Monday, January 31, 2011


Overhead, on the ponds, in every direction: Thousands of ducks and geese, quacking, honking whistling. The mind tries to comprehend the flurry of winged activity.

Scattered amongst the massive flocks are the highly visible tundra swans, as well as stalking herons and and chattering gulls. Raptors--bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, Cooper's hawks--circle overhead, perhaps checking for signs of injury amongs the quacking hordes.

Look more closely and less obvious birds reveal themselves: Resting great-horned owls, flushing quail, flitting flickers. And on the ground, jackrabbits and coyotes maneuver through the bush, in a serious chess match with life-and-death consequences for both.

It's just another winter day at the Ted Trueblood Wildlife Area.

The Trueblood area--320 acres near Grandview, Idaho--is an easy place to zoom by en route to the Owyhees or other "wilder" regions. That would be a shame, though, because this patch of sagebrush and "duck ponds" tucked along the Snake River is an absolute haven for birding and wildlife watching.

At this time of year, the migrating flocks rank as one of Idaho's best wildlife spectacles.

It's a beautiful patch of wildness where you can witness Idaho's spectacular birds. While you cannot walk around on the wildlife area at this time of year--to protect the resting migrants--you can watch them easily from the parking and observation areas.

Alan Sands, now an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, was the force behind the purchase and protection of the Ted Trueblood Wildlife Area when he worked for the Bureau of Land Management (the agency that still owns the property).

Alan lives the old Edward Abbey motto that "it's not enough to fight for the land; it's even more important to enjoy it." Throughout his career, Alan has been responsible for conserving many great places for people to enjoy and wildlife to thrive, including the Indian Creek Recreation Area and the Conservancy's Hixon Sharptail Project.

Such a place is also a great tribute to outdoor writer and conservationist Ted Trueblood. As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, one of my very favorite books at the local library was the Ted Trueblood Hunting Treasury. I thrilled to Trueblood's descriptions of Idaho's wildlife and wild places, never imagining that one day I would be able to experience firsthand the places he described.

Trueblood is the kind of outdoor writer that we desperately need: He not only knew hunting and fishing, he also fought for the habitat that wildlife needed to survive. He was a key figure in the creation of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and worked tirelessly on behalf of Idaho's wildlife.

The wildlife area near Grandview is not wilderness, but seeing the tremendous numbers of birds and other wildlife around, I think Trueblood would approve. Stop by there on a winter day, enjoy the wildlife and remember the hard-working conservationists who made places like this possible. --Matt Miller

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Redband: Trout of the Desert

The above video by the Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited provides an excellent introduction to the redband trout of Idaho's high deserts.

Redband trout are still abundant in a number of streams and rivers in the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwest Idaho. They have been spared the introduction of non-native trout stocks largely due to warm water. It was originally thought that desert redbands could thrive in much higher water temperatures. As the video above notes, this may not have been a correct assumption. It seems that redbands know and congregate in cold water refuges in these desert rivers--enabling them to survive in what must be a hostile environment for trout.

As such, protecting cold water refuges will be key to ensuring their survival.

There is another threat. While brown trout and hatchery rainbows can't survive higher water temperatures, smallmouth bass can. They have been introduced to Owyhee Reservoir, and already have displaces native trout in the Owyhee River. Hopefully, they can be prevented from spreading to other waterways in the Owyhees.

The Nature Conservancy has been actively involved in Owyhee Canyonlands conservation efforts for more than 15 years. The Owyhee Initiative, a collaborative effort that led to the first wilderness in Idaho in 29 years, includes provisions for protection of the special native wildlife found in Idaho's sagebrush country.

One of the recent successes of the initiative was the purchase of three land parcels that will allow direct access to two new wilderness areas, Jacks Creek and the North Fork of the Owyhee River. Both of these canyon rivers contain redband trout, and are open for fishing. You can reach these wilderness areas by passenger car directly from the Owyhee Backcountry Byway.

Fishing in the desert seldom yields large fish, but it's a unique experience for anglers who enjoy exploring new terrain and catching new varieties of fish.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Foot of the Andes

In two weeks I’ll be embarking on a Nature Conservancy fellowship to Patagonia in Argentina. The Conservancy is doing groundbreaking work with sheep ranchers to conserve Patagonia’s expansive grasslands, and this fellowship is an opportunity to learn more about the work and lend a hand.

