Monday, January 30, 2012

Lose the Memory, Lose the Fish

The sound of migrating salmon splashing was so loud it kept people awake at night.

Imagine that luxury: of lying in bed as salmon after salmon after salmon surged by.

Where did this happen? Alaska? The Russian Far East?

No. This happened in Boise, Idaho.

No need to grab your fishing rod. Those splashing salmon have disappeared.

I live near the Boise River. I fish it regularly. I run and walk along the Greenbelt. It remains a beautiful river, full of trout and whitefish. Bald eagles soar overhead; mule deer graze along the banks. I see river otters and beavers, ospreys and great-horned owls.

But no salmon.

No. Salmon. Here.
Mark Davidson, The Nature Conservancy’s Central Idaho senior conservation manager, grew up on a farm in Jerome, in southern Idaho. Speaking with his family about salmon, even his grandfather couldn’t remember a time when salmon reached the base of Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, once the end of their journey from the sea.

“That memory is important,” Davidson says. “When you lose the memory, you lose the fish.”

Once salmon migrated and spawned in many Idaho rivers. But once they’re gone, they seem like ghosts.

No, worse. They seem…impossible.

Salmon in downtown Boise? No way.

Salmon in the southwestern Owyhee desert? Seriously?

It’s the same for grizzly bears or sage grouse. Lose the memory of them in a place, and they’re gone forever.

Still Here
Fortunately, salmon do still swim in rivers: in Alaska, yes, but also in parts of the Pacific Northwest. It’s not too late.

True, salmon face a daunting set of obstacles and challenges as they complete a 900-mile journey. Idaho’s fish are born in small tributary streams. As fry, they swim to the ocean, then as adults repeat the entire journey in reverse, returning to their tributary streams to spawn, and then die.

The rivers and streams salmon die for are in the Salmon River valleys of central Idaho.

Sometimes, the salmon make it nearly the entire journey only to find no water in their spawning stream.

But as long as they’re still here, there’s hope. Idaho remains a state where people not only have salmon memories, they can still see the fish jumping falls, finning in shallows, spawning, dying.

The fish are still here. Can we make sure it stays that way?

--Matt Miller

Photo by Michelle Wilhelm, USFWS.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Good Fences

Don't fence me in: so goes the popular 1940's cowboy song. It could also accurately be considered a tenet of conservation today.

Conservationists often view fences as the antithesis of wildness, particularly when it comes to high fences. These fences have come to typify a strategy of national park management in some parts of the world--put a fence around a piece of land, keep people and nature separated. Often, though, that approach seems to reduce parks to the equivalent of zoos.

Last year, I visited Bandhavgarh National Park in India, a famous tiger reserve. Authorities there erected a fence along one border of the park, ostensibly to reduce tiger predation on villagers' cattle.

According to tiger conservationist Satyendra Tiwari, the project was a complete failure: the tigers scaled the fence easily, and continued eating cows. Other wildlife--wolves, spotted deer, porcupines--were blocked off from moving out of the park.

It accomplished nothing and overall harmed wildlife, confirming what most conservationists suspect about fencing.

High fences are also associated with private game ranches, which privatize a public resource. Fences disrupt migration routes. And, well, they look ugly.

And here we come to perhaps what is most disagreeable about high fences: Their aesthetics. They stand for the domestication of what should be wild and free. They mar the landscape. They have no place in pristine nature.

And maybe all of that is true. To a point.

But I'm also struck by points made in Emma Marris' recent book Rambunctious Garden, to my mind one of the most important and insightful conservation books ever published. Marris questions whether any nature can rightfully be called pristine. She then argues that this myth of pristine nature gets in the way of practical solutions.

Sometimes highly managed or engineered nature makes sense for wildlife.

Are there times when a high fence, for instance, actually helps retain wildness?

Highway 21 outside of Boise is a known death trap for mule deer and elk. These animals spend the winter in the Boise foothills. Inevitably they wander onto roads.

