Monday, February 27, 2012

Idaho Winter Newsletter: Forests

If a tree falls in the forest...

...someone probably has an opinion on it.

Forests inspire us, provide for us, recharge our spirits. But forests can also divide. Some of the most contentious environmental debates in Idaho have been around the management of our forests.

Your support of The Nature Conservancy is charting a new future: one where diverse interests can work together to conserve private and public forests, benefiting wildlife, local communities,
outdoor recreation, and, of course, trees.

Download our winter newsletter for an exploration of the opportunities—and issues—in conserving Idaho’s public and private forests.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Born out of Gridlock

There’s a popular old saying you doubtless know well: Great minds think alike.

The problem is
, it’s often the opposite: People—even those with great minds—can see issues very differently.

In the Clearwater region of central Idaho, the story has focused on differences. Big differences.

The timber wars. Environmentalists versus loggers. Endangered species listings. Decline of elk herds. Wilderness. Off-road vehicles. Fire. Clearcuts.

For decades, these issues and others have resulted in lawsuits, name calling and rancor.
The results? National forests languish because no one can agree on management actions. The forests suffer, as do the people and wildlife who need them.

In the end, nobody wins.

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative charts a different course. The Nature Conservancy joins other conservation groups, the forest products industry, the Nez Perce Tribe, recreational enthusiasts and agencies to develop collaborative solutions.

It’s a different model: Great minds think together.

Sitting at the table, the coalition addresses everything from forest management to wilderness designation. Do members always agree? Absolutely not. But they do listen, and work together to come up with solutions.

There are always those who say this won’t work, that compromise only weakens solutions. But what has the fighting really accomplished? For too long, the only voices being heard were the loudest and most strident.

“The Clearwater Basin Collaborative was born out of gridlock,” says Alex Irby, a member of the collaborative representing off-road vehicle recreation. “We started with a facilitator to get us over the tough hurdles. Today, we’ve become so accustomed to working together that we have group members who respect each, who work together to find solutions out of gridlock.”

Each member of the collaborative brings a different perspective. The Nature Conservancy recognizes the Clearwater for its large, intact forests, for its importance to wildlife, for its clean waters and wild rivers. Our approach has long been to meet human needs while achieving our mission of biodiversity conservation.

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative scored its first major victory by receiving funding from the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act (CLFRA), having been ranked the third highest forest collaborative program nationally.

The funding allows for prescribed fire, non-native weed control, trail maintenance and pre-commercial thinning—providing much needed management that contributes to the forest health of the region.

Working and listening can shape a new future for the Clearwater. Check out the Clearwater Basin Collaborative’s web site for more information on the issues this coalition is addressing.—Matt Miller

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Spring Dance

They appear like ghosts before light: small groups of plump, puffy birds standing amongst the sagebrush.

Sage grouse.

At first, I count ten, then a few more appear. Soon fifty male grouse begin their daily dance, strutting and puffing and popping the air sacs on their breasts.

The annual sage grouse strut is one of the West’s most memorable wildlife spectacles. Each year, the male grouse return to their display grounds—called leks—to give their courtship display to females. The females check out the ostentatious display and pick a mate.

Unfortunately, this is a sight becoming increasingly rare across the West. Where once thousands of grouse flew, there are now hundreds. Where there were hundreds, there are now dozens. And in many places, sage grouse are completely gone.

What happened to the grouse? And is there any way to stop this disturbing trend?

The Not-So-Endless Sage
When European settlers traveled the Oregon Trail, the sagebrush deserts seemed endless and unforgiving. Today, driving the interstate through southern Idaho and Oregon, it might seem similar, as if the sagebrush plains go on forever.

A closer examination reveals much has changed.

Healthy sagebrush habitat is actually not just sagebrush but a rich mosaic of other shrubs, grasses and wildflowers.

It is common to hear people to refer to sagebrush as “barren” or “empty,” this is simply not the case. In fact, a wide variety of creatures rely on sagebrush to survive.

It’s a very nutritious plant for mule deer and pronghorn. Many bird species survive only in sagebrush, including the aptly named sage sparrow and sage thrasher. There are even spiders found only in sagebrush.

And then there’s the sage grouse. Nearly every phase of the grouse’s life relies on sagebrush.

They eat it, they nest in it, hide in it, seek cover during the winter under big sagebrush’s branches.

Lose the sagebrush, and you lose the sage grouse.

And we are losing sagebrush, across the West. For years, sagebrush was considered a nuisance plant, and range managers burned it, sprayed it and knocked it over by dragging chains across the desert.

Today, the loss continues. In part, this is due to the development of habitat for agriculture, energy and housing. But another loss is more subtle, and perhaps even more of a threat.

Fire in the Brush
Over the years, many conservationists have come to appreciate the role of fire in forests. Fire is often necessary to maintain the health of that ecosystem. When the Yellowstone fire raged, many predicted that the park would never recover—a prediction that quickly was proven inaccurate.

Given this, why are land manager so concerned about fire in sagebrush country?

Fire is indeed a natural aspect of sagebrush habitat. However, in most places, fire historically has burned infrequently, only every 50 to 75 years.

Today, however, non-native weeds like cheatgrass thrive in fire. Their seeds await fire, and then take hold. Unlike sagebrush and other native plants, cheatgrass thrives in fire. It greens up rapidly in the spring, and then dies.

This dry vegetation is like tinder, burning easily.

This starts a cycle where the cheatgrass burns much more frequently than the native plants. The sagebrush doesn't have a chance. After several burns, it never recovers. This leaves the monocultures of cheatgrass so common on too many western hillsides.

