Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Migratory Reflections, from a Recent Migrant

By Jordan Reeves, East Idaho Conservation Manager

Centennial Mountains overlooking Henry's Lake. Photo ©Ken Miracle

I blame everything on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I am now almost five months into my tenure as the Conservancy’s new East Idaho Conservation Manager and my family and I are still living out of boxes, loads of laundry long overdue, the front lawn ten inches high. What on earth, you might ask, would possess a young couple with a three-month old baby (their first) to uproot everything, leave behind jobs, a pleasant Seattle neighborhood, and a well-organized existence and move their entire lives to an unfamiliar neighborhood in Idaho Falls? Well, it was the Middle Fork that did it.

The Middle Fork was my first window into Idaho’s natural landscapes and my amazement upon first seeing its crystalline waters as a young college kid never wavered through the six years that I spent guiding commercial rafting passengers down the canyon. From wet year to dry, high water to low, the ecological processes that unfolded before my eyes on the Middle Fork made my childhood experiences in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains seem downright tame by comparison. Hillsides ravaged and regenerated by wildfire, trees toppled by microburst winds, whitewater rapids both created and destroyed by landslides and creek blowouts; every year and in fact, every week, there was something new and amazing to witness. Off days and shoulder seasons spent exploring the Sawtooths, the Beaverheads, the Tetons, and Craters of the Moon quickly revealed to me that the Middle Fork was just the beginning of the incredible natural experiences that Idaho has to offer. No matter how pretty they made the foam in our lattes, Seattle just couldn’t compete.

Taking in the rugged beauty of the Middle Fork. Photo ©Kate Hestwood-Reeves

As I learn more each day about the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, the Centennial Mountains, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem here in East Idaho, what continually astonishes me is the incredible scale of the wildlife migrations that pass through this landscape. Grizzly bears, wolverines and Canada Lynx all pass through East Idaho on their journeys between Yellowstone and North Idaho, Montana, and Southern Canada.  Pronghorn antelope roam across the landscape into Southern Montana, while elk, deer, and bighorn sheep migrate seasonally from the high country to lower elevation winter habitat. Tundra swans, trumpeter swans, many song bird species, and up to fifty thousand ducks pass through the Camas National Wildlife Refuge each year as they travel from as far north as the Arctic to warmer climes and back. Not to mention the long-billed curlew and sandhill cranes that pass through The Conservancy’s own Flat Ranch Preserve and the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout spawning in nearby cool water streams. A wildlife migration map of East Idaho reads like a Seattle traffic map at rush hour.

Pronghorn traversing the Flat Ranch Preserve. Photo ©Ken Miracle

As the Middle Fork revealed to me many years ago, Idaho is an incredible place to be, with an abundance of natural resources for wildlife and humans alike. Just as my family chose to migrate here from Seattle on I-84, many more will come in future years from all directions, making The Nature Conservancy’s work to protect habitat and migratory wildlife corridors vitally important. 

Unpacked moving boxes and laundry piles aside, I feel very privileged to now live here in East Idaho with my family among abundant and spectacular natural beauty. To be ensuring through our work that future human migrations can coexist with East Idaho’s intact ecosystems and incredible wildlife migrations, well, that’s a pretty amazing feeling too. And I blame all of it on the Middle Fork.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Building a Haven for Boulder Spring

By Marilynne Manguba, TNC Protection Specialist

Certain activities are inherently satisfying. Take, for example, building a good fence. Last week, in less than eight hours, staff and volunteers for the Nature Conservancy built a sturdy jack fence around Boulder Spring just below Horse Ridge in north Clark County, Idaho. The deteriorated cattle exclosure around this tiny little spring was falling down and heavy sharp hooves were causing damage to the spring and surrounding vegetation. While tiny, the spring is important to the local wildlife as it’s the only water for miles in most directions. A trickle through a small pipe feeds several watering troughs downhill, so there’s plenty of water for pronghorn and elk, as well as the cattle who spend part of the summer in the area.

The vast beauty of the Boulder Spring area

The US Forest Service, who manages the land where Boulder Spring is located, helped supply materials for the fence and even delivered them to this remote site. Staff and volunteers made quick work of the old fence, stacking the posts and poles nearby for disposal later. Then the assembly line was set up – one group assembled jacks and set them out, another moved posts and 21-foot rails into position before the work of assembling the fence got started. Posts and rails were cut to size and attached with 6 to 8 inch spikes.

Work crew (L to R): Ron Laird, Ryan Laird, Danny Byrne, Ron Troy, Brian Morrison, Jordan Reeves

Onlooking vesper sparrows hung out in the sagebrush and occasionally snuck in to grab one of the many insects in the wet areas around the spring. Meadowlarks called from surrounding rock outcroppings. The spring supports a beautiful little oasis in the midst of this dry sagebrush-steppe, adorned by tall, healthy sagebrush plants, blooming lupines and buckwheat, currants, and giant clumps of great basin wildrye. We didn’t see any of the larger four-legged occupants of the area as it was a hot day and we were a noisy group.

After we cleaned up our worksite, hot, dirty and tired, there was still that great feeling of a job completed.   

