. Large flocks of ducks and geese can be seen swimming in ponds, wetlands and rivers. Look closely in the mountains and you may see an increase in hawks, as these birds mass along the ridges before their long southward journey across the sagebrush desert. Soon, herds of mule deer and elk will roam out of the mountains to the valleys, their winter range.

Those migrations are all quite visible--and well-studied. Less well known is the annual flight of the dragonflies. Like birds, many dragonfly species fly south for the winter.

An Idaho species, the green darner, migrates each year to the southwestern United States. There, it lays eggs, which turn into aquatic nymphs. The nymphs hatch in the spring, and return to Idaho. How they know where to go--the adults have long since died so the young have no one to lead the way--remains a mystery.

Just as some marshes serve as resting places for mind-boggling numbers of migrating ducks, some habitats attract huge swarms of dragonflies on their migration. Interestingly, many of these are the same places that attract birds--places like Cape May, New Jersey and Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania.

Near Hawk Mountain kestrels and dragonflies share similar migration routes. While migrating in the morning, the kestrels do not hunt the dragonflies. But when both stop to rest, the kestrels actively bulk up on the ready supply of these insects.

Dragonflies are enjoying a surge in popularity lately. They're recognized for their voracious appetite for mosquitoes. They're also beautiful and interesting creatures to watch. Contributing information on dragonfly migration is still an area where amateur naturalists can contribute a lot to research. There is even a small but growing group of dragonfly watchers, who keep life lists and go on local and international trips much like birders. There are some fascinating species to be seen--like the huge one above that I photographed in the Llanos grasslands of Colombia.

Not all dragonflies migrate; many nymphs in Idaho are deep underwater, awaiting spring. But when you see a flock of ducks, or a sharp-shinned hawk, flying overhead, look closely: There may be a flight of dragonflies flying nearby.--Matt Miller

Monday, October 27, 2008

Steelhead in Hells Canyon

Before reaching their spawning redds in the Upper Salmon River basin, some 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean, wild Chinook salmon and steelhead travel up the Snake River past The Nature Conservancy’s Garden Creek Ranch. Last week Nature Conservancy staff members Steve Grourke and Justin Petty led a field trip to explore the Hells Canyon section of the Snake. The group traveled up river by jet boat and learned about the history of and wildlife native to the canyon.
Bighorn sheep (above) became common sightings as they perched high above the river on rocky canyon cliffs. Mule deer grazed in the grassy hills and a golden eagle worked the cottonwood-lined drainage of Deep Creek.

In addition to learning about the history of the canyon, the group fished for hatchery-raised steelhead. Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend their adult lives in the ocean. They spawn and then live as juvenile fish in freshwater for 1 to 4 years, migrate to the ocean for a similar period of time before returning to freshwater. Hatchery fish are identified by a clipped adipose fin. All steelhead with an intact adipose fin are wild and are released immediately when caught.
The fishing started out slow and with the wrong species being netted. A cat fish was quickly returned to the river as were a number of pike minnows. The best opportunity on the first day to land a steelhead was thwarted by a big rock that fouled up a line. Despite not netting the fish the group’s adrenaline ran high as did anticipation for the next day’s fishing.

Day two was productive with the boat landing three hatchery fish, with one measuring out at 30 inches (above). A number of wild steelhead were hooked and returned to the river. The last day started out slow, with only one fish in the first three hours. But as Captain Butch ordered us to reel in our lines to head back to the ranch, Justin hooked a monster. After considerable struggle and a deft move to thwart the fish from going under the boat, Justin landed the biggest fish of the trip – tape measured at 31 ½ inches--the angler and fish in the photo at the start of this blog.--Submitted by Steve Grourke

Monday, October 20, 2008


Photo by Michael Feiger, District Biologist, Idaho City Ranger District, Boise National Forest.

Most of us will never see a wolverine in the wild. But it's enough just to know that they're out there, roaming the Idaho backcountry.

The above photo was taken by a "camera trap" in the Boise National Forest. While it's known that wolverines inhabit Idaho, very little is known of their home range, genetics or population size. That's partly because they roam over huge ranges, are very difficult to spot and exist at low population densities even in areas where they are common. As the largest land-dwelling member of the weasel family, the wolverine resembles a small bear.

The wolverine is a well-known animal, largely because it has often figured prominently in outdoor adventure stories: attacking North Country trappers and causing mayhem for all who cross its path. In reality, though, the wolverine is secretive and just wants to be left alone. It does best in wild areas with few roads and few people.

