Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Idaho Annual Report

Download our Idaho annual report, featuring the conservation accomplishments your support made possible. Check out stories on wolverines, Lava Lake, Hemingway’s Idaho heritage and more.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Flat Top Ranch Protected by Blaine County Conservation Levy

The Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Program -- created by a special voter conservation levy -- funded its first project today, a 1,114 acre conservation easement on the Flat Top Ranch owned by the Peavey Family.

Blaine County and The Nature Conservancy of Idaho each contributed 50% of the funds for the easement acquisition. The easement will be held by the Conservancy in perpetuity. The Board of Blaine County Commissioners unanimously approved the project for funding last week. The Nature Conservancy and the Peaveys completed the easement purchase/sale transaction today.

This easement is the first conservation project funded by a county conservation legacy anywhere in Idaho.

“Preserving clean water, wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches will be a tremendous gift to our children and grandchildren,” Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said when the levy passed in 2008.

The Flat Top Ranch is located between the Pioneer Mountains and the Craters of the Moon region of south-central Idaho, in the heart of one of the most stunning and ecologically important places in Idaho. The project helps protect one of the longest pronghorn migration routes in the country. It will protect fish habitat and water quality in the Little Wood River, and preserve working agricultural lands and the wide-open vistas of the Pioneer Mountains.

Residents of Blaine County who participated in three public workshops identified this area as a high priority for conservation due to its extraordinary wildlife, agricultural lands, and scenic views. The area has also been identified as a priority for conservation within Idaho by multiple other planning efforts, including by the Pioneers Alliance.

The conservation easement protects two parcels of land located at the confluence of Muldoon Creek and the Little Wood River, east of Bellevue and north of Carey. It ensures that access to High Five Canyon, a popular recreation area, will continue. These parcels are significant landmarks at the entrance to the Little Wood River Valley.

The easement will be added to 8,414 acres of land already protected on the Flat Top Ranch. The Ranch is owned by John and Diane Peavey, and has been in the Peavey family for generations.

John and Diane are well known throughout the west for preserving the history and cultural heritage of ranching through their writing, radio programs and the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival in the Wood River Valley.

Clare Swanger, LWWP Coordinator, noted, “The completion of this first project under the Land, Water and Wildlife Program is an historic day for Blaine County and for the entire state of Idaho.
We appreciate the Peavey family’s dedication to their ranch and their decision to conserve it.”

“The citizens of Blaine County recognize that abundant wildlife and our agricultural heritage contribute so much to our quality of life,” says Trish Klahr, senior policy associate for the Conservancy. “This easement helps ensure that pronghorns, ranches and wide-open spaces remain a part of our county for generations to come.”

Land, Water and Wildlife Program
The Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Program was created after voters approved in 2008 a special two-year levy identified as Proposition 1–the Land, Water and Wildlife Levy. The levy raised over $3.4 million to be used to protect clean water in the Big Wood and Little Wood River watersheds, to preserve fish and wildlife habitat and to protect working farms, ranches and open space.

“Voter approval was an historic achievement for Blaine County, as we became the first county in Idaho to have funding to protect the landscapes that our citizens cherish,” said the Levy Advisory Board’s first Chair and former County Commissioner, Alan Reynolds.

The language of the Land, Water and Wildlife Levy required formation of the Levy Advisory Board (LAB), a citizen’s oversight committee. The committee’s primary responsibility is to recommend to the Blaine County Commissioners the highest and best use of the levy funds to achieve optimal conservation value and public benefit. The LAB is also charged with creating and running a transparent, standardized process for reviewing and ranking potential projects and clearly defining the types of lands and waters to be protected by the levy funds.

In late 2010, the all-volunteer LAB completed the necessary criteria checklists, application materials, and a complete program guide with the help of generous public input. The LAB began accepting applications for conservation projects that could meet the levy’s goals in early 2011.

Short pre-applications may be submitted for consideration at any time. The next deadlines for full applications are March 15 and October 15, 2012.

Information about the program, including conservation and project criteria and all application materials is available online at the program’s website or by contacting Blaine County Land Use & Building Services at 219 1st Ave. South in Hailey, 208-788-5570.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Juniper Chomping in Action

Junipers are a native tree, but due to improper grazing and other habitat loss, they are spreading at an alarming rate: more than 100,000 acres per year.

Uncontrolled juniper spread leads to a monoculture in sagebrush habitat. Sage grouse avoid areas with trees, because trees provide a perch for raptors.

The Nature Conservancy and partners are leading an effort to chomp up junipers and turn them into mulch. The area is then replanted with native shrubs and grasses, restoring habitat for sage grouse and other native wildlife.