Recently, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game installed an underpass for deer and elk to pass under the highway, staying out of harm's way. High fences are used to funnel the animals into the underpass.

Strangely, since the fence has been installed, I've heard repeatedly that it is "ugly." For many people it mars the view and the landscape. It doesn't fit with our foothills aesthetic.

Even official reports on reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions note that many people object to wildlife fencing on aesthetic grounds.

To my mind, the sight of roadkill is far worse. The damage inflicted--on the deer herd, on vehicles and on human safety--makes a fence seem like the most minor of intrusions.

Last week, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded a grant to launch the McArthur Lake Wildlife Safety Project.

McArthur Lake, along Highway 95 between Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry, has the highest rate of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the state. Over the past decade, two people have been killed there in tragic circumstances.

One of the solutions being investigated for the wildlife safety project is fencing along Highway 95, again perhaps altering the view.

But those fences should symbolize balance: they keep wildlife on the move, they make the roadways safer for motorists, they reduce insurance costs.

So fencing has a place in 21st century conservation, perhaps beyond even road safety. As Marris suggests in her book, maybe it's time to recognize that conservationists need to embrace a variety of tools and aesthetics.

Fences around national parks may often be a bad idea, but at times they may be necessary to protect a rare species, or a rare habitat. To buy time.

A high-fenced game ranch may be a way for landowners to bring back, and profit from, native wildlife that has great ecological benefits, like bison on the Great Plains or springbok and other antelopes in southern Africa.

High fencing might even allow for grand conservation experiments, like rewilding. Marris describes this approach being employed to stunning effect in Holland right now, at a place called Oostvaardersplassen. In this park, grazing animals that are the equivalent of Pleistocene herbivores have been reintroduced--including cattle and horse breeds that are similar to extinct ancestors (known as the auroch and tarpan). While this area is now fenced, perhaps it allows for a future where great herds again roam across Europe.

Do good fences make good conservation?

Sometimes, yes.

Clearly that's the case when it keeps deer off the road and on their winter range. Other applications will probably be hotly debated. But in a world with so many people and so many ecological challenges, shouldn't we be experimenting with different conservation techniques and tools as much as possible?

Marris' view of conservation is one of possibility: where different approaches and management techniques contribute to a hopeful vision for the world.

As we shape a future for people and wildlife, maybe the high fence has a place. Maybe it will, paradoxically, become a tool that helps keep our world more wild and more diverse. --Matt Miller

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Snowy Owls Invade Idaho

My friend Beth Rasgorshek speaks eloquently and often about the importance of protecting farmland. She grew up on a Canyon County farm and returned here to start her own.

Her Canyon Bounty Farm produces organic seeds, heirloom vegetable starts for area gardeners and organic wheat flour used in several local bakeries and restaurants. She believes in growing good food, and that Canyon County is a great place to do just that.

But the development is hard to ignore. Homes and buildings ominously close in on her farm from all directions. Soaring land prices make it difficult to keep farmland in production. Beth knows Canyon County land also has deep values for food production and open space.

So too does another unusual visitor, here all the way from the Arctic: snowy owls.

For the past few weeks, several of these beautiful owls have been spending their days on farm fields near Nampa. Usually at home among polar bears, what are they doing here?

Snowy owls are usually found only in the Arctic, where they forage on a variety of rodents, but most especially lemmings. In that age-old dance of predators and prey, lemming populations determine much of the snowy owl's abundance and movements.

Lemming are small rodents that are prone to wide population swings. This is similar to population eruptions of other rodents, including the montane voles that periodically explode in numbers around Silver Creek Preserve (including a notable abundance in 2010).

Many people know lemmings as the creatures that build up to such extreme numbers that they run in swarms towards cliffs, where they "commit suicide." This is a false myth generated by an old Disney film. It was later revealed that filmmakers staged the "suicide scene" by gathering a relatively small number of lemmings and herding them over the cliff.