This is because the wolverine likes to have room to roam: In one recent instance, a wolverine radio collared in the Tetons near Jackson Hole traveled to Pocatello and back, Pinedale and back to Jackson, to the northern range of Yellowstone and back to the Tetons and then to the famed Centennial Range and the Henry's Lake Mountains where its collar released. It ranged at least 550 miles in 42 days... no bad for a 35 pound animal.

This photo reveals their presence in the Boise National Forest. It visited a "hair snare" designed to lure in fishers--another member of the weasel family that does best in wilderness. The trap collects hairs from the fisher so researchers can determine the genetics and populations of these animals.

A camera is set nearby and takes photos when animals enter the trap area. These "camera traps" are becoming increasingly helpful for wildlife biologists, as they can be set along game trails, at water holes and mineral licks to view rare or wary species. They've been used to help researchers track elusive species like snow leopards and tigers, and even species new to science.

According to Michael Feiger, the U.S. Forest Service biologist conducting the study in the Boise National Forest, the wolverine also left behind hairs in the trap. Those hairs will be examined to determime the genetics of this wolverine to see how it's related to other studied populations of wolverines in Idaho.

Hopefully such research will enable biologists to better determine what habitat needs to be protected so that wolverines can continue to roam Idaho's backcountry.--Matt Miller

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dogs and Goats: Conservation Allies

It's no secret that humans are seriously lacking in our sense of smell, but not so our best friends. Anyone who has seen their dog checking out the backyard knows that the canine scenting capabilities can tell a lot about who--or what--has been in the area.

The dog's nose has been put to good use in locating illegal agriculture products and drugs at the border, finding missing persons and hunting all sorts of creatures. Now a collaborative effort including The Nature Conservancy of Oregon has a dog sniffing out rare plants.
Meet Rogue, a Belgian sheepdog that is finding the endangered Kincaid lupine by smell. This plant is found over rough terrain, so it's difficult for human eyes to locate. The dogs have a remarkable ability to find rare plants in a field of many other species, with very low error rates. The success of this project suggests that dogs may have many other uses for conservationists. Read Rogue's story by Jen Newlin Bell of The Nature Conservancy of Oregon.
Dogs aren't the only domestic animal being put to use for the cause of conservation. The Nature Conservancy of Washington is utilizing goats to munch through a horrible tangle of invasive Himalayan blackberry. The thorns and brambles of this plant crowds out other native plants, but it's no problem for the goats. Their legendary eating ability is based on fact; goats munch even this noxious plant to the ground. Learn more about the goats, and watch a video of them at work. --Matt Miller

Dog photos by Jen Newlin Bell/TNC; goat photo by Jocelyn Ellis/TNC.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Emus in Idaho...

It's quite common to see unusual birds at the Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve, located near Bonners Ferry in the Idaho Panhandle. With its restored wetlands, the preserve is heavily used by migrating waterfowl, and a variety of rare birds reported. But, until yesterday, there's never been an emu sighting.

The emu showed up from parts unknown and posed by the preserve sign, before being herded into a temporary shelter by preserve manager Justin Petty. It's waiting there while Justin searches for an owner.

Coincidentally, on Friday, my wife Jennifer was jogging on the Boise River Greenbelt and saw a rather strange looking creature heading her way. It, too, turned out to be an emu--running at full speed her way. She hopped off the trail and the emu continued on its way, evidently enjoying, like so many of us, the jogging opportunities of the Greenbelt.

Emus are native to Australia, where they are quite common over much of the country. The second largest bird in the world, their legs are developed for high-speed running across the Outback plains. They are not uncommon on small farms or as pets, so invariably some escape--which doesn't lessen the surprise of seeing this large, prehistoric looking bird trotting across the Idaho landscape.--Matt Miller

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mayfly Nation

If you want to find the most species of wildlife, go to the tropics, a fact well known among conservation biologists for years. Tropical habitats favor diversity more so than temperate climates.

To give one example: Colombia, where I just spent a month, may not be the largest country on earth, but it leads the world in the number of species of vertebrates, birds, amphibians and butterflies.

One reserve in Peru, Manu National Park in the Amazon Basin, has more bird species than the entire United States.

The United States may be a big country, but it doesn't have the most species. Unless you're talking about mayflies.
The United States has more than 600 species of mayflies, more than any other country.

It's truly mayfly nation: A fact well appreciated by fly fishers, but perhaps less so by other nature lovers. The adult mayfly is a beautiful, delicate insect with a fascinating life history. When a major hatch is occurring (as above), it's one of nature's finest spectacles, even if you don't fish.