This video shows the juniper "chomper"--technically known as a masticator--in action.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cougar Bay Trails Enhanced

Hikers should note new trail changes including closures on private property.

Hikers will soon benefit from the proposed enhancements to the trail system at The Nature Conservancy’s Cougar Bay Preserve and the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) John C. Pointner Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary at Cougar Bay.

Through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the adjoining Cougar Bay lands will be co-managed for hiking, recreation and wildlife habitat preservation.

The BLM is currently working with an adjacent landowner on an easement which will allow construction of a new trail system that would extend eastward to the BLM managed parcel at Cougar Bay. When completed, this addition would offer hikers almost an additional mile of trail as well as outstanding views of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The new trail will also connect to a Nature Conservancy parcel of land which lies further to the east near Donovan’s Point. Trail construction would likely commence in early summer, 2012.
Beginning October 1, the existing Nature Conservancy trail system will be modified.

The original trail system was located partially on private land forestlands to the south through a land-use agreement with the previous owner. Adjacent private lands have been closed due to misuse by some users.

A new loop trail has been established wholly on Nature Conservancy forestland. A map of the new trail system will be posted at the trailhead signboard located just off of Highway 95, south of Coeur d’Alene.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Middle School Students Make a Difference at Silver Creek

Each year, the 6th grade classes at the Wood River Middle School--taught by Claudia Gaeddert and Ginger Rierden--pick a cause to support. This year, they wanted to benefit a special place in their backyard.

Sustainability is a part of the sixth grade curriculum at Wood River Middle School, and the students chose Silver Creek Preserve as their project.

The Nature Conservancy is honored that the 6th graders chose our preserve for this year's cause. Inspired by a visit to the preserve, the students designed and sold the buttons that illustrate this blog post.

This story perhaps begins before the students arrived, during a summer event at the preserve. Oregon State University and other partners hosted a biodiversity and farm tour that included Ernie's Organics owned by Fred and Judy Brossy along the Big Wood River, a stop at the preserve and a tour of the showcase barely farm owned by John and Elizabeth Stevenson.

The tour earned fantastic reviews, but more than that, it is one of those educational events that succeeded in getting people to think about conservation in new ways.

Conservationists at Silver Creek often think about trout, herons and moose. This tour brought alive the amazing world of pollinators and other beneficial insects.

And that's what the sixth graders focused on: They learned about the role insects play at the creek from preserve manager Dayna Gross and farmer Gary Beck. They were inspired to raise money to fund a butterfly garden at the preserve's visitor center.

"The students learned it wasn't just about the preserve," says Ms. Rierden. "They learned that conservation is about how we live here and work here and make money here, while still protecting a very special place."

And so the students got to work. They designed and sold buttons. They also created "The Power of Change," a drive to collect spare change undertaken by all students at Wood River Middle School.

"Eleven- and twelve-year-olds are game for anything," says Ms. Gaeddert. "I wish we could all stay twelve. They look at a challenge and think, 'Wow, we can do this!' There's some real magic that happens."

The result: Nearly $3100 raised for Silver Creek! What an amazing, inspirational effort, and one that will result in more beneficial insects in the Silver Creek Valley. The garden can also inspire the thousands of visitors to our preserve to make their own efforts to benefit pollinators, butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Thank you again to the sixth grade students, the teachers and all who bought buttons or gave spare change. You made a difference for a special place. We look forward to working with you more to protect Silver Creek! -- Matt Miller

Monday, November 28, 2011

Green Gift Monday

With cyber Monday, the holiday shopping season is in full swing, with the usual crazy stories of excess and insanity. But can your holiday gift buying help the planet?

The Nature Conservancy is asking you to give green this holiday season. Support Green Gift Monday and sign the pledge.

The Nature Conservancy wants to encourage you to find responsible, meaningful holiday gifts—make something, give an experience, donate to a cause or purchase an eco-friendly product.

You can find gift guides and useful tips for your holiday traditions. We hope you join us--and make a difference for the planet this holiday season.

Monday, November 21, 2011


The wolverine gets all the press.

But the wolverine isn't the only tough, solitary, mysterious and tough member of the weasel family.

Meet the fisher.

The fisher roams the forest in search of any prey it can catch. It's one of the few predators that successfully and regularly hunts porcupines (but, contrary to popular outdoor lore, it doesn't flip over the porcupine and scoop out its soft underside).

Due to their solitary nature, wide home range and preference for heavy forest cover, fishers are not well studied.

In Idaho, they're also quite rare. In fact, fishers were exterminated from the state by the early 1900's due to a deadly combination of over-trapping and clear cutting.

Fishers were reintroduced to Idaho in the 1960's. How are they doing? That answer is unclear, but it's undeniable that they remain one of the state's rarer mammals.

