Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Morning on the desert

By Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager

Morning on the desert! I can smell the sagebrush smoke; 
An' I hate to see it burnin', but the land must sure be broke.
-Katherine Fall Pettey, from Songs from the Sage Brush, 1910

Near the North Fork of the Boise River. Photo by Sunny Healey/TNC

The high-desert sagebrush steppe ecosystem is hard to simplify and even more difficult to replicate from scratch. This summer we lost more of that ecosystem when the Beaver Creek fire burned so hot that the plants are not expected to grow back anytime soon. The rain we wished for did arrive but it came falling out of the sky with such intensity (and questionable timing) that it started to dramatically erode the mountainsides. We got to see geomorphology in action, right from the kitchen window for some people. The celebration of fire containment and houses and lives saved was dampened by the 4 feet of mud up against the garage.

By the sheep bridge on the Big Wood River. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

To prohibit further erosion and mudslides, experts recommended a series of measures to be prescribed in the fire rehabilitation plan, one of which included reseeding priority areas within Blaine County. The recommendations came after field inspection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service (USFS), Geologic Survey (USGS), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), BLM, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) and others, In addition to stabilizing the hillsides, the reseeding will improve wildlife habitat more quickly, provide increased resilience and allow us once again to be hiking the hills, gazing at a big bull elk standing majestically amongst the wildflowers, native grasses and sagebrush.

Soldier Creek Preserve. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The NRCS and USFS suggested performing aerial reseeding this fall. In the beginning, it was going to be bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue and a quick-acting sterile cereal seed to the rescue. But several groups came together to ensure diverse native species would be added to this reseeding mix. With the support of Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, IDFG, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the NRCS, Dayna Gross (TNC) and Dani Mazzotta (ICL) drafted an application to enhance the seed mix with native species. Choosing the seeds turned out to be an interesting and semi-controversial discussion that included private and public lands, county, state and federal funding, and price and availability of seeds, with major timing constraints, and some measurable (and some total) uncertainty. Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson’s comments about private, federal and state property lines being part of a tapestry that is woven together by natural systems and habitats that cannot be compartmentalized for political convenience helped conceptualize and focus the importance of the reseeding initiative.

Native forbs should be included with the grasses and sage seed mix for many reasons but partly because different species will inhabit different layers of soil.  If a particular soil layer is not inhabited, it provides an opportunity for the notoriously crafty noxious weeds to take up that niche.

Stanley, Idaho. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

The ideal mix is too complicated and expensive but a few seeds were considered and selected for their relevant attributes.  Lewis blue flax, named in honor of Meriwether Lewis, provides erosion control, pollinator habitat and beautification. What the Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association refers to as a ‘handsome and statuesque bunchgrass,’  Great Basin wildrye provides good cover for deer and antelope, important winter forage for elk, and serves as habitat and a food source for upland game birds, songbirds, and small mammals.  Western yarrow, which has a long history as a powerful healing herb, is also a great food source and is commonly used as nesting material for birds. It is an early succession species and readily establishes on disturbed sites.  The beautiful bright-yellow arrowleaf balsamroot flowers grow quickly in the spring and are good browse for wildlife stressed by winter conditions. The most sought-after seed of the mix was sagebrush. Though its leaves are bitter and toxic to some ruminants, sagebrush provides food and habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, pygmy rabbit and the gray vireo. It is essential to sage grouse, and cows and sheep commonly graze on sagebrush slopes. Its scientific name Artemisia tridentata refers to Artemis, the Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals and wilderness. Native Americans burned dried sage leaves to purify tipis and to bless pregnant women and young warriors.

The part of the seed mix selection process that most inspired me was the value of sagebrush, literally and otherwise.  Great Basin wildrye costs $12/lb., blue flax $10/lb., antelope bitterbrush up to $40/lb., and Big Mountain sagebrush $50/lb.  For this restoration project, 2500 critical acres are being reseeded at a rate of one quarter to one pound per acre for each seed type.  How much will it cost to reseed all that land?  In the end, we were able to get a suitable mix for about $50,000, not including the plane ride.

But it made me wonder, how much sagebrush do we have?  What if wildfires or land use changes destroyed too much sagebrush? How much would it cost to reseed the entire ecosystem?  Or, rather, what is the current value of all the sagebrush in the American West?  In 2005 a conservation strategy and assessment from Colorado estimated over 106 million acres of sagebrush in the western U.S. The Handbook of Western Reclamation Techniques suggests seeding sagebrush at two pounds per acre.   At current prices and suggested application rates, it would cost $10.6 billion.