Mayflies live as underwater nymphs for a full year, hatching (often en masse) to become winged adults. As they take flight, the mayfly's journey is coming to an end: An adult mayfly only lives from 30 minutes to a day before it breeds, lays eggs and dies.

As such, adult mayflies only have vestigial mouths, and their digestive tracts are filled with air.

Mayfly hatches can reach truly staggering proportions: Along some of the Great Lakes, snow plows clear them off the streets. They can literally blanket the surface of a stream (see Silver Creek intern Ryan Urie's photo below of a brown drake hatch, from an earlier blog post).

I remember once standing along Penns Creek in Central Pennsylvania, listening to an evening hatch of Eastern green drakes: So many were in the air, it sounded like the wings of geese beating overhead.

Silver Creek has some of the finest mayfly hatches in the country, with the brown drake (early June) and trico (July and August) being particularly famous. Those hatches are one of the reasons Silver Creek has so many trout. If you visit now, you should be able to see scattered fall hatches, especially the small olive Baetis.

Mayflies may exist in huge numbers and varieties, but they do have one requirement: Clean water. A polluted stream is quickly cleared of its mayflies. Fortunately, efforts to clean water supplies over the last few decades have meant a resurgence in mayflies in areas where they had disappeared--like the Great Lakes. As long as this commitment to clean water remains, the United States will likely remain as the capital of mayflies. --Matt Miller

Friday, September 19, 2008

Watch Some Bighorns

Anyone traveling near Salmon this fall should stop by the new bighorn sheep viewing station to catch a glimpse of one of Idaho's most treasured animals.

The viewing station is at Redrock Sportsman's Access area north of Salmon. At the site, there is plenty of parking, a rest room and now, an interpretive kiosk where visitors can read about Idaho's bighorn sheep and view the sheep through a viewing scope.

A ribbon cutting ceremony for the viewing station will be at 2 p.m. October 1. The viewing station has been in the works for more than a year. The intent is to help visitors and locals alike appreciate the local population of bighorn sheep, how they live, the challenges that face them, and how people can support wild sheep.

The public is welcome to join the Idaho Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Association, Idaho Department of Fish and Game along with many partners and donors in thanking those who worked on the project and celebrate our wild sheep.

Another bighorn sheep viewing station is in the works for an area near Challis.

In addition, U.S. Highway 93 from North Fork south nearly to Mackay and State Highway 75 from Challis east toward Clayton have unofficially been called "Idaho's Bighorn Highway." Sheep can be viewed from the road in these areas, all year long.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Importance of Volunteers

Every year, many people come from all over the country to volunteer at Silver Creek. We also host maybe other volunteers throughout Idaho and throughout the world. People who work for free!! And are usually incredibly enthusiastic about it!! These volunteers fix fences, great visitors, clear trails, spray weeds, and the list goes on. I often wonder what I would do without the amazing lineup of volunteers I have at Silver Creek. This year alone we have already logged over 1000 hours of volunteer time. These people come for the love of the place and the love of our work, and it shows.

Many of you have probably been lucky enough to meet some of our volunteers this summer. Frank Hayes (above) has been volunteering for the past four weeks at the Silver Creek Preserve visitor center. In previous years, he spent time at the Flat Ranch Preserve and also puts in time and money for the upkeep of the Hayspur hatchery (across the highway from Silver Creek Preserve, Idaho Fish and Game). He spends his mornings at the visitor center and the afternoons fishing. Jerry and Cheryl Jeffery have been coming one month every summer for the past three years. They are from southern California and look forward to the peacefulness of Silver Creek. Jerry fishes and talks fishing most of the time and Cheryl cleans, cooks, and makes the Preserve look great. These are just three of the great volunteers we have throughout the season. Come down and say hi or call to volunteer yourself! 788-7910

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Intern Experience at Silver Creek

Another Labor day has come and gone and at Silver Creek that usually means the end of an intern season. Every year I try and find interns who are enthusiastic, who are pursuing a career in conservation, and who are not afriad to work hard. I would like to think the interns will someday come to work at TNC on a more permanent basis. Usually the interns have more or less the same goals as I do, with the added goal of having a good time (otherwise known as catching fish). One of the interns, Ryan Urie, wrote the following about coming to Silver Creek as a novice fisherman and what a learning experience that was:

Prior to coming to Silver Creek I always thought fishing meant placing a hook, marshmallow, and a small handful of lead on the end of a line, hurling it into a hatchery-stocked pond, then sitting back and waiting while sipping on a beer. My knowledge of fly fishing was limited to a single viewing of “A River Runs Through It,” and while I assumed it was more of a skill than bait fishing, I had no idea of the challenges Silver Creek had in store. I had heard that Silver Creek contains some four thousand brown and rainbow trout per mile and many over twenty inches in length; what I didn’t hear is that they are some of the most selective and difficult trout on the planet.