Fishers require heavy forest cover. Conservationists often list them as one of those animals that can only thrive in large, unbroken, roadless tracts of forest--the kind of forests Idaho has in abundance.

And that is true...sort of.

Fishers do require heavy forest cover, and they do need room to roam. But fishers might require a bit more--and a bit less--than we imagine.

Fishers were eliminated from my home state of Pennsylvania, as in Idaho, more than a century ago. With much of the state clearcut, fishers were concentrated into remaining pockets of forest--where they became easy for trappers to catch.

From 1994 through 1998, 190 fishers were reintroduced to six areas of northern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a smaller state than Idaho, but has 10 million more residents. The forests are today a mix of deciduous hardwoods and conifers. There are far more roads, and far more people recreating in the forests.

And yet, fishers thrive in Pennsylvania. They've spread over much of the state, including into areas considered unsuitable for their needs. The state now allows a limited trapping season, and still the fishers appear to be spreading and thriving.

It's a similar story throughout the eastern United States. Fishers in West Virginia, New York and New England flourish while those in less populated regions of the Rockies do not.

This may in part be due to the maturity of forests in the east. Fishers require heavy forest cover, and seem to prefer hunting around dead tree snags on the ground. They do not survive well in second-growth forest.

There is also an abundance of prey in eastern forests. Despite their specific habitat requirements, fishers adapt readily to any available prey. The fisher's most common prey of Canadian boreal forest--snowshoe hares--are not common in Pennsylvania. But they have adapted to the abundant gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits and even carrion from road-killed deer.

Conservation is complicated. The fisher does have specific habitat needs. But that doesn't mean it can only survive in huge, roadless areas. In this case, the forests of Pennsylvania--while more fragmented and less "wild"--appear to be much more suited to fishers today than Idaho.

Clearly, though, there is much room for research on this little known carnivore. Perhaps as we learn more, we can bring back this fascinating animal to the Rockies, much as has been done in the eastern forests. -- Matt Miller

Monday, November 14, 2011

Starling Murmuration & Other Flock Behavior

A flock of starlings may not seem like a phenomenon to inspire awe. But a recent viral video proves otherwise.

Starlings (in a group, technically called a murmuration rather than a flock) can amass in huge numbers. When they fly, their movements look coordinated--even when the flock consists of thousands of birds.

As the video captures beautifully, these flocks shift shapes and move in ways that hardly seem possible.

Among the many breathless news reports on this video, one sees repeatedly that the videographer caught something extremely rare, something almost never seen in nature.

Well, not quite.

This is a natural phenomenon that you can see this fall, in Idaho, fairly easily. Just find a roosting or feeding area of starlings, blackbirds or other birds that live in large flocks. With a little patience, you'll be rewarded by these amazing flights.

In fact, just last week I saw a blackbird flock flying in patterns nearly as astounding and magical as the viral video. And I didn't have to travel far: The flight took place near the Albertson's on Federal Way and Gowen Road in Boise. Blackbirds roost nearby, and you can often see this behavior at dusk.

The flock I saw looked at first like a tornado, then moved in waves much like the flock in the video. At times, the birds seemed to turn simultaneously.

Seeing this behavior raises many questions. How do they coordinate movement? How do they keep from running into each other? Where are they going?

The study of flock behavior is quite fascinating. Birds form flocks largely for protection from predators. An individual bird (or fish, or wildebeest) is much less likely to become a predator's meal in a large group.

A flock also makes it difficult for a hawk or owl to pick out one specific target. Can you imagine trying to focus on one bird when they are moving in ever-shifting waves?

Although the movements may look choreographed, the birds are not moving in a planned direction. Each bird reacts to the birds next to it, setting off a chain reaction. The birds react in milliseconds--too fast for us to perceive--so it only looks coordinated.

There are no leaders in such flocks. Each bird reacts only to what the others are doing. As such, one bird's flinch can set off a chain reaction in the air, resulting in the wildly fantastical shapes and bends to the flocks. At times, one birds' reaction can cause swirling mid-air for several minutes (as in the video).

Eventually though, the swirling flock gets back on track and proceeds to its destination.

Many amazing natural phenomena can be seen right in your own backyard. Get outside: the large flocks await.

Photograph by Edibob, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Trout Rescue

Each year, many trout swim into irrigation canals when those canals fill with water.

When the canals are drained in the autumn, the fish are trapped and then die.

Last week, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy staged a rescue operation for rainbow trout trapped in irrigation canals. Working with the canal companies, they netted the fish as the water levels in the canals began dropping.

More than one thousand fish were rescued and transported to Crystal Creek, a newly restored spring creek located on Heart Rock Ranch.