I’ve done a bunch of reading and imagining ahead of this journey. The reading has ranged from technical TNC stuff to Bruce Chatwin’s classic In Patagonia. I've constructed a mental collage, a patchwork of images, anecdotes, data, conjectures, and comparisons for a place I've never been.

My picture is of a place a lot like Idaho, but super-sized and untamed. Like Idaho's sagebrush steppe, the Patagonian grasslands comprise a vast high desert landscape bumping up against the foothills of big mountains. (Although Mt. Borah at 12,662 feet might be considered a rung on the ladder to Aconcagua at 23,841 feet.) The town where I'll be, Bariloche, is about halfway between the equator and the South Pole, a mirror to Boise's 43 degrees north latitude.

In Chatwin's book, he visits the house that Butch Cassidy built in Patagonia after leaving the U.S. with the Sundance Kid. Though I'm not on the run for bank heists -- like the one he pulled in Montpelier, Idaho in 1896 -- I wonder why Cassidy chose this place and what he thought he'd find. How far off were his imaginings? How far off are mine? I'll keep you posted.
-- Bas Hargrove

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


There's a popular saying among conservationist: "Extinction is forever."

Which is true, of course. Usually.

I well remember reading about the "extinction" of black-footed ferrets. I could not have imagined that 30 years later I would be watching wild ferrets run around at my feet. You can read how this is possible in today's blog for Cool Green Science.

Naturalists have often approached extinction in curious ways. Even into the early 1800s, many astute observers (including Thomas Jefferson) considered extinction to be a biological impossibility.

Later, when extinction was established as fact, many naturalists did not consider conservation to be realistic. Instead, they rushed off to "collect" the last remaining specimens for museums and collections, as recounted in Mark V. Barrow Jr.'s excellent book Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.

William Hornaday traveled west to shoot some of the last remaining wild bison for museum exhibits. He unapologetically killed as many as he could. He considered their extinction inevitable, and as such believed that the public should at least be able to see them in museums.

In later years, Hornaday had a change of heart. He later became one of the key figures in saving the bison.

Fortunately, conservationists have come a long way. Or have they? Sure, they no longer rush off to shoot the last remaining individuals of a species in the name of science.

But read many environmental magazines or blogs, and you'll find a gloomy inevitability about extinction. It all seems so...hopeless.

Fortunately, there are many stories of hope, with the ferret being a prominent example. Consider also the history of many species we today take for granted--wild turkeys, peregrine falcons, elk.

And read the excellent tales on Jane Goodall's web site and in her book Hope for Animals and Their World--full of examples of people restoring nearly extinct species, often against very long odds.

The risk of constant pessimism among conservationists is that it leaves young people and the general public with the sense that there is nothing that can be done. And that's simply not true, as those wild ferrets prove.--Matt Miller

Photo: Black-footed ferret by Jon Hall,

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Public Lands Foundation Honors Upper Snake River Partnership

The Upper Snake River Land Conservation Partnership received the Public Lands Foundation’s (PLF) Landscape Stewardship Award and Citation during a ceremony at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Idaho Falls District Office today.

Accepting the award were Mark Elsbree, vice president and northwest director of The Conservation Fund; Chet Work, executive director, and Babette Thorpe, land protection director, for the Teton Regional Land Trust; and Laura Hubbard state director of the The Nature Conservancy in Idaho.

Each was presented with a plaque and citation by Deane Zeller, PLF Idaho state representative.

The foundation grants this recognition to honor private citizens and organizations that work to advance and sustain community-based stewardship on landscapes that include, in whole or in part, public lands administered by the BLM.

In 1998, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the Teton Regional Land Trust formed The Upper Snake River Land Conservation Partnership with BLM in response to imminent threats of subdivision and resort development, the great potential of many conservation projects across a large geographic scope, and the diversity of landowners along the Snake River corridors and Henry’s Lake.

Through the efforts of these organizations, approximately 91 privately owned properties, many of them working farms and ranches, have been protected through purchase of 10,300 acres of fee estate and 14,500 acres of conservation easement.

Thus far, the partnership has leveraged approximately $57 million from diverse funding sources including BLM LWCF appropriations and BLM Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act funds, the Bonneville Power Administration wildlife mitigation fund, the National Resource Conservation Service’s Wetland Reserve and Farm/Ranchland Protection Programs, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s North American Wetland Conservation Act funds, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and landowner donations.

Partial donations by land owners, nonprofit conservation partners, and charitable contributions totaling about $4.5 million have allowed the BLM to stretch LWCF appropriations.