I went to the nearest sports shop and found a $50 rod and reel combo with line, leader, and a carrying case (it was only after several unsuccessful fishing attempts that I came to learn about things called “backing” and “tippet”). I picked up a variety pack of “Rocky Mountain Flies” with no indication of what, if anything, they were meant to imitate and set off. Without knowing even the basics of fly fishing, I aimed to fish what I now know is commonly referred to as the graduate school of fly fishing.

The qualities that make fishing Silver Creek so difficult are at the same time indicators of its success as a nature preserve. The crystal clear water makes fishermen and flies easily distinguishable to the fish; heavy catch-and-release fishing by the public has created a wary, intelligent fish population; and the year-round supply of riparian habitat and resulting insect supply has made the fish into well fed, picky eaters who can afford to ignore a fly that looks even the least bit suspicious.

These difficult conditions weed out any lazy or haphazard fishermen and force one to engage deeply with the landscape. Success at Silver Creek demands attention to stream conditions, weather patterns, local vegetation, insect hatches, season, and climate. A commitment is required, and fishing here is an exercise in frustration for those concerned only with catching fish.

In addition to all the challenges faced by competent fishermen, I had to further contend with constant snags, infuriating knots, and a general lack of interest on the part of the fish. I also managed to hook myself on several occasions (once through the lip, ironically), and sometimes would launch what I considered to be a perfect cast, only to watch the top half of my rod sail through the air and follow the fly into the water.

Several successive nights with no strikes gave me ample opportunity to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the creek. In addition to lush vegetation, dramatic sunsets, and calming waters, there is an abundance of wildlife at Silver Creek including moose, elk, beaver, muskrats, and badgers. The birdlife is especially prolific with over two hundred different species throughout the year including great blue herons, sand hill cranes, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, northern harriers, and red-tailed hawks to name a few (in one morning of birding with a local expert I was able to take my life list from zero to sixty in under a day!). Often the aggravation of yet another lost fly or impossible tangle all but vanished with the joyful appearance of a baby duck, or a mouse poking its head from the nearby sedges.

By the fourth night of the brown drake hatch I was about ready to give up. Brown drakes are a variety of mayfly on Silver Creek which emerge, mate, lay eggs, and die all within a few days, and this hatch is one of the most eagerly awaited annual events in the Picabo area (at least for fishermen). In mid-June the drakes rise in a flurry of activity which is utterly breathtaking – akin to being in the midst of a tornado comprised of bugs. As they mate and die they form a constant stream of bodies in the creek. During this veritable buffet the trout let go their usual caution and join in a feeding frenzy which local fishermen capitalize on in what can rightly be called Fly Fishermen’s Christmas.

It was toward the end of this spectacle that I finally landed my first fish – a 21” brown trout (PHOTO) – using a size 14 brown drake spinner on a 4X line. As I held this miracle in my hands I felt connected to life and the flow of the universe in a way that had previously eluded me. It helped me to realize that my passion for conservation isn’t about protecting nature for its own sake or for human enjoyment either, but is rather about these moments of reconnecting – getting out of our egocentric bubbles and being a part of the greater story.

While I did finally learn to catch fish, the real education I received at Silver Creek wasn’t about fishing: it was about patience and perseverance. By pressing through the constant frustration and discouragement I was able to achieve something lasting and worthwhile. I learned about finding the joy in what the world offers instead of narrowly insisting upon my own ambitions, and to engage and flow with my environment. I learned to pay attention, and be still. Ultimately I found a deep sense of peace and wonder, and it is for that reason that I’ll keep coming back.

Friday, August 29, 2008

'Nature' fire at Silver Creek Preserve and beyond

On Wednesday the 27th, about 3:30 in the afternoon, I received a call from one of the neighbors alerting me to a fire on the Preserve. I was in the Hailey office so I quickly called Frank, our trusty volunteer (who lives at Kilpatrick cabin, feet from the burn area). As I was asking him about the fire, the sheriff knocked on his door and told him he might want to leave. He called me back shortly after from the visitor center and gave me a brief update. It appears the fire started from the houses above the visitor center on an adjacent landowner’s property. There are rumors that it may have been a power connection and eye witnessed say it started with a single flame behind a shed. It quickly spread up the hillside and along the road, jumped over onto the Preserve, and then worked its way through the Picabo Hills to the south of Silver Creek and along the Purdy property to the east of the Preserve. As of today, it has burned over 14,000 acres and BLM firefighters hope to have it contained by this evening.