In addition, the Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited has rescued more than four thousand fish this fall, which were released in Silver Creek and the Big Wood River.

Heart Rock Ranch was bought last year by Harry and Shirley Hagey, who acquired two ranches south of Bellevue to protect and restore the wildlife habitat and agricultural heritage on the properties.

Shirley is pictured above rescuing trout from canals.

Spring creek restoration was one of their first goals, and that project commenced this summer. The streams are already looking excellent. Now there are rainbow trout--fish that would have otherwise died--to inhabit these waters, tributaries of the Big Wood River.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dead Trees & Forest Birds

Dead trees used to be considered useless, a waste of timber. Conservationists now recognize them as vitally important for wildlife, in particular forest birds.

Take an autumn walk in Idaho's expansive forests and you'll see just how important these trees are. It's a great time of year to see various woodpeckers and other species foraging around old snags.

This weekend, as I climbed a ridge in the Boise National Forest, the forest was constantly abuzz with activity--much of it centered around dead trees. Hairy woodpeckers (above) were particularly common, alternately chattering to each other and loudly hammering holes in trees. Bark flew as they probed the tree for insects.

Pygmy nuthatches, chickadees and red-shafted flickers darted around the branches. The nuthatches appeared to be picking off insects stirred up by the hairy woodpeckers.

On other forest hikes, I've seen pileated woodpeckers, red-naped sapsuckers and Lewis woodpeckers around dead trees. If you stand quietly, you can often watch them hammering a hole in a tree from just a few feet away. The woodpeckers are among the most entertaining birds to observe. I particularly enjoyed spotting several white-headed woodpeckers, a beautiful species and a "life bird" for me. These western birds in particular need dead trees to survive. If they're removed from a forest, the white-headed woodpeckers disappear.

Well-managed private and public forests save dead snags as "bird trees." The photos on this blog show some well-used "bird trees" on private forest land in North Idaho.

Get out and enjoy your Idaho forests, and keep an eye out for the many interesting birds that live there. They're hard to miss at this time of year. --Matt Miller Photos: Hairy woodpecker by Mdf via a the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. White-headed woodpecker courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dead tree snags by Matt Miller.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Idaho's Public Lands

Watch The People's Land on PBS. See more from Outdoor Idaho.

Idaho is 60% public land--a statistic that many of us consider one of the greatest aspects of living here.

But public lands can also inspire contentious debate about roads, land use, ranching, logging, endangered species, recreation and many other issues.

This month, Outdoor Idaho features an excellent program on Idaho's public lands and the issues these lands face. You can watch the full episode above.

There are also a number of stories of people involved, including Bill Higgins, who is working with The Nature Conservancy and other organizations on the Clearwater Basion Collaborative.

Enjoy the episode. We hope it inspires you to speak out for this special legacy of lands and waters.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Cutting Edge

Blog and photo by Sus Danner, the Idaho's Chapter's director of protection (pictured here, center, with mill manager Jesse Short, left, and resource manager, Bob Blanford).

Recently I traveled to North Idaho to visit some of the conservation projects The Nature Conservancy is undertaking there. I write conservation easements on working timberland in Boundary County, where grizzly bears, bull trout and forest products are all supported by healthy forests.

In North Idaho, development and fragmentation are putting our healthy forests in peril. A working timberland conservation easement is a permanent agreement between a forest owner and the Conservancy that prohibits certain land uses – like development, mining and subdivision – while allowing for ongoing timber management and harvest.

And a conservation easement can ensure that forest products can be harvested from the property forever – creating a stable economic output. A special interest I had was to see where timber harvested on our conservation easements goes once it leaves the forest.

Since many North Idaho towns are undergoing economic hardships, I wanted to see how our conservation easements can play a role in keeping rural communities economically viable.

I’ve never been inside a lumber mill before, but I’ve always wanted to see one.

I didn’t know it, but I was about to be surprised. Lumber mills of today have enough lasers, 3-D scanners, safety features and cutting edge technology to put the Jet Propulsion Lab to shame.

Idaho Forest Group runs a state-of-the-art lumber mill in Moyie Springs, Idaho, and two of their staff – resource manager Bob Blanford and mill manager Jesse Short - graciously offered me a tour.

We arrived at the business office and had a safety briefing before we were issued hardhats, orange hi-visibility vests, earplugs and safety glasses. The Moyie Springs Mill places a premium on safety, and I saw evidence of attention to safety practices everywhere I went.

I watched logging trucks pull up to be weighed, with small diameter logs aboard – very similar to the logs that are harvested from lands the Conservancy holds conservation easements on.

