Thursday, January 31, 2008

Silver Creek Internships offer exploration in conservation

Silver Creek Crawford and Blumenstein internships available for 2008. Silver Creek offers two internships during the summer months. Both of these internships were established in the hopes of providing an, “experience that could be instrumental in influencing the professional path of a student, or for whom such an experience might spark a life-long interest in the environment and conservation."

The Blumenstein internship is open to Colorado College students; the Crawford internship is open to the public. Full job descriptions are available on The Nature Conservancy’s Careers page.

The Crawford internship was established by Gordon and Dona Crawford whose son fished Silver Creek often and fell in love with the place through his teen years. The Crawford’s internship endowment has grown in the past years and now also sponsors the Silver Creek preserve assistant. The endowment allows us to fully staff the preserve and keeps it looking and functioning well.

The Blumentstein family has created a Silver Creek’s Water and Wildlife Conservation Internship through Colorado College. This internship is a tribute to Charlie Blumenstein who fell in love with Silver Creek and spent many hours along its banks, much like the interns today. Both internships provide us with qualified staff for the Preserve and make the Preserve a place of learning, growing, and excitement during the summer months. We are so grateful to both families for leaving such a tangible and meaningful conservation legacy.

Avery Mackenzie, the 20o7 recipient of this internship, recently took some time to share some of her thoughts on this internship.

From Avery’s 2007 Report:

I headed into my internship for the summer of 2007 feeling a little differently than had many of my predecessors. Their reports used words like 'apprehensive', and 'excited tempered with nervousness'. Truthfully, I headed to Picabo, ID with one clear and unwavering emotion: Desire. It was the desire to catch huge trout!!! I had never been to Idaho before and all I knew about Idaho was potatoes, trout, and Hemingway. And Silver Creek Preserve has close ties to two of the three items (though I did eat vast quantities of the famous potatoes throughout the summer—including some delicious roasted red ones with the Blumensteins). I headed into the summer figuring that I would gauge my success by the pound weight of fish I caught, but in the end I realized that it was what I learned about conservation, successful administration of a non-profit and the hard work that it takes to make it happen that defined this as a successful summer. And the fishing wasn’t too bad either!

Water quality, habitat and biological monitoring: Successful management of a nature preserve requires attention to minute details and a good historical record of changes. Collecting data to update these records were a large part of my job. Measuring water quality on Silver Creek happened twice monthly at 5 different locations on the creek and its tributaries. Flow rates, depth and width measurements were taken to determine discharge. Turbidity, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, concentrations of nitrates, and phosphates were also measured to portray an in depth view of stream health.

USGS (US Geological Survey) and Idaho Fish and Game conduct fish monitoring on Silver Creek every three years and 2007 was in the cycle. This meant two weeks of an electroshocking “mark and recapture study”, some of which occurred in the middle of the night. Electrofishing may have been my favorite job requirement. Netting the floating fish was fun and wet and measuring and weighing the fish gave a good view of what fish were in the creek. As a huge proponent of “catch and release”, I was torn when they asked me to kill a portion of the fish we caught. Ultimately, I understood the importance of getting an accurate age for the fish (by measuring the layers on its ear bones) to look at survival rates for different brood year [USGS also took fish tissue samples at this point to measure mercury concentrations].

The last area of monitoring involved invertebrate sampling. Dayna, the Preserve’s manager had each intern write a goal for the summer at the beginning of the internship. My goal focused on learning about the macro-invertibrates found n in Silver Creek so as to help me better understand the diversity of aquatic life, hatch cycles, and ultimately make me a better at flyfishing. So invertebrate sampling interested me a great deal. I liked scrubbing the insects off the rocks and picking through the algae. The samples had to be sent off for identification by professionals, but the folks from USGS helped me with basic identification of family and genus.

Work at Silver Creek Preserve was incredibly varied, which kept it interesting for me. No days were the same and I appreciated the diverstity and breadth of things I learned. This summer has not necessarily changed my career plans (I still send in my Medical School application), but it has made me appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into the preservation of the “last great places on Earth.” Read Avery's full report.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Winter Range

In the past 24 hours, 18 inches of snow has fallen in the Wood River Valley. The power is out at Silver Creek Preserve due to blasting wind and drifting snow. In North Idaho, 14 new inches of powder covers the ground, and East Idaho is experiencing a white-out. Even those of us who live in Boise were greeted by snow and ice this morning.

Chances are, if you’re in Idaho today, you’re experiencing a bit of winter weather.

For us, all this might be an inconvenience. But for mule deer and other big game, it's a matter of life and death.