We are lucky that as of today, no major structures have been destroyed and no one has been hurt. We are also so lucky to have such a great crew of skilled firefighters on the job. The thing I feel most fortunate for, however, is the amazing group of neighbors and friends we have down here. I received countless calls from people offering my family a place to sleep and help if we needed it. Since the fire has moved past the immediate area and the damage to the Preserve is apparent, I have already been receiving calls inquiring about volunteer work from people wanting to help with the restoration.

In the next few weeks with the great crew of scientist in the Idaho chapter of The Nature Conservancy, I will be working on putting together a restoration plan for the burned areas. I look forward to seeing how the land repairs itself and welcome any thoughts, suggestions, or man hours!!


Friday, August 22, 2008

Hemingway Festival

Next to his writing, Ernest Hemingway is perhaps best known for his connection to place: Key West, Cuba, Pamplona, the green hills of Africa. To that list, one could add Ketchum and southcentral Idaho. As soon as Ernest saw Silver Creek, he knew he had to return there with his sons. One of those sons, Jack, would later be the one to contact The Nature Conservancy to purchase the property--leading to Silver Creek Preserve and the preservation of much of the creek's valley through conservation easements.

The Ernest Hemingway Festival in Sun Valley celebrates his connection to this place. This year, the event will be held from September 25-28. You can register now.

Noted Hemingway authors and scholars including Hilary Hemingway, Jeffrey P. Lindsay, Marty Peterson, Sandra Spanier, Susan Beegle, Stacey Guill and Brandon R. Schrand will speak at the event.

There will also be a special dinner to help fund the maintenance and historical archive of the Hemingway House in Ketchum, owned by the Conservancy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Plantings Benefit Sage Grouse and Waterfowl

In 2001, The Nature Conservancy acquired 2600 private acres that became the Crooked Creek Preserve, located near Dubois. This acquisition was made possible through an individual donation to the Conservancy and included more than 67,000 acres of federal and state grazing allotments.

The ranch has a high sage grouse population and one of the goals of the project is to demonstrate effective habitat management for sage grouse and other wildlife.

The Conservancy and the North American Grouse Partnership (NAGP) jointly applied for cost-share grants to improve stream side and wetland habitat along Crooked Creek. These grants came from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Improvement Program. With the help of these grants, we expanded a small irrigation pond into a multi-purpose reservoir that provides both irrigation water and wetlands for wildlife.

This summer the Conservancy’s Alan Sands contacted Intermountain Aquatics, a habitat restoration company, about improving riparian and wetland vegetation on Crooked Creek. In July, work began to plant a diverse mix of woody vegetation along 1000 feet of Crooked Creek. Several species of willow, Wood’s rose, chokecherry, black hawthorn, and golden currant were planted along the creek. Bull rush, willows, and other wetland plants were planted on the waterfowl nesting island in the reservoir.

The plants were in 1, 2.5, and 5 gallon containers depending on the species that came from two different greenhouses. The species were selected based on research into species located along the same creek further upstream from the planting site. The plants were planted in clumps or spaced out according to the natural growth of the species in order to make the restoration site look as natural as possible in the future.

This is just the first step and we hope to be able to expand this work in the future. --Dava McCann, East Idaho land steward and Alan Sands, ecologist

Monday, August 11, 2008


Photo by Keith Lazelle.

They're fish that swam with dinosaurs: The sturgeons, a 250-million-year-old fish family that has demonstrated a remarkable knack for survival. At least until now.

Various sturgeon species are found widely in rivers and lakes across Eurasia and North America. At one time, they were a common Idaho species, being found in the Snake, Salmon and other river systems.

Idaho sturgeon reached legendary size: up to 10 feet long and 350 pounds. Truly, dinosaurs swam our waters.
The Kootenai River population of sturgeon has been isolated due to waterfalls to northern Idaho, Montana and British Columbia since the last Ice Age. Like most sturgeon species, they survived millions of years of changes, but they may not be able to survive their latest obstacle: humanity.

The sturgeon's life history includes a list of factors that now endanger it: Sturgeons need clear, cold water, and lots of it--they move up and down rivers throughout their lives. They need wetland areas to spawn in addition to rivers. Females require about 30 years to mature and breed. And, of course, caviar is a delicacy--commanding extraordinarily high prices.