The logs were removed by Cat 988s, and were then arranged over a fifty-acre yard and measured by mill workers called ‘log scalers.’ A log sorter and loader then raised logs onto a conveyor belt, which whisked them into the mill. Each log goes through an optical scanner as it enters the mill – I was soon to see why.
I was glad for the earplugs, as the noise inside was an intense rattle, screech and rumble. Archimedes would have been pleased by what he saw – every type of simple machine was in use, whether alone or compounded.

Metal mesh catwalks allowed us to walk safely over the rushing conveyor belts and machinery.

We did our best to keep out of the way of the friendly, busy workers. There are about 100 men and women employed at the Moyie Springs Mill, and on any given shift, about 65 people are working there.

In the center of the mill, we opened a heavy door and entered a sound-proofed room full of live-feed video and computer screens. The room was dark and stuffy, and in the center of the room was a man in a chair with consoles at the end of both armrests. The consoles and two wings on either side had more than one hundred buttons, levers, joysticks and lights.

Each video feed showed moving machinery, logs and lumber, and each computer screen showed a 3D scan of each log as it entered the mill. The scan calculated how many boards, of what dimensions, could be made from each log.

The computer also calculated the rotation that each log would need to have in order to achieve maximum efficiency from the cut. On every screen, logs rumbled at breakneck speed through the apparatus. The man had to monitor all 17 screens, and slow or stop any conveyor or machine that was too crowded or had a mechanical problem.

The man looked as calm and collected as Ripley in Aliens. I’m certain he could have operated a cargo-loader against an alien queen without batting an eye.
After a day or less in the drying kilns, the cut pieces of lumber are assessed for quality. I watched the mill workers gauge and grade each piece of lumber as it moved by on a conveyor belt.

The workers were looking for lumber that was checked, cracked, excessively knotted, irregular or otherwise lower-quality. They marked the boards with different colors corresponding to quality.

All boards will be sold; but the best boards will fetch a premium from the retail outlets.Finally, the graded boards were sent through a labeler, bar coder and waxer – the ends of each board are brushed with wax to prevent cracking – and then the boards are stacked on pallets, loaded on trucks, and shipped to a Lowe’s or Menards near you.
Next time I am in the hardware store buying Idaho lumber, I will look at a 2x4 with a much greater appreciation of what it means – to the grizzlies, the foresters, the log truck drivers, the equipment operators, and the mill workers of Boundary County.

A board isn’t just a board. It’s symbolic of a functioning economy and ecosystem.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

State Director Laura Hubbard Accepts New Conservancy Position

The Nature Conservancy announced today that Laura Hubbard, state director for the organization’s Idaho program, will be taking a new position as conservation director for the Conservancy’s Western division.

Hubbard will be conservation director for a 13-state region including states in the Rockies, Southwest and West Coast, as well as for the Conservancy’s work in Canada.

During her six-year tenure with the Conservancy in Idaho, she oversaw many significant conservation accomplishments, including the protection of more than 14,000 acres of ranchlands in the Pioneer Mountains, innovative water protection agreements in the Salmon River watershed that led to improved conditions for salmon and farmers, forest easements that protect some of the most important grizzly habitat in the state in North Idaho and the acquisition of easements protecting land directly adjacent to the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.

Under her watch, the Conservancy worked increasingly on collaborative efforts addressing large-scale land conservation, including the Owyhee Initiative in southwest Idaho, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in central Idaho and the Pioneer Alliance, a coalition of ranchers, conservation groups and recreational interests working to protect the mountains near the Wood River Valley.

Hubbard will work with the Idaho program through November 11. A search will be initiated for a new state director.

Associate state director Lou Lunte will serve as acting director.

“We will miss Laura, but we’re thrilled she’ll now bring her leadership to affect conservation across the Western United States and Canada,” says Lunte. “Our staff and trustees look forward to working with Laura in new ways, as we continue to achieve conservation results that matter for people and nature.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Raptor Migration

Time to head south: Look above the Idaho skies on an autumn day, and you're bound to see birds migrating towards warmer climes.

Some are quite apparent: the large flocks of ducks and geese, the sandhill cranes calling overhead.

Look closely, and you may also notice large numbers of raptors.

Raptor migrations follow flyways, some of them famous among birders. Most notable perhaps is Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, a funnel for thousands of raptors each year. In the early 1900s, shooters lined this ridge and blasted hawks for sport, until conservationist Rosalie Edge led an effort to purchase this ridge as a sanctuaryin 1934. Today, this private reserve is a popular spot for birders to enjoy the migration.

Idaho is another great place to see the migration. The Boise Foothills are a staging area: a place for raptors to rest a bit before the long trip across the desert. The Idaho Bird Observatory bands raptors (and migrating songbirds) here, an activity that has led to greater understanding of Idaho's migrations.