But lemmings do migrate (sometimes falling off cliffs, but accidentally and in small numbers) and certainly become super-abundant. Snowy owls feast on them, and eat about three of these rodents per day. When lemming populations crash, snowy owls must travel south to find good rodent foraging, an event called an owl irruption.

Biologists report healthy lemming populations this year. It appears, though, that this led to an increase in snowy owl chicks. Many young birds couldn't find their own territory, so they flew south to an unfamiliar land of agricultural fields, subdivisions and people.

A few of them ended up in Canyon County. Area birders say that some snowy owls show up there whenver there is an irruption.

This past weekend, a group of friends joined Beth, who had been seeing them near her farm. We found an owl rather easily, as there was a line of cars watching it in the middle of the field.

Snowy owls roost on the ground, and this one was easy to see on the bare earth. The white plumage is definitely more suited to the snowy Arctic than snow-free (at this writing) southern Idaho. The owl stood out--almost resembling a white plastic bag from a distance. With a spotting scope, we managed great views.

The owls are a major attraction for birders. One California birder was skiing at Targhee, in eastern Idaho, and drove across to see these owls.

If you go on your own snowy owl quest, please give these birds plenty of space. They're not used to people. Some biologists say that most snowy owls have seen more polar bears than people.

The ones you'll find in southern Idaho are likely young birds, so they need some room to learn to hunt and figure out the unfamiliar prey of Idaho fields.

Please, please, please do not try to get close to them to get a better photo. Enjoy them at a distance, and use binoculars, spotting scopes or telephoto lenses to get closer--not your feet.

The snowy owls will likely stick around for a few weeks before returning to their Arctic wilderness. In the meantime, let's make sure they feel at home on our area farmland, and let's also recognize the tremendous value these farms provide--for wildlife and for people.--Matt Miller

Photos: Beth Rasgorshek checks out owls. Credit: Matt Miller. Snowy owl photo by pe_ha45 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Monday, January 09, 2012

Winter Range: The Importance of Sagebrush

Settlers along the Oregon Trail learned to hate sagebrush. As if passing through hundreds of miles of it wasn’t enough, their livestock would not touch the plant. They pronounced sagebrush inedible and worthless as forage, and their folk wisdom has been passed down through the generations.

They were right about cattle, but it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of sagebrush as wildlife forage. According to ecologist Dr. Bruce Welch, sagebrush offers from seven to twelve percent crude protein, compared to three percent for grasses and forbs. Sagebrush is also highly digestible, supplying deer (and other big game species) with much needed phosphorous and calcium.

There are sixteen species of sagebrush, and they vary in palatability to mule deer. Wyoming sagebrush and mountain big sagebrush are the most palatable of the common species, with Basin big sagebrush not as preferred. While palatability may play a role when re-seeding sagebrush species in areas where it has been eliminated, deer can survive in areas with any sagebrush species better than without it.

“The bottom line is that even the least palatable species are still very valuable forage,” says Dr. Carl Wambolt, professor of range science at Montana State University. “Even if the most palatable species are gone, the deer and elk will still be living in the existing sagebrush. Basin big sage is the least desired as forage, but it has the highest protein content of any of the species.”

Sagebrush also varies in palatability within species, depending on geography, and even during different times of year. During the spring and summer, sagebrush is less appealing to deer due to the increased amount of certain chemicals.

“The easiest way to think of it is in terms of humans eating chips and salsa,” says Roger Rosentreter, a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management. “In the winter, the sagebrush is like eating a bunch of chips. You can just keep eating them. In the spring, it’s like chips with really, really hot salsa. You are going to eat less.”

This serves a valuable function for the plant and the deer. It allows the deer to benefit from the plant’s nutritious qualities, and browsing in the winter actually helps the plant achieve robust growth. In the summer, when browsing would damage the plant, it is least tasty to deer. The chemicals also protect the sagebrush from insect damage.

