Monday, January 26, 2009

The Elk Zone

Last night, KTVB-Channel 7 reported on people feeding elk right in their backyards in Garden Valley. Apparently, some elk will eat right out of human hands.

It's hard to believe these are the same animals that so successfully elude hunters in the high country. But elk are opportunistic animals, and they're not going to pass up easy food during the harsh winter months.

Elk feeding has a long tradition in the West. In some areas, like Donnelley, ranchers feed elk from sleds--bringing in money from tourists and keeping elk away from their cattle. The most famous feeding area, the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, draws about 11,000 elk (plus some bison and equally opportunistic wolves) each year.

Elk feeding areas are controversial, with some conservationists claiming that they become reservoirs for disease, with so many animals feeding in a concentrated area. Others believe large numbers of elk would not make it through the winter without them.

Which begs the question: How did elk survive the winter before feeding areas?

The unfortunate truth is that many of the places elk spent the winter are now covered in houses. The valleys where snowfall is light are often the first places to be developed. The town of Jackson cut off many migration routes, which is why the National Elk Refuge is necessary.

Of course, the best conservation option now is to ensure that important big game wintering areas and migration routes remain undeveloped. Many such areas are ranches, farms and private forest lands, all of which face increasing pressures from developers. Conservation incentives like easements to keep these lands in production--and open for wildlife--makes more sense than trying to make feeding areas compensate for a lack of habitat.

You can also help by avoiding areas used by big game animals--the stress of your presence burns calories they'll need to get through the season.

Elk can be amazingly adaptable animals. One well-known bull elk hung out with a herd of cattle last winter right off the Boise Greenbelt, no doubt enjoying the easy food and safety. After a brief hiatus this fall, he returned to his adopted herd for this winter.

But as adaptable as elk are, they still need good habitat. No feeding area will make up for the loss of natural feed to shopping malls, roads and housing developments.--Matt Miller

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bud Burst

Is climate change affecting when flowers bloom, when fruit appears, when trees bud?

You can help researchers answer that question. Project BudBurst is asking you to report when buds and flowers first appear on trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

While the plants in your own backyard by themselves won't determine long-term trends, when tracked with thousands of plants across the nation a clearer picture emerges.

Participating is easy--simply follow the instructions on BudBurst's web site and be sure to report your observations on-line.

"Citizen-science" projects are a great way to help scientists, but they can also help you better understand the nature that is around you--in your backyard, around your neighborhood, in a city park. The Great Backyard Bird Count has been highly successful in tracking bird population and migration trends, for instance.

Now it's time to watch your backyard trees. While spring may seem a long time from now, keep an eye out on those trees, and give researchers a helping hand. --Matt Miller

Monday, January 12, 2009

Robins Return

Yesterday I saw the first robin of the year, singing cheerily at the Ted Trueblood Wildlife Area near Grand View.

I recall the first robin once being a sure sign of spring's imminent arrival. But lately, it seems as if robins are arriving earlier each year. Are they really? And if so, what's going on?

As with so many natural history questions, the answers are a bit more complex than it might first appear.

For one thing, robins are short-distance migrants. They don't go all the way to South America each year, but rather just head south far enough to avoid cold weather. However, a certain small number of robins have always stayed in place and braved the cold weather. The robin I saw could have been a bird that never left.

And actually, more robins are staying in colder climes because of changes to habitat. Suburbia--with more fruit trees and more shrubs--are ideal conditions for robins. Additionally, backyards offer high numbers of earthworms. To see an illustration of this, dig up a shovel of earth in your grassy lawn, and then dig up a shovel out in the Owyhees.

Finally, there is research to suggest that migratory robins are indeed showing up earlier, probably due to climate change.

My lone sighting doesn't mean much beyond satisfying my personal interest. But with other observations, it can help ornithologists detect long-term trends. Bird observation is one area where amateur observers are still making a difference.

Backyard bird counts can help scientists track population trends, species declines and changes in range introduction. This winter, sign up for the Great Backyard Bird Count or Project FeederWatch, two great ways to help bird conservation just by observing birds in your neighborhood, city park or own backyard. Your observations can help shape inform scientists so that we better understand--and can better conserve--our feathered friends.--Matt Miller

Photo courtesy of Tom Grey.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Wildlife Adventure...At the Dump

Where do the wild things roam? If you look to nature shows and nature books, the answer is clear: Far, far away. Nature, we learn, is some place out there, free from human influence. The otherwise excellent Planet Earth series, for instance, features almost no footage of humans in its grand tour of human habitats. After finishing Rick Bass' recent memoir, Why I Came West, I was disheartened by Bass' assertion that only in wilderness areas can humans truly connect with the natural world.

I'll state up front that I believe we need the large wildernesses full of large predators and large herds and migrating fish. We need to protect what remains of these places for future generations. But conservationists are sending entirely the wrong message if we're communicating that nature can only be found in such big places.

The truth is, wild nature can be found all around us. Conservationists are often not made in the wilderness; they're made in woodlots and farm fields and little streams and vacant lots.

Last week, my wife and I walked with our nephew Jacob down a snowy Iowa farm lane: Not wilderness, but full of tracks of deer and rabbit and turkey and pheasant and coyote and vole. Jacob loved trying to figure out what creatures had passed, where they may have headed, what stories were written there in the snow. I was reminded that such great conservationists as Aldo Leopold and John Madson were not first introduced to wild things in the great Rocky Mountain wildernesses, but rather on Iowa farms much like the one we were exploring.

The curious naturalist knows that the wonders of nature are not just out there, but often right before us--sometimes in the most unlikely of places.

Like the city dump. This weekend, you can see some of that wildness yourself. Hard-core birder R.L. Rowland leads his annual gull watching trip to the Boise Landfill, beginning at 9 AM. In what is perhaps the most bizarre Idaho nature trip you'll ever take, R.L. will help you identify the many gulls that visit this landfill--as many as twenty species some years. As with all of the always excellent Golden Eagle Audubon Society field trips, this one is free. Call 336-9808 or email R.L. to sign up.

Even in a city, there is wildness to explore. Chances are, you had no idea that twenty different gull species, right now, are circling over Boise. Let's keep working to protect the big wildernesses, but let's also not lose sight of the wonders that are all around us, every day. --Matt Miller