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