For the white sturgeon, the upstream Libby Dam and resulting changes in the Kootenai River (including loss of wetlands and river meanders) has put the Kootenai population in peril. Less than 700 adults remain. And the population is aging; very few young fish are found in the river.

Fortunately, all is not bleak for the Kootenai's white sturgeon. Restoring wetlands and tributary streams in the Kootenai Valley mean cleaner water and better habitat. The Nature Conservancy has restored more than 400 acres of wetlands on its Ball Creek Ranch Preserve, and other organizations and agencies have similarly restored other wetlands throughout the valley.

Can these make a difference? It's hard to say, but last year kokanee salmon--another species that needs clear, cold water and tributary streams--returned to spawn in Ball Creek after being absent for more than four decades.

The Kootenai Tribe is also playing an important role, by rearing sturgeon in a hatchery and releasing juveniles in the river. With this imperiled population, clearly supplementing the wild fish will remain an important aspect of sturgeon conservation.

It will take time, but there's hope that these efforts will help restore these giant and ancient fish to our rivers--Matt Miller

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Don't Move Firewood

It's the height of the camping season in Idaho, and for many of us, one of the joys of being in Idaho's forests is the evening campfire. Who doesn't love roasted marshmallows as the evening chill sets in?

Chances are, if you camp, you're aware that campfires can cause wildfires. You know to make sure your fire is out, and to check for any fire closures in national forests.

But you may not know of another threat posed by your campfire: non-native insect pests and diseases that devastate our forests.

When you pack firewood from home, you may unkowingly be packing along some of these pests. An insect larva on a chip of wood could be all it takes to literally destroy the forest. The costs of controlling pests in eastern forests like the gypsy moth and the hemlock adelphid cost millions of dollars--and still the pests destroy more acres of forests each year.

Prevention is the key. And there is a simple way you can help:

Don't move firewood.

The Don't Move Firewood campaign, co-sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, asks campers and wood burners to take three simple steps:

1. Don't move firewood.
2. Talk to your local boy and girl scout troops--avid campfire builders--about the dangers posed by moving firewood.
3. Ask the seller if the firewood you are buying is from local trees.

The Dont' Move Firewood web site has many useful tips on how you can protect your local forests, and ensure the special places you camp will remain special for future generations. So, enjoy your campfire this summer, but leave the wood at home.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Willow Planting at Flat Ranch

In April, Idaho Nature Notes reported on winter willow clippings to help restore these plants along The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch Preserve. The willows are cut in the winter while they are dormant, to be grown at a nursery and replanted this summer.

Dava McCann, the Conservancy’s East Idaho field steward, provides an update on that project:

To complete the restoration project The Nature Conservancy started last year on the Flat Ranch Preserve, we needed to plant the willows that Chet Work clipped in the spring. Two-hundred of the willow clippings have been delivered to Upper Valley Natives to be grown in five-gallon containers. These willows will be planted after reaching 5 feet in height. However, 300 willow clippings were placed in a freezer to remain dormant until they could be planted. On June 19, these willows were planted in a collaborative effort between employees of The Nature Conservancy and the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

Since the outlet has been removed from the channel for many years, the banks are highly susceptible to erosion. When the Henry’s Fork makes a natural bend, the bank on the outside of that bend gets eroded by the forces of water. These outside backs are thus in need of deep rooted woody vegetation to hold the soil of the bank in place. Our group of 6 people identified on maps the portions of the bank that would need to be protected and then located the exact stretches of the bank once on the ground.
The clippings were on average 6 feet long. We dug holes in the ground using a 6 foot long metal rod with a slightly larger diameter than the clippings. The holes were dug to depths at or below the water table. Clippings without roots will develop root systems if the basal end of the clipping is left in water. The willow clippings were then placed in the hole and the soil was closed back around the clipping. Spacing was left for the 200 five-gallon willows that will be planted at a later date. Although the success rate of the clippings is lower than the success rate of the five-gallon willows, we hope that the cuttings will begin to stabilize the banks of the channel before the greenhouse grown willows are ready to plant.
Thanks to the staff that made this project possible: Dava McCann, East Idaho land steward; Neal Kaufman, Flat Ranch education coordinator; Brett Tatman, Flat Ranch intern; Anne Marie Miller, Henry's Fork Foundation conservation technician; Catie Carr, HFF intern; Bryan Jones, HFF intern