Sharp-shinned hawks can often be seen at this time of year in great numbers--in national forests, in the desert canyons, even around towns.

Cooper's hawks, redtails, kestrels, golden eagles, prairie falcons, peregrines: All are on the move. For the long journey, they need spots to rest and feed along their way. Researchers are still learning about the needs of migratory birds like raptors. In the meantime, we know that having protected areas along the route is a vital way to keep these birds on the move.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Golden Eagle Rescue Attempt

Blog post by Sarah Grigg, Flat Ranch Preserve manager

Last weekend, I headed to the field to mend a stretch of fence that had been kicked out and lifted by some wily Corriente cattle. Local USFS wildlife biologist Jennifer Chutz offered to lend a hand for the day, and as we drove the north side of the property, we saw a dark object sitting near the road.

We drew closer in the vehicle and saw that it was a very large raptor, and it didn’t seem bothered by our presence. I observed this same raptor several days earlier, sitting on a post along the same fence line, looking attentive and scanning the field for prey.

I shut off the engine and we hopped out to take a closer look, maintaining a safe distance so as to not stress the bird or place ourselves in too close rage to a raptor equipped with a serious beak and talons. It was dark brown from head to toe, with a yellow, black-tipped beak, and feathers fully covering its legs. We agreed that it was an eagle, and after some debate, determined that it was a golden.

Identifying bald and golden eagles in various stages of immature and adult plumage can be difficult at times, and seeing them in all phases in the wild is the best practice for fine tuning identification. This was the closest either of us had ever observed a golden, as most of the birds we had seen in the past were in flight, or took off from a distant perch before we could get close enough to have a good look.

We were excited to view this incredible raptor at close range, but also aware that something was wrong, as it watched us for a bit, half-heartedly lifted its wings, and then slowly walked to another nearby patch of sagebrush, sitting near the fence line in the shade. Unlike bald eagles, goldens are highly intolerant of people, and the fact that we were able to get within this viewing range indicated that something was amiss.

Golden eagles can lift up to five times their weight—capable of lifting mountain goats and other large prey—but primarily subsist upon marmots, foxes, ground squirrels, and other small to medium mammals. Goldens are found throughout the northern hemisphere around the globe, from North America to Asia, and ranging southward into Mexico and the Arabian Peninsula. They range across the North American continent, throughout most of the “lower 48” at various times of year (with the exception of the Southeast).

Strict regulations pertain to the non-purposeful take of all eagles in the U.S. under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Habitat destruction, prey accessibility, and collision with powerlines are the primary threats to the species in the twenty-first century.

Jen contacted wildlife handling experts from the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone to capture the bird, and secured a permit—as required under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to transport this eagle to the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

Dan and Leisje Meates, animal care manager and animal keeper at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, arrived to capture the bird.

Luckily, both Dan and Leisje have extensive experience handling large birds of prey. Dan formerly worked as a master falconer and biologist in the UK, with more than 20 years of experience handling raptors, including Russian golden eagles and harpy eagles. Leisje, also our local bear education technician, formerly worked as a wildlife biologist studying eagles in California and Ohio, accumulating more than 12 years of experience with these raptors.

Upon arrival, they examined the bird from a distance to evaluate the situation. Golden eagles sometimes gorge themselves on carrion, and are unable to take flight for several hours following a large meal (Bald eagles, on the other hand, are able to take flight after “pigging out.”). A gorged golden will exhibit a swollen crop, that is, its upper chest region will be visibly bloated, as if it had a goiter. After taking a look at the animal, they decided that it was definitely not gorged, and that its sluggish behavior indicated severe stress due to injury or sickness.

They also determined that it was a male, about five years old. Goldens are generally 2.5 to 3 feet in length, and weigh anywhere from 7 to 15 pounds, with the females considerably out-sizing the males. Adults of either sex may have wing spans ranging from six to seven feet wide. Immature goldens are distinguished by the large amount of white at the base of the feathers. These white patches are particularly pertinent when the birds are in flight. As they age, this white disappears, shrinking towards the base of the feather, turning to a dark brown. Adult goldens are chocolate-brown overall with marbling on the flight feathers of the wings and tail. The tail feathers on this eagle were primarily brown, with about two inches of white at the base.

Capturing eagles can be very dangerous, as their talons can exert about 1,000 pounds per square inch, and their beaks are equally razor-sharp. Even eagles with injured wings will turn on their backs and fight fiercely with their talons. Because the birds subsist upon meat, the talons are loaded with bacteria that can be harmful to people if it enters the bloodstream. Handlers normally wear special eagle handling gloves, made with thick leather that cover much of the arm.