Additionally, the partnership is using a combination of acquisition strategies to assist the BLM. The nonprofit partners also have augmented the BLM’s limited acquisition and legal staff.

And, they provide negotiation experience and skills to facilitate complex and sensitive acquisitions, ensure that the needs of landowners and the BLM are met, provide a qualified legal staff to craft conservation easements and fee-title acquisitions acceptable to landowners and the BLM, and assist the BLM with conservation easement stewardship issues.

The nonprofit organizations collaborate as a team with the BLM to acquire key properties from willing landowners to secure and preserve open space and public recreational access within Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

They also participate in the long-term stewardship responsibilities of conservation easements, maintain landowner relations, cooperate in annual conservation easement compliance visits, and assist in preparing conservation easement stewardship reports.

According to Zeller, “The purpose of this program is to recognize and call public attention to individual and group efforts, to promote collaboration by a broad range of participants to achieve shared natural resource protection and enhancement goals, and to call attention to the many values and management needs of the Nation’s National System of Public Lands.”

The Public Lands Foundation is a national non-profit organization, which is made up predominately of retired Bureau of Land Management employees, that advocates and works for the retention of the National System of Public Lands in public hands, professionally and sustainably managed for the responsible common use and enjoyment of the American people.

Photo: Laura Hubbard, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, and Chet Work, executive director of the Teton Regional Land Trust, with their award plaques.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Out of Yellowstone

Here's a new film on the Conservancy's conservation efforts in the Greater Yellowstone region. We hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Winter Wildlife Chronicles: Bear Underground

Over the past four years, I've run two marathons and nine half marathons. That involves a pretty significant amount of training time. But even with all this running, if I take a few weeks off, my stamina decreases. My legs aren't as strong. In some ways, I have to start building up my endurance all over again.

Most of us know this and understand this. If someone is confined to a bed, their muscles atrophy and bones weaken. When it comes to the human body, it really is "use it or lose it."

Not so for black bears.

As Bernd Heinrich describes in his excellent book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, black bears can spend five months in a den, without eating and almost entirely immobile--and not lose muscle mass or bone strength.

Heinrich is fascinated by the bear's adaptations. He's an accomplished scientist and writer, who is also that rarity among biologists today: a skilled field naturalist. He also happens to be a record-setting ultra-marathoner, so he understands the physiology of exercise.

Bear hibernation is not easy to categorize. Bears are immobile, but they can awaken easily--a fact that makes studying bear hibernation quite difficult.

Heinrich writes that bears, unlike most hibernating mammals, don't lower their body temperature. They maintain a high metabolic rate. And despite this, they do not need to drink or urinate all winter.

Biologists have found that black bears metabolize their urea into nontoxic creatine, and nitrogen wastes are recycled back into protein.

But that still doesn't explain how bears remain, as Heinrich calls them, the "ultimate couch potatoes." How can bears lie inactive all winter long, and spring out of their dens in fine physical shape? It does not seem like it should be possible. The fact is, much about their physiology remains unknown.

Biologists are refining ways to work with black bears in winter (above, Conservancy staffer Justin Petty participates with an Idaho Department of Fish and Game winter bear survey). But even with these high-profile mammals, there is still much to be learned.

What we do know is that in dens around Idaho, right now, bears are lying--not quite asleep, not quite awake, not eating or drinking but not suffering from starvation or thirst, not moving but able to move quite well. --Matt Miller

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Silver Creek Intern's Report, Part 3

Note: This is the final part of Silver Creek Preserve intern Dominique Lucio's report on his summer internship with The Nature Conservancy (read part 1 and 2). We appreciate all the assistance that Dominique and other interns provide on the preserve. They're helping to ensure that it remains one of the great spring creeks of the West.

As I mentioned previously, it takes a lot of work to keep the Preserve running smoothly. As temperatures rose and constant spring showers soaked the valley, the Preserve’s trails quickly became overgrown with grasses and branches.

Though the work was thankfully divided between the four interns, there was plenty of grass to weed whack and branches to trim. Some trails were no longer even visible, and had to be repeatedly cleared over the summer.

As I became acquainted with the flora of the Preserve, it became increasingly obvious that several invasive species such as Canadian thistle, houndstongue, and yellow iris were outcompeting native species, and needed to be stopped. Luckily the Preserve hosted several volunteer spray days where people on foot and ATVs covered the nasty invaders with herbicides targeting the specific species.