One of the most contentious debates in range management is whether or not sagebrush becomes “decadent.” Some hold that sagebrush becomes too thick and competes with the grasses that survive in the understory. They believe that these stands of sagebrush should be thinned to increase other plants for forage.

Research by Bruce Welch and others suggests that thick sage cover actually benefits wildlife. However, in some areas severe livestock overgrazing has eliminated all understory plants. This causes the sagebrush to become a monoculture, crowding out native plants. The solution to this is better grazing management.

“Sagebrush should be dominant on the landscape but not so thick that you can’t walk through it easily,” says Rosentreter.

In healthy habitat, the sagebrush canopy plays an important role in mule deer survival. Not only does it provide cover for deer, it also sticks out well above the snow. Other plants may be covered, but mule deer can still browse on the sage.

“Wading through heavy deep snow is what really kills deer,” says Welch. “It takes a lot of energy out of their systems. Deer will dig down through the snow a ways, but nothing like bison. Sagebrush enables deer to eat without digging or moving around.”

Even in thick canopy cover, other plants thrive, according to Wambolt. “It has definitely been shown that you can have good sagebrush cover and still have a lot of understory plants,” he says. “Removing sagebrush does not increase grass and forbs. That’s controversial, but I have a lot of data that show that.”

Sagebrush is the keystone that enables a whole host of species to survive, from little-known insects to mule deer. --Matt Miller

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Backyard Deer

Flying over Boise yesterday--returning home after nearly two weeks of holiday travel--I looked in vain for signs of winter. Everything looked brown, including the ski resort. Leaving the airport I found balmy 50-degree weather.

Last night, though, I saw the first inkling of winter: Deer in the backyard.

I flicked on the backyard light to look for any critters. Immediately two forms appeared, browsing on grass and shrubs.

Maybe it's because I'm used to seeing smaller critters--juncos, fox squirrels--that backyard deer always look so huge, so out of place. In the confines of my yard, they appear as horses.

Even without the snow, they're drawn to the green(ish) lawns of the neighborhood. I know I'll be seeing more of them over the coming months.It's always interesting to see how wildlife adapts to humanity. The mule deer's close relative, the white-tailed deer, excels in this regard. There are almost certainly more whitetails now than at the time of European settlement.

The whitetail thrives in the world of woodlands, cornfields and suburbs--all habitats heavily influenced or created by people. You can find more deer in the suburbs of New Jersey than you can in the vast forests of Maine.

They're survivors.

The mule deer? Despite looking so similar, they're much less suited to humanity.

Sure, they'll be in my neighborhood browsing most winter nights. Some mule deer have even neglected to migrate back into the mountains in the spring, instead choosing the easier existence of feeding on garden plants.

Still, being in close contact with people presents hardships for mulies: Roads. Dogs. Weeds. Loss of winter forage.

Take away sagebrush and the mix of plants that make up a healthy sagebrush community, and deer are likely to starve. They need room to roam, and a mix of native plants to provide nutrition.

It's a tough winter world for deer (and elk, and other large Western mammals). Many will survive by foraging in backyards. But others will find a snowy land where their normal food--sagebrush and bunchgrasses that stand above the snow, providing steady calories--has been displaced by cheatgrass (which the snow flattens, so deer can't reach it).

Protecting healthy habitat is vital to ensuring mule deer remain a part of the Western United States. It's been a focus of The Nature Conservancy's work in Idaho by protecting places that still have healthy sagebrush, like the Owyhees and Pioneer Mountains.

It's also been the focus of other conservationists. The protection of Hammer Flat in Boise, now owned by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, will protect deer winter range very near my home. Biologists have a plan to restore sagebrush, bitterbrush and other native plants to this area so that deer can better make it through the winter.

Throughout this winter, Idaho Nature Notes will feature the many factors that affect mule deer survival in the winter--and what you can do to help. Working together, we can help mule deer and elk make it through the winter--whether in your backyard, or in the wilderness. --Matt Miller