Dan stood behind the eagle and Leisje distracted it from the side, while two people stood before it and herded it away from the barbed wire fence. It moved from the fence and then stopped in a patch of sage brush, allowing Dan creep behind it. He first pinned the bird by it wings, placed a towel around its back and swiftly grabbed both of its legs. He then lifted the eagle and pinned it to his chest while holding its legs and beak. Once he secured the bird, they inspected it to see if the cause of injury could be determined.

Dan noted that the bird’s stomach felt empty and that it was definitely emaciated. Mites covered its entire body, indicating that it had been on the ground for some time. Leisje pulled two porcupine quills from its leg, and observed that unlike eagles with minor injuries, which normally fight hard with their legs, this bird hardly moved its legs. The eagle was placed in a covered dog kennel, and Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer Tony Imthurn transported it to staff at the Teton Raptor Center, where it was promptly taken to a veterinarian. The animal did not survive, and lead poisoning is the suspected cause of death.

Some hunters use lead ammunition to take birds, small game, and other wildlife. These lead-filled carcasses are sometimes left in the field, where raptors, such as golden eagles, will scavenge upon them. Sometimes the birds do not ingest enough lead to cause sickness, but in many cases, significant intake leads to lethal poisoning.

This is quite common in eastern Montana, and several cases have been reported in Idaho over the last few years. The Wildlife Society and other groups are now encouraging hunters and anglers to use non-lead alternatives that perform just as well as lead.

Fish and Game ordered a full necropsy on the animal to determine the exact cause of death. The remains will be sent to the USFWS National Eagle Repository in Denver, CO, which accepts applications from Native Americans requesting feathers to use for religious and cultural purposes.

Thanks to Jennifer Chutz (USFS), Dan and Leisje Meates (GWDC), Rob Cavallaro and Tony Imthurn (IDFG), and the Teton Raptor Center for making the effort to help this eagle.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Grazing at the Flat Ranch

Blog post by Laura Yungmeyer, Flat Ranch summer intern

The pastures at the Flat Ranch have earned the envious gaze of more than few cattle-savvy visitors this season.

“You’re not letting that good grass go to waste, are you?,” they ask, surveying the verdant views from the porch of the visitor center. It’s nice to be able to answer visitors with assurance—our rotational grazing practices not only adhere to the land’s time-honored use as cattle ranch, but also ensure its utility as such for years to come.

Both Spring Eagle and Meadow Vue ranches leased rights to run cattle on the Flat Ranch property this summer, as has been the case for the past several years. A quick scan with the spotting scope thus reveals approximately 300 head of cattle, grazing contentedly across nearly 2,000 acres, in any one of our fifteen pastures.

Each ranch sends cowboys out to the Flat Ranch to move the cows from pasture to pasture in accordance with a pre-determined grazing rotation schedule. These efforts are designed to mimic the grazing movements of the bison that inhabited this area historically; they typically grazed small areas of grass intensely and then moved on, allowing for the grass to adequately recover season after season.

We collect data on the effects of grazing by maintaining exclosure cages in each pasture. These chicken wire and t-post structures are designed to preserve a small area of un-grazed grass for use as control data. At the end of the grazing season, we’ll measure the volume of grass in both the grazed and un-grazed areas to measure comparatively the overall impact of the grazing period. Chris Little, East Idaho Field Representative, will account for any instances of under or over-grazing as he designs next year’s grazing schedule for the Flat Ranch.

We’ve also installed several rain gauges throughout the property and are looking forward to utilizing such data to assess vegetative health in both the wettest and driest areas of the property.

Our operation as a working, sustainable cattle ranch speaks to the variety of elements that contribute to our goals here at the Flat Ranch, as we work to preserve not only the ecological assets of this area but the cultural and community assets as well. And as the summer months draw to a close, we at the Flat Ranch find our own boots a bit dustier, our denim with a few more creases—the cowboy bug is an undeniably fun one to catch.

Monday, September 19, 2011

South Fork Without a Fly Rod

Mention the South Fork of the Snake River to many outdoor enthusiasts, and the first thought is world-class fly fishing. And indeed, the South Fork offers legendary fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, which often rise eagerly to dry flies.

Most of the South Fork's visitors--who come from all over the world--come to fish.

But the South Fork is a spectacular place even without a fly rod. And even for the most avid anglers, a trip here is not only about fish. It's about stunning scenery and abundant wildlife, too. Conservancy philanthropy staffers Justin Petty and Clark Shafer, avid fly anglers both, recently traveled the canyon without fly rods. Clark snapped these photos during the trip. (See below for directions to the hiking trail they used).