Our big game herds need places where they can escape this heavy snow, places where they can find nutritious forage and save energy to get them through this harsh weather.

The valleys—once covered in farms and ranches—offer the best hope for big game. But as those farms and ranches are developed deer have to deal with new hazards—roads, dogs, less native plants, more people disturbing them.

That’s why protecting winter range is so important. And you can help, too. Whether it’s driving slower or helping plant bitterbrush, there are many ways you can help make winter easier on big game animals. Read more on how you can lend a "helping hoof." -- Matt Miller

Knowledge, Assumption and Conservation

Is a whale a fish? Every school child knows the answer to this one. It’s common knowledge, right? A whale is not a fish; it’s a mammal.

However, in the early 1800’s this was a hotly contested question, as recounted in science historian D. Graham Burnett’s recently published book, Trying Leviathan. In New York City, in fact, this question was put to trial.

A law requiring all barrels of fish oil in New York to be inspected resulted in a fine being levied against a merchant selling whale oil. When he protested that a whale was not a fish, it set the stage for a court trial in which this question was what was to be decided.

For most New Yorkers, this was one of the most ridiculous questions they had ever heard. Of course the whale was a fish. Based on the taxonomy of the day, and biblical interpretation, how could a whale be anything but? This was considered common sense, common knowledge.

A prominent biologist testified that a whale was emphatically not a fish. But he was widely ridiculed in the popular press and on the street. Whalers and whale product merchants also took the stand, providing testimony based on their observations.

In the end, it took the jury fifteen minutes to decide that a whale was indeed a fish. As one newspaper reported, this “settled the matter once and for all.”

Or not. Taxonomy and biology were on the cusp of a significant revolution. Today, it's true the matter is “settled once and for all,” but not quite the way New Yorkers of 1818 would have imagined.

What does this have to do with conservation? As a scientific endeavor, and one that concerns a wide variety of people, conservation can benefit greatly from a review of science history.

For one, there are likely many opinions we consider “common sense” and “true” that will be proven false in time. This has happened to every generation in history; there’s no reason to believe ours will be different. This should be cause for humility as we move forward, in conservation and in other endeavors.

But it’s also true that knowledge builds on itself. While we are certainly wrong on many things, we will not suddenly go back to thinking that a whale is a fish. That question is settled.

Figuring out what is this genuine knowledge and what is incorrect assumption is the work of many lifetimes.

Conservation science, compared to taxonomy, is relatively new. Taxonomy experienced many fits and starts, as well as trendy ideas that proved to be way off base and resistance to untrendy new ideas that proved to be quite basic. Taxonomic debates continue today but our knowledge in this field is significantly greater than it was in 1818.

Conservation science will likewise experience many fits and starts. And since conservation deals with human values, the issues will be even more complicated. What people want for their world matters a great deal for conservation. And that is not solely a scientific inquiry.

The goal of conserving the diversity of wildlife, clean water and air and a healthy human habitat will only happen with the engagement of many different people from many different backgrounds. There is so much that remains to be answered as to how best to accomplish such hopeful goals—which makes conservation one of humanity’s great undertakings. But as we move forward, we must always remember the past, proceeding with the best information available, and always with a large helping of humility. -- Matt Miller

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Snow Stories

When a friend recently moved to Caldwell, west of Boise, his friendly new neighbors told him how they used to cross-country ski from their neighborhood to the downtown. Apparently, skiing downtown used to be something that Caldwell residents could count on in the winter.

Upon hearing this, did my friend run out and buy cross-country skis in anticipation? Is the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce promoting an annual ski derby through the downtown?

No. Of course not.

If you know Caldwell, you know significant snowfall isn’t likely anytime soon. Intuitively, you know things have changed.

Through history, stories have been humanity’s way of mapping the world. Our stories are already reflecting our earth’s changing climate—even if we don’t realize it yet.

It’s true that urbanization—as has happened to Caldwell—warms the area and influences snowfall. It’s also true that anecdotal evidence—a cold snap here, a sweltering summer there—is notoriously inaccurate, particularly when dealing with a large-scale phenomenon like the changing climate.

That’s why climate science and research remains so critical in determining what is actually happening—and what individuals and governments can change to protect our quality of life.

But decades and generations from now, it will be the stories that stick in memories. “I remember when snow used to fall here every winter” is not just nostalgia, it’s our way of mapping the way the world was.

With the changing climate, some of the stories will be of southern animals and plants moving north. What new species will future generations take for granted as Idaho residents that today are absent?