Though these days were certainly invaluable, weed spraying was a constant. Fishermen frequently reported new patches of thistle to spray, and interns would respond in Tyvec suits and three gallon backpacks of herbicide.

Other summer-long projects included pulling up and disassembling (think sledgehammer) old wooden and barbed wire fences on the Preserve and at other Nature Conservancy properties such as the Flat Ranch and Soldier preserves. For two days I designed a stencil and painted The Nature Conservancy logo on the side of the Preserve’s several canoes.

Other routine maintenance duties included cleaning the office and other facilities. Once a week interns cleaned the three preserve outhouses, which generally weren’t as bad as expected. Daily responsibilities included cleaning and refilling snail wash stations with natural citrus soap to keep invasive New Zealand mud snails out of Silver Creek.

One of the messiest and most hilarious projects I have ever worked on took place over the course of three days, in which three other interns and I dug up underwater patches of reeds and marsh grasses and transplanted them by the truckload to edges of the creek where the channel widens and heats up. By the end of each day we were completely drenched in mud and exhausted beyond caring about appearances, but we felt proud to have helped narrow the stream and hopefully better conditions for the wildlife.

Public Relations
The aspect of the internship I most dreaded at the beginning of the summer, public relations, turned out to be one of the most fun.

I greatly enjoyed accompanying different groups on canoe floats down the creek, from children with disabilities to Nature Conservancy employees from across the country.

I was also able to help with staff retreat work days and a ladies’ appreciation day held at Stalker Cabin. It was at the visitor center that I met the most fishermen, learned the most about the local wildlife, and heard wild stories of moose sightings, midnight fishing, and canoe mishaps.

These interactions really gave me a sense of the Preserve’s importance to several diverse groups throughout the state.

This summer was one of the best and most educational of my life. Working with Dayna Gross and the interns, as well as the volunteers and in-town office members, was the best work experience I have encountered thus far in my developing environmental science career.

Though I regret to say I never got around to fly fishing, I feel like I more than made up for it with bird watching enthusiasm. Never before have I seen such numbers and variety of birds as I did at Silver Creek, from tiny sora and hummingbirds to massive great horned owls, harriers, and Swainson’s hawks.

Most of all I would like to thank Jack and Sara Blumenstein for setting up and continuing to support the internship.

The opportunity to spend a summer so imbedded in nature is the perfect way to introduce people to Charlie’s passion. I am extremely grateful to the Blumenstein family for funding this amazing opportunity, and would strongly recommend the internship to anyone interested in working on the beautiful preserve and meeting so many great people.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Silver Creek Intern's Report, Part 2

This is the second part of Silver Creek Preserve intern Dominique Lucio's report on his summer at the preserve. Today, he explains ecological monitoring, including electro-shocking fish.

The majority of the work I helped with this summer falls under the category of monitoring. The first type of monitoring was the Preserve’s bi-monthly transect water monitoring. This full-day job consists of visiting five points on the Preserve, two in the main current, and three in tributary creeks just before they meet Silver Creek.

At each point channel width and flow readings are taken. In addition to flow measurements, we took water temperature, and dissolved oxygen and pH levels. It was truly amazing watching the water levels rise and flow speeds increase as the spring turned to summer, especially since Silver Creek is entirely spring fed.

This means there is no snow melt to raise water levels; instead aquatic vegetation grows so dense and high that it literally pushes the water up and out. This plant life is also partially responsible for the booming fish population, since the trout feed primarily on insects that hatch in droves from the vegetation all spring and rise to the surface to mate, after which they fall into waiting mouths.

I also was introduced to temperature logger collection, downloading, and replacement. Essentially a small plastic device records temperature every few hours while submerged. On a monthly basis, I would collect these loggers, download the data they had collected to the Preserve’s computer, restart them, and place them back in the stream.

This data gives not only a sense of temperature change with the seasons, but also on a larger time scale, showing yearly trends and fluctuations. These loggers are also useful in showing whether or not projects such as water cooling through streamside willow planting are truly effective.

This summer a local group known as Idaho Water Engineering (IWE) began a project to map the entire aquifer system for the area in order to revise water rights as debate rises between groups with agricultural, residential, and conservation interests. I was able to help install anchor stations for their monitors on and off the Preserve. In my last two weeks on the Preserve, I was lucky to help a graduate student from Denmark check these stations and install a few more of her own. I also helped Maria gather several more transects to better understand the exchange between tributaries and Silver Creek itself.

