Friday, May 29, 2009

Mountain Bikers: Respect Ewe Turns

By Bas Hargrove, The Nature Conservancy

This is my favorite time of year in Boise.

The flowers are blooming, trees are leafing out, and the trails are drying up enough to ride. So I was in a fine mood on this evening in May, pedaling out the Watchman Trail, one of Ridge to Rivers’ latest additions to our community’s excellent trail system.

Ridge to Rivers does terrific work in negotiating access for trails that cross a mixture of public and private land, and Watchman is a great example of collaboration with partners like the Bureau of Land Management and the Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association in developing trails for hikers, bikers, equestrians and other users.

As my riding partner and I rounded a bend, we came upon a band of several hundred sheep stretching across the steep hillsides above, below, and on the trail ahead of us.

As we approached the first of the woolies, we coasted to a stop and began threading our way through the band. I looked with some trepidation at the two Pyrenees guard dogs on the trail ahead, hoping for a calm reaction to the strange interlopers on our ‘iron horses’ interrupting the flock’s evening graze.

Nice doggies.

With a little coaxing, the dogs allowed us safe passage through their charges. As we walked our bikes out the back end of the flock, we encountered the herder and exchanged pleasantries.

As we’d passed through the sheep, I’d noticed the impact the new trail had on the land. Excavation had left a swath of bare earth up- and downslope much wider than just the narrow singletrack we were riding.

Herding the sheep out of our path hadn’t helped matters, because it forced them to climb above us in steep spots where they might not normally tread, causing extra erosion. I was hopeful, however, that this time next year native grasses and forbs might begin to fill in the bare patches.

I was thinking about this confluence of human and livestock impacts as I got back on the bike, and noticed a four-pack of bikers just entering the sheep zone.

The lead rider let out a whoop and continued his rapid clip into the heart of the band, starting a stampede of sheep up the hill across the trail.

His actions also raised the ire of the alpha dog, who ran barking down the hill toward the riders. This set the lead rider to shouting at the dog and compelled the bikers to go faster, which scared the sheep even more. It was a mess.

My buddy and I continued down the trail, and the other riders soon caught up. As the lead fellow approached me from behind, he muttered something to the effect of, “Damn sheep. They’re destroying the trail. Hey, mind if I pass?” When I pulled over to let them by, I could only shake my head in wonder.

I wondered if the herder had been there last spring, and how the annual trek through the Foothills had changed with the addition of this trail. I wondered at the cluelessness of my fellow biker who apparently took it for granted that this stretch of trail was his birthright and that the sheep were just an obstacle to his enjoyment. And I wondered what we can all do as Foothills users to foster understanding and a light touch on the land.

Fortunately, the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission has asked the same question, and with its partners, came up with the Care and Share program to educate folks about best practices for grazers and trail users.

Bas Hargrove works for The Nature Conservancy in Boise and participates in the Idaho Working Lands Coalition.

Photo by Kirk Keogh,

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Amphibians in Idaho

Idaho conservationists don't often talk about amphibians. That's probably because the state has only fifteen species (and one of them, the bullfrog, is not native).

Compared to some areas of the tropics this is a paltry number: Colombia, for instance, has 754 amphibian species, with ten new species found just this year.

But Idaho still has some interesting frogs, toads and salamanders that you might see. Some, like the tiger salamander (above), may very well be in your backyard.
The Idaho giant salamander (above) prefers forest habitat. It often hides under logs, and is known for its tendency to "growl" when threatened. The Columbia spotted frog is a desert species; look for it in wetlands and low flowing rivers of the Owyhees.
I've found three Pacific tree frogs (above) in my yard this summer. Apparently, they move away from their riparian homes to lay eggs in any moist area they can find. They are often the frog species you will hear "peeping" on a summer night.
While The Nature Conservancy's work in Idaho does not specifically focus on amphibians, our work benefits these species. Protecting forest habitat, for instance, may be aimed at protecting elk and grizzly bears, but it also benefits Idaho giant salamanders. Wetland protection benefits many amphibian species.

Worldwide, amphibian species are facing a significant decline in numbers. Once-common species like the golden toad of Costa Rica have disappeared completely. A significant reason for the decline appears to be a fungal infection; some suggest that infection may be spreading due to climate change or pesticide use. With one-third of amphibian species worldwide threatened with extinction, ensuring the survival of frogs, toads, newts and salamanders is one of the conservation biology's most pressing challenges. --Matt Miller

Photo credits: tiger salamander by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Idaho giant salamander by National Park Service; Pacific tree frog by CS California via a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fishing Season Opens at Silver Creek

The fishing season opens on Silver Creek Preserve tomorrow, May 23, with a free barbeque, a nature walk and of course, world-class fishing.

It also starts the summer season at the preserve, with the visitor center open 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily, and free nature walks every Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

Visitors are welcome to the preserve for fly fishing, birding, wildlife viewing, hiking and canoeing. There is no admission fee, but donations are welcome. The Conservancy does require all visitors to sign in at the visitor center (the sign-in sheet is located on the porch).

Silver Creek Preserve includes 950 acres along one of the most famous trout streams in the country. Silver Creek is known for its large trout population and profuse mayfly hatches. Last year, anglers from all 50 states and 15 countries traveled to the preserve to test their skills against the stream’s legendarily wary fish.