Others will be of animals disappearing. If you have read about climate change, you know that polar bears aren’t faring well, and could disappear within decades. But it’s not only Arctic wildlife. Around the West, the pika—a cute little alpine mammal that lives on mountain peaks—is in serious decline. Research suggests that as the climate warms, the pikas are forced higher up peaks—and away from other pikas. On these high mountain “islands” pikas are vulnerable and isolated, and thus their population is plummeting.

What other stories will we tell about the climate? Will Boise residents someday recall the time when you could ski on Bogus Basin? Will Baltimore orioles be absent from Baltimore? Will future generations speak of polar bears as we speak of mammoths—a fanciful creature gone from the landscape? Will our iconic cities be the stuff of legend--because they are all underwater?

These stories are yet to be told. In our actions, in our choices, we can help shape the answers. Hopefully, the stories already being told about the changing climate can influence new people to act on behalf of the economy, wildlife, our quality of life--and the world we leave to future generations. – Matt Miller

Monday, January 14, 2008

Big Trout

Big trout have been in the news a lot lately. Near the end of 2007, 16-year-old Jake Cecil landed an estimated 23-pound rainbow trout in the Boise River. If Jake hadn't gutted the fish, it would likely have been the new state record. Earlier in the year, a new Idaho state brown trout record (above), was set when Wes Case caught this 37-inch, 27.3 pound fish in the Ashton Reservoir of eastern Idaho.

The brown trout is not native to the United States. But this species was so popular among sport anglers in the U.K. and continental Europe, they couldn't resist stocking trout far and wide. That's why, today, you can catch a brown trout in Argentina, New Zealand, India, Kenya and many other places around the globe. This has undoubtedly impacted native fish, and today seems ecologically irresponsible. But the brown trout is here to stay.

And some of these trout grow huge, especially in reservoirs. Mr. Case's new record had two hatchery rainbow trout ten to twelve inches in length. Obviously such new food sources allow the long-lived brown to put on substantial weight.

But what about in an unstocked stream environment? How big can brown trout get there?

Typically, trout do not grow as large in streams. But in a stream with plenty of insects and trout to eat, browns can grow quite large indeed.

Silver Creek is not stocked, but is biologically highly productive. One has only to experience one of the stunning mayfly hatches--and the trout feeding on those insects--to see just how conducive this stream is to trout. The trout count remains one of the highest in the country.

With all this food, the trout can grow very large--and become very hard to catch. Anyone who has fished the preserve's Sullivan's Pond--also known as the "shark tank"--has seen the monstrous fish swimming by, seemingly oblivious to any fly tossed at them.

But every year, anglers do land the big ones. While no official records have been taken, the largest we've seen is this one:

Former Silver Creek intern Morgan Buchert caught this 33-inch fish in 2006. While it's known the trout was caught at night, exactly where and how have remained Morgan's secret. There may very well be larger fish in Silver Creek.

But for most of us, these huge ones are always just out of reach. You never know, though. Every time you fish Silver Creek, there is that chance for a truly big one. The fish are there. You just need to figure out how to catch one. You have five months until opening day to dream up that perfect pattern and that perfect strategy for this year. -- Matt Miller

Monday, January 07, 2008

Eagle Nation

Eagles everywhere: Iowa may be known for its cornfields, but during my holiday travels to my in-laws' farm in the northeast corner of the state, it was the bald eagles that held my interest. Literally every excursion outside yielded multiple sightings of this beautiful bird.

Just a couple of decades ago, seeing an eagle anywhere was an exciting event.
By the 1960's, the population in the contiguous United States was down to 412 breeding pairs. The recovery of the bald eagle population is yet another conservation success story, another reason for hope when faced with today's daunting environmental challenges.

The banning of DDT, stronger penalties for illegal shooting and habitat protection all benefited our national bird's recovery.

And what a beautiful bird a mature bald eagle is. It's well known that Ben Franklin opposed the eagle as the national bird--suggesting instead the wild turkey--allegedly due to the eagle's carrion eating ways. In reality, Franklin probably stated this in jest.

But it is true that the eagle is not picky in what it eats. In Iowa, for instance, it dines on white-tailed deer gut piles and road kills--inevitable with the state's absolutely exploding deer population. It will also dine on dead hogs left in the field from factory farms. For some reason, scavenging has always seemed to humans as being somehow less-than-noble, but conservationists recognize the vital role nature's clean-up crews play in any ecosystem.

Winter is a great time to see eagles in Idaho, too. Look along any open waterways, from the Boise Greenbelt to the South Fork of the Snake to Silver Creek. No matter how many times you've seen one, an eagle soaring overhead remains one of nature's most striking sights. --Matt Miller