It's hard to believe this beautiful place was at one time slated for housing developments and even a golf course. The efforts of conservationists led to nearly the entire main canyon being protected from development. The Nature Conservancy, the Teton Regional Land Trust, Conservation Fund and Bureau of Land Management worked together to protect this special place through conservation easements.

The view you see today is the view future generations will enjoy.

With fly rod or without, visit the South Fork. It's a stunning testament to what your support of conservation accomplishes.

Directions: A great place to enjoy these views is on the trail accessed Dry Canyon Camp #2. After Pine Creek camp sites, look for the large sandstone cliffs on river left. Get to the river right and look for an island.

At the bottom of the island there is a slough that feeds the main river. Pull into the slough and row up river until you see a sign for Dry Canyon #3 camp site (DC2).

Park the boat here and walk up a short but steep trail to the designated camp site. You will see a trail that leads away from the river up Dry Canyon. This turns into a two-track and after 1/2 mile there is a junction.

At the junction, go left and up the hill. Walk for approximately one mile until you get to a view of the entire river corridor. This hike takes about one hour.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Ten Ways to Enjoy Silver Creek This Fall

Most people associate Silver Creek with the summer time. It's the time of tricos and rising trout, and Silver Creek makes the perfect stop for a weekend getaway or a stop on a cross-country road trip.

But fall is one of the most beautiful times on the preserve. With the days getting cooler and the wildlife getting active, there's a lot happening. Looking for an excuse to visit? Here are ten things to check out over the next two months:

1. Capture the colors. Silver Creek is known for the beautiful morning and evening light. The shifting colors are even more profound in the fall. It's often a kaleidoscope, with yellow aspens, red sunsets, purple hills. It's the perfect spot for photographers--and painters. But sometimes it's nice just to sit and try to take it all in.

2. Volunteer. Thousands of native shrubs will be planted along tributary streams and adjacent private property this fall. This ambitious effort will shade the streams, providing cooler water, less sediment, and better habitat for trout and birds. Want to give back a little to the creek you love? Phone 208-788-7910 to sign up.

3. Spot a moose on the loose. Many first-time visitors remark with some disbelief, "Moose? Here?" At first glance, the high desert around Silver Creek doesn't look like moose country. But the preserve has become one of the best places to see these animals in southern Idaho. Look for them in meadows and in the willows at dusk and dawn. Just give them plenty of space: A moose can run very fast and have a foul temper. Enjoy them, but at a distance!

4. Watch the small stuff. Sure, everyone wants to see a moose. But the conservation efforts at Silver Creek have paid off for a whole host of smaller critters, too. Recently, staff have been noticing a number of kids out with nets on the preserve. Follow their lead. Bushy-tailed wood rats, fence lizards, butterflies, beetles, least chipmunks, warblers and more all await your discovery. Look closely, and you'll be amazed at what you see.
5. Listen to the buglers. It's one of the wildest sounds in nature: the fall bugling of rutting bull elk. And already, it's echoing around the preserve, from the Picabo Hills and in the fields. When several bulls get going, it's guaranteed to send a chill up your spine.

6. Look up. It's a bit smoky at the moment, but later in the fall, the night skies are astounding. You'll be watching the Milky accompanied not only by the bugle corps (see above), but also howling coyotes, hooting owls and a host of other sounds. 7. Catch the evening flight. Flocks of sandhill cranes, ducks and geese circle overhead, pitching into wetlands for food and rest. They create their own chorus of whistling wings and haunting calls. You can often pick out some more unusual species, like canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks. For many of these birds, this is one stop on a very long fall journey. Wish them well along their way.
8. Of course: Go fishing. The tricos have faded away and the brown drakes are a distant memory. So are most of the anglers. Now is the time to have the creek to yourself. The fishing can be much better than you think. Try terrestrials like beetles, ants or damselflies in the afternoon. Look for some of the excellent hatches of baetis or pale morning duns. And if you're not afraid of the dark, try a mouse pattern at night to attract one of those legendary brown trout.
9. Write down your thoughts. For centuries, naturalists have kept field journals, providing important records ranging from bird sightings to climate. That tradition continues with many of today's visitors continuing to log what they see. Have an experience you'd love to share? Email us and we'd love to run it on Idaho Nature Notes in the coming weeks!

10. Follow your fancy. Hike. Canoe. Bird. Photograph. Relax. We're saving a place for you. Get out and enjoy it. The preserve is open 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We only ask that you respect nature and other people, that you sign in at the visitor center, and if you enjoy the experience, consider a gift to The Nature Conservancy, to ensure we can continue providing these experiences.

Photos: Sunset (Giuseppe Saitta), canoeist by moose (Laura Hubbard), elk (Matt Miller), ducks (TNC archive), angler with trout (Kirk Keogh,, boardwalk (Kirk Keogh,