The Nature Conservancy welcomes visitors, but asks that anglers and other users be sure to respect private property adjacent to the preserve. Several tributary streams are not on the preserve and are not open to public access.

“Preserve boundaries are clearly marked and our visitors must avoid private property outside the preserve,” says Dayna Gross, Silver Creek Preserve manager. “Adjacent landowners have done a tremendous amount of conservation work on their land that benefits the preserve, the creek’s clean water and all the wildlife in the area. It is really important that our visitors not trespass on these adjacent properties or tributary streams.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rubber Boa

The Conservancy's North Idaho land steward, Justin Petty, was recently lucky enough to find this creature--a rubber boa--while hiking in the Selkirk Mountains, near Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Boas in Idaho? It may seem strange to find a boa, a snake in the same family as the boa constrictor and anaconda, in Idaho's forests. The rubber boa is actually one of only two boa species found in North America.

The rubber boa is a very docile reptile; in fact, it is often used by therapists to help people overcome severe phobias to snakes.
It has a flat tail that looks like a second head. The snake raids mice and shrew nests, and that "second head" serves as a decoy so that animals defending their nests bite the tail instead of the head.
Rubber boas are not at all rare. But count yourself lucky if you see one: They are mainly active at night, and are very secretive, so most Idahoans never know they're around.
The North Idaho forests hold many interesting species. While most people hope to see a grizzly bear or a caribou or a wolverine, keep an eye out for other creatures, too. There just may be a boa under your feet.--Matt Miller
Photos by Justin Petty.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Imbalance, or In Balance?

Walk along any Idaho stream or river this spring, and you may catch a glimpse of the creature above: the American mink. Mink are common in Idaho, but never occur at very high densities.

They roam along streams, feasting on frogs, muskrats, crayfish and fish. They're a small predator, but quite efficient. Their sleek form allows quick movements and rapid attacks. But whether it's frogs or crayfish, stream creatures have evolved to better escape the mink's attacks.

Such is not the case in England, where mink are not native. Enough American mink have escaped from fur farms to establish substantial wild populations.

Which is bad news for England's stream creatures, particularly the water vole (pictured above).

On a recent trip to England, I saw one of these little mammals, which my brother described as a swimming guinea pig. They are, however, becoming an increasingly rare sight--the water vole is England's most rapidly declining animal.

Water voles are not adapted for the mink's hunting tactics, thus even a small number of mink can completely wipe out water voles from whole streams.

Removed from their native North American habitat, a mink becomes a pest.

Of course, European imports can have similar effects here. On the same England trip, I visited Cholderton Estate, a remarkable organic farm and wildlife conservation project owned by Henry Edmunds. (More on his extensive conservation efforts in an upcoming post).

Henry knows his plants, and showed me some of his favorite wildflowers in various meadows. I did a double take, though, when he described the spotted knapweed as "quite a nice plant." I've heard knapweed called many things, but "nice" is not one of them.

Of course, in England, it is a nice plant, because native insects keep it in check. In Idaho, it out-competes native plants and turns whole hillsides into knapweed monocultures.

Research often demonstrates that a "balance in nature" is a human construct. Natural systems ebb and flow, and are in constant states of change. Non-native species will likely prove to become more in balance with their habitats over time--although it may be in time frames much longer than humans are accustomed to thinking.

That said, the deliberate introduction of non-native species is avoidable and usually unnecessary. The imbalance caused by these introductions is not worth losing water voles, or native Idaho wildflowers. --Matt Miller

The spotted knapweed photo is by Kirt L. Onthank, licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. Other photos are courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Planting the 'Nature Fire'

Planting Day in the Burn Area

Visitors coming to the Silver Creek Preserve this spring will certainly notice some changes since last summer’s wildfire. The Nature Fire burned a total of 14,869 acres in and around the Picabo Hills in late August, including about 20 acres on The Nature Conservancy property. Sagebrush and other vegetation were consumed by flame, leaving an open, ash-covered landscape. Many acres have already been seeded with mixed native grasses and other herbaceous plants. It is amazing to see the gradual re-greening taking place.

To encourage the re-establishment of more shrubby vegetation, a volunteer planting day was held. Ed Papenberg, of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, acts as coordinator for the Volunteer for Habitat Restoration program. This group includes people of all ages, from individuals and families to schools, civic organizations, 4H and Scout groups, and state and federal entities like the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

With so many folks pitching in, it was a big group that met to plant bitterbrush seedlings on the BLM land in the hills south of Silver Creek Preserve. We all got delicious cookies as our “bribe” and “thank you” to get us going. We split up and carried planting bars and sacks of seedlings up into the burned-over hills. It was a glorious day, and the panoramic views of Silver Creek often distracted us from our duties! But thousands of bitterbrush plants were set into the damp soil by the enthusiastic crews.

Bitterbrush is a preferred food for large animals like the deer and elk that use this area as a winter range. The plants will also help stabilize the soil, and were selected as a native species that should grow well on this site.

In addition to these benefits, a major goal of the Volunteer for Habitat Restoration program is to involve people of all kinds in local conservation projects. Ed Papenberg stresses the importance of the volunteers’ personal involvement in the rehabilitation of natural areas, and the increased awareness of our surroundings that comes with participation in activities like the planting day.

It was a productive day all around- for habitat restoration, for wildlife, and for the human participants as well!