The next type of monitoring was by far my favorite: electroshocking. When I first heard the term, I admit I pictured sticking electrified probes in the stream and counting the fish that floated up unconscious, but realistically I knew The Nature Conservancy would not allow anything of the sort.

Nonetheless, my expectations weren’t too far off. Daytime shocking took place in sections where the water was shallow enough to walk through. It consisted of several people with nets walking alongside a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) raft that carried a generator which sent a current between chains it dragged and probes two FWS interns kept underwater ahead of the raft.

Fish are naturally drawn to the current they can feel in the water, and when they enter the current between the probes and the chain, they briefly stop swimming. It is in these few short seconds that we would scoop up the fish and drop them in large collection bins to be counted. This collection gives the Preserve and the FWS the best estimate of overall fish populations in the stream.

I was also able to help another intern map local stream sediment and vegetation types and levels. Because there is no springtime snowmelt to wash sediments downstream, silt and vegetation can build up, slowing the water’s flow, and in turn warming the stream.

Since Silver Creek’s trout prefer the constant cold temperatures of the spring fed system, increasing temperature can be a serious threat since it allows better suited brown trout to take over rainbow trout habitat.

For the entire month of June, Matt spent each day measuring bank vegetation type, stream width, depth, sediment depth, and sediment type. I was happy to help by heading out across the valley following creeks and measuring preset GPS points. This monitoring allowed me some of the best time to explore the region and its plethora of beautiful and complex habitats. Some days the deep water and sticky mud turned out to be quite adventurous as well.

Tomorrow: Read the final installment of Dominique's report.

Photo: Brown trout measured during electro-shocking surveys, by Matt Miller.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Silver Creek: An Intern's Experience

Each year, interns at The Nature Conservancy's Silver Creek Preserve play an important role in monitoring, maintenance and other tasks at the preserve. The interns gain practical experience in conservation, and get to spend a summer on one of the most spectacular spring creeks in the West. Intern Dominique Lucio (above, with orange gloves) was this year's Charlie Blumenstein Water and Wildlife Conservation Intern, a program with Colorado College. Over the next week, we'll share his reports of his summer at Silver Creek and the work completed.

As my third year at Colorado College came to a close, I realized I had no summer plans. Having decided to major in environmental science only months before, I started looking for a related job or internship. Beginning my search on the CC Career Center website, I immediately stumbled across The Charlie Blumenstein Water and Wildlife Conservation Internship.

The more I read, the more excited I became as I realized how well my background fit the position: I had just taken several classes on gathering and analyzing different aspects of the environment; here was a chance to apply this knowledge and develop a real world feel for it.

Still, the internship description was only a page long; I had no idea what “habitat restoration” and “participating in scientific research and monitoring” entailed. Looking back now, I am so glad I applied and was allowed the amazing opportunity to experience and participate in the front lines of nature conservation.

As I began the twenty four hour drive from my home in Fort Worth, Texas, my mind raced with anticipation and curiosity. When I arrived at the preserve the next evening, my expectations proved completely wrong. Being a Texan, I assumed anything as far north as Idaho must be cold until late summer. Instead I was greeted with a lush green valley between beautiful purple and blue mountains. Just past the Preserve was the town of Picabo, even smaller than I had expected.

The Preserve manager, Dayna Gross, told me to come to the office to get acquainted with the place before the fly fishing season began in two days and the place was overrun. Though I didn’t understand at the time how 883 acres of preserve could be overrun, I soon learned. More than eighty fishermen showed up that Sunday for the annual barbeque celebrating the opening of fishing season. For the next three months, the quiet preserve was filled with men and women of all ages and from across the world focused intently on figuring out exactly what fly each famously picky trout was or wasn’t interested in.

Though I hadn’t realized it beforehand, Silver Creek is a sort of fly fishing Mecca, world renowned for its unbelievable amounts of huge brown and rainbow trout. Because of this reputation, as well as the vibrant range of wildlife present, the Preserve draws flocks of fishermen, birders and nature enthusiasts alike, all summer long.

With all this foot traffic on the preserve, it takes some serious behind the scenes work to keep the preserve as undisturbed and pristine as it is.

Preserve staff work tirelessly year round to keep invasive weeds at bay, harmful snails out of the creek, water conditions just right for the famous fish, and habitats inviting to migratory and year round birds, deer, bats, insects, and many other plants and animals. Preserve responsibilities can be broken down into several categories: monitoring, maintenance, and public relations.

Tomorrow: Dominique's experiences electro-shocking and monitoring at the preserve.