When that happens, the sage grouse disappear.

Hope for Grouse
Fortunately, there are still places where grouse still strut. Southern Idaho remains a stronghold for the species. Ensuring that these birds and their habitat continues to thrive is much less expensive than trying to restore grouse when they disappear.

Around southern Idaho, sage grouse working groups have formed to protect and restore habitat. These groups consist of conservationists, sportsmen, ranchers and agency officials. Their work is in part motivated by a desire to keep the grouse off the endangered species list.

In many parts of the state, these groups are funding the control of weeds and restoration of native plants.

The Nature Conservancy considers the protection of sagebrush habitat one of its highest priorities in Idaho. From the Owyhees of southwestern Idaho to the Craters of the Moon/Pioneer Mountains region, the Conservancy works with partners to make sure the highest quality sagebrush remains intact for grouse and other species that need it to survive.

One notable example is the Crooked Creek Valley, located 20 miles from the small town of Dubois in eastern Idaho. Local falconers, who hunt with raptors, first alerted the Conservancy about this area.

The sage grouse is a favorite quarry of falconers. The falconers knew the Crooked Creek area had some of the strongest remaining sage grouse populations anywhere in the West.

Today, the Conservancy owns 5000 acres in the valley, and also work on 60,000 acres of grazing allotments. Since 2001, work with partners has restored both sagebrush and stream habitat. And the grouse continue to thrive.

See The Sage Grouse Strut
You can see dozens of grouse strutting at Crooked Creek each spring.

Dubois Grouse Days offers tours to see the birds on their display grounds. This year’s event takes place on April 27 and 28 in the town of Dubois, and includes not only the grouse tours, but educational talks, great food and camaraderie with other grouse enthusiasts.

Founded by the late falconer and conservationist Kent Christopher, Grouse Days was envisioned as a way to excite people about sage grouse and their conservation. The success of this annual event is a legacy of Christopher's tremendous love for sage grouse and the country they inhabit.

The video below was taken during last year's Grouse Days by conservationist Jean Bjerke. It gives a good idea of what you can expect to see.

It’s worth the trip. Enjoy the show. The more people appreciate sage grouse—and sagebrush—the more likely it is that these special birds will remain a part of our wildlife heritage.--Matt Miller

Photos: Sage grouse hen with brood by Ken Miracle; all other sage grouse images by Bob Griffith. Grouse days video by Jean Bjerke.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Private Landowners Team Up to Protect Wildlife Habitat

Private working forests offer tremendous benefits to both wildlife and people.

North Idaho's forests are home to many animals that are "wide roamers"--they have huge home ranges and move about from one forest to the next. Private working forests keep this area as one connected whole, giving wildlife room to roam.

These forests also provide valuable timber to keep local mills in operation.

The Nature Conservancy believes it's important to keep both bears and loggers in the woods. That's why our work in North Idaho aims to keep working forests working.

The State of Idaho was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to promote private land forest conservation in the Idaho panhandle, an area known for its high conservation value.

The grant will allow the State of Idaho, working in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, to purchase conservation easements from two Idaho Boundary County families: the Hubbards and the Wages.

Conservation easements on these properties will restrict development on approximately 1,700 acres, supporting working forests and protecting important fish and wildlife habitat, including habitat for five threatened and endangered species.

These families will also be assured that the property they have owned and managed for more than 50 years will remain intact, leaving a legacy of conservation for their heirs.

Read the full story.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Nature Conservancy, Purdy Family Announce Partnership to Restore Kilpatrick Pond

The Nature Conservancy and the Purdy family have signed an agreement to restore Kilpatrick Pond on Silver Creek, an impounded area that has trapped sediments for decades.

The agreement focuses on restoring the stream to a more natural path, creating wetlands and lowering water temperatures.

The Kilpatrick Pond project will be the largest restoration effort ever undertaken on Silver Creek. The project is also the most significant action that can be undertaken to reduce water temperatures at Silver Creek, recognized by ecologists as the main long-term threat to this world-class trout stream.

Because of the size and complexity of the project, in addition to extensive planning through the next several months, the University of Idaho will be building a model of the pond. Interested people will be able to see in real time how the newly designed reach of Silver Creek looks as water flows through it.

Kilpatrick Pond is the impounded portion of Silver Creek that includes parts of Silver Creek Preserve and the Purdys’ Double R Ranch. Due to an irrigation diversion dam on the Purdys’ property, sediments have been trapped in this pond.

These sediments have filled in the historic stream channel, creating a mostly wide and shallow pond where water heats up quickly in the summer sun. Such conditions are not good for the long-term health of the stream or the fishery.

Read the full story.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Toni Hardesty named Nature Conservancy's Idaho State Director

Toni Hardesty, director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, has been named the new director of The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, the non-profit global conservation organization reported today.

Hardesty will oversee The Nature Conservancy’s work around the state, focusing on collaborative projects that protect land and water for nature and people.

Hardesty has served as director of Idaho’s DEQ since 2004, when she was appointed by Governor Dirk Kempthorne. Since then, she has been reappointed by Governors James Risch and C.L. “Butch” Otter. As director, she was responsible for leading efforts to preserve the quality of Idaho’s air, land and water for the use and enjoyment today and in the future.

An Idaho native, Hardesty has also worked in the private sector and for the Environmental Protection Agency.

”The Idaho Board of Trustees is very excited to have Toni join us,” says Irv Littman, board chair. “She brings great experience, exciting new perspectives and a proven leadership record to help us continue to protect Idaho’s most spectacular places.”

Read the full news story.