Boulder Spring guarded by its new exclosure

Our hardworking Boulder Spring work crew involved TNC staff Ron Troy, Matthew Ward, Jordan Reeves, Marilynne Manguba; Washington and Lee University intern Brian Morrison; Crooked Creek Ranch Manager Ron Laird; Volunteers Ryan Laird and Danny Byrne. Photos ©Marilynne Manguba/TNC.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It’s Electric: Triennial Fish Study Returns to Silver Creek

By Caley Gallison, Silver Creek Preserve Intern/Colorado College

Every three years, fishing on Silver Creek undergoes a notable and temporary transformation. Fly rods are exchanged for electroshocking probes and recreational fishermen are replaced by professionals from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG). USGS and IDFG perform separate studies but collaborate in order to correlate their data. Both studies are reliant on volunteer help, engaging Silver Creek Preserve staff and a few locals for help during the scientists’ time on the creek.

Electroshocking is an effective, accurate and largely harmless research method used for gaining insight as to the number and types of fish that are present in a freshwater ecosystem. Basically, electroshocking consists of two positively charged electrical probes that are hooked up to a negatively charged generator on a boat. The positive charge attracts the fish and then temporarily stuns them so they can be scooped up by the nets, put into a water tank with running and oxygen and processed. The fish are carefully released back into the stretch of creek they came from and are watched to make sure they swim off alright. Few fish are harmed by the technique, they are handled with the utmost of care and the data obtained is important for helping to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Even as an avid vegetarian and animal advocate, I was impressed by how careful the handling of the fish was for a relatively invasive technique.

Studying Silver Creek's fish population. Photo ©Terry Maret

It was quite a treat to see all of the fish inhabitants up close. I had started to learn the differences between all the various types of fish but it was not until after looking at hundreds of fish up-close that I could really differentiate a brown from a rainbow trout or a speckled from a long-nosed dace. And each fish within a species is so incredibly different from the next – from their distinct markings to their relative skinniness to their temperament. A number of the fish had bird talon scars on their sides, a testament to a life full of hardship and close calls. And of course, there were a few fish that were of monster size, relics of years of evading predators or of more recent predators like the American white pelicans.

This cold water ecosystem is a haven for rainbow trout. Photo ©Terry Maret

Over the past few weeks, we helped with several studies during the day as well as several at night. IDFG performs some of the electroshocking after dark because it is easier on the fish and they recover quicker. Since we were on the creek during different times, we saw all sorts of wildlife. Nearly every time we were on the water to electrofish, we saw moose! The first day on Silver Creek right before we started, we saw a mother moose, her yearling and baby, and that sighting sure did set a precedent. Once, we had to wait nearly a half hour for the mom and her calves to cross back over the creek so we could proceed. I even had to wait to get into my truck at 3 a.m. after a night session since the moose were right in my way and I was not about to anger them.

A couple of fishing guides and fishermen went along with us during the day shocking; they could not understand why with so many fish in the creek, it was impossible to catch them. I guess the fish here on the Preserve really are smart, and very good at hiding! Hopefully, with the continued aid of these fish studies and other conservation practices, Silver Creek will remain a world-class trout fishery that everyone from humans to animals alike can enjoy for years to come.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Traveling the West in a Week

By Stephanie Hansen, Director of Operations

I recently took a full week off from work. While that may not seem remarkable to most people, it is a rare occurrence for me. I recognize the importance of a vacation, but I have to admit I really like to come to the office and I like to work. While I had originally planned on taking nearly three weeks off to go to Europe, the plan kept changing until I had one week of vacation marked on the calendar.

The vacation turned out to be a nearly 2,000 mile, 7 day road trip starting from my home in Hailey, Idaho, through Wyoming, into Montana, back to Wyoming, into South Dakota, back through Wyoming and ending back in Hailey. I spent nearly three months planning the trip and researching the history of the places we wanted to see. Excited at taking on what felt like a part-time night and weekend job, I was busy mapping the route, booking places to stay and making note of entrance fees to the many points of interest we planned on seeing. 

When a friend heard we were planning on going to Billings, Montana the first night he suggested we go through Yellowstone and drive the Beartooth Scenic Byway. Also known as the Beartooth Highway, the road opened in June 1936 and is the highest elevation road in the Northern Rockies, with the tallest point being 10,947 feet high at the Beartooth Pass in Wyoming. It was like winter all over again with frozen lakes and some snow banks higher than the roof of the car. Every hairpin turn provided yet another awe inspiring view of the Beartooth Mountains and at times all we could do is shake our heads as we viewed this absolutely stunning landscape.

The iconic Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Photo ©Stephanie Hansen

Over the next few days we made our way to the Little Bighorn Battlefield (a.k.a. Custer’s Last Stand), to the northeast corner of Wyoming to see Devils Tower which was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 as America’s first national monument (and looked nothing like what I remember from watching the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I was 10), and to Deadwood, South Dakota.  I admit I was addicted to the HBO series “Deadwood” and looked forward to exploring the town and visiting Mount Moriah Cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock are buried.

Rugged peaks off the Needles Highway, South Dakota. Photo ©Stephanie Hansen

Next up was the Badlands National Park, then Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, Needles Highway in Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest. The last day in South Dakota included a much anticipated visit to Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave was declared a national monument in 1908 and is currently the third longest cave in the world, with over 166 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. We learned many interesting things during our 90 minute tour of the cave including air volume studies that indicate 95% of the cave has yet to be discovered.

Exploring the Jewel Cave in South Dakota's Black Hills. Photo ©Stephanie Hansen

The last night on the road was spent in Lander, Wyoming and then an early morning rise to make the final trek through Grand Teton National Park with a stop in Jackson Hole for lunch. After being on the road for so many days we were oddly not in any crazy rush to get home and simply took in the sites and beautiful scenery. We agreed that each and every day had brought yet another spectacular view of something we had never seen before or something we never seemed to get tired of seeing.  And while it was not three weeks away from work, or even two, it was one really good week of vacation.