This is a simplistic equation and not very realistic because there are many more variables besides seed costs and acres but the question made me think about some of the reasons I love sagebrush and how life in Idaho wouldn’t be the same without it: fishing the long lonesome trails along the Little Wood River; listening to the last songs around a cowboy campfire with a backdrop of stars and sage; reading  about the essence of the West from a child’s point of view in my New York City niece’s school project about a ride across the Camas Prairie; that feeling as you quietly traverse the open range of the Rock Creek Valley that a mountain lion is watching from a secret hideaway in the basalt ledge above. During the reseeding effort I learned that a few dedicated people and a lot of hard work can make a big difference and that beyond any price we could try to attribute to it, plain old everyday sagebrush has significant wildlife, spiritual, cultural, historical and economic value. 

"Sagebrush ain't so pretty?" Well, all eyes don't see the same;
Have you ever saw the moonlight turn it to a silv'ry flame?
An' that greasewood thicket yonder—well, it smells jest awful sweet 
When the night wind has been shakin' it; for smells it's hard to beat.
-Katherine Fall Pettey

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Strong support for Boise's clean water and natural areas

By Bas Hargrove, senior policy representative, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

On November 5th, a strong majority of Boise voters made it clear they support investments in clean water and critical natural areas. Though the measure did not receive the two-thirds majority needed to pass, more than 3 in 5 Boise voters supported the bond to provide $15.7 million for Boise parks and natural areas.

While we did not get the outcome we hoped for, I was proud of the campaign and the Conservancy’s contribution to it. Seeing the passion, hard work and community spirit of volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls every day was truly inspirational. So was the broad coalition of local businesses, the outdoor recreation community, non-profit organizations and Boise’s decisions makers who came together on this effort.

Bas at campaign tabling in Boise. Photo ©Birkinbine Photography.
The Conservancy got into this campaign because of the opportunity to invest in clean water and wildlife habitat, but we came out the other side reminded of how much people matter.

We are united in our dedication to making Boise a great place to live, work and raise a family, and will continue to work with our partners to find new tools to ensure the protection of Boise’s clean water, wildlife habitat, and open spaces.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Conservancy Leaders Tell Congress “Invest in Nature”

By Will Whelan, director of government relations, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

Recently, two Nature Conservancy volunteer leaders joined me in Washington, D.C. to deliver a simple message to Idaho’s senators and representatives:  conservation makes a good investment.
Idaho Chapter Board of Trustees Chair Peter Gray and Vice Chair Penn Siegel spoke about their personal connection to Idaho’s natural places in Idaho. They also made the broader point that America’s natural and outdoor recreation resources are an essential foundation for our economy and for the health and well being of the American people.

Idaho Board of Trustees Chair Peter Gray and Vice Chair Penn Siegel. Photo ©Will Whelan/TNC.
In Idaho and across the nation, federal conservation and outdoor recreation programs represent essential investments that support:
       Local communities and small businesses that depend on our multi-billion dollar recreation industry;
       Farming, ranching, and forestry jobs;
       Safe and adequate water supplies for drinking and other uses;
       Protection of communities from storms and droughts; and
       Healthy outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing.
Nationally, outdoor recreation, natural resource conservation, and historic preservation provide a minimum of $689 billion in direct economic activity in the United States and support 12.8 million jobs.    In Idaho, a remarkable 74% of residents participate in some form of outdoor recreation.  All told, outdoor recreation supports 77,000 direct jobs and $1.8 billion in wages.

Source: TNC U.S. Government Relations

The American public has a solid grasp of the value of nature.  In a national survey conducted last September, 73% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Wc can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good for Americans at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.”
Spending on conservation and natural resources amounts to just 1.18% of the federal budget.  That small sliver funds a huge range of things:  the national parks and monuments, all other federal lands, wildlife conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, federal firefighting, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers, and ocean fisheries management.  Idaho – with its vast open spaces, outdoor tourism industry, and heavy reliance on scarce water resources – is more dependent than most states on sound management of public natural resources.
The conservation of our natural resources is central to our nation’s health, yet congressional appropriations for natural resources management have been declining for more than three decades. The portion of the federal budget devoted to conservation and natural resources has fallen by nearly half since the late 1970s.  Conservation has already sacrificed more than its fair share for deficit reduction and further cuts would gravely compromise the ability of key programs to accomplish their objectives.
The Conservancy used these facts to underscore our request to Idaho’s congressional delegation: investments in conservation have well documented returns for our economy and way of life, and deserve strong support from elected officials in any in upcoming budget negotiations.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Promising practices to protect and restore the Owyhyees

Editor's note: The first-ever Owyhee Research and Restoration Roundup was held on October 23 and 24 to showcase how research taking place in the Owyhees is being used to inform conservation and management.

By Art Talsma, restoration manager, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

The Owyhee Roundup was a great exchange of ideas and conservation practices that showcased promising and effective ways to protect, restore and enhance rangelands to benefit both wildlife and ranching in the region.

Photo ©John Robison/Idaho Conservation League

We shared several innovative and traditional conservation practices where science is being applied across the region. These practices included: 
  • Coated seed pods that increase planting success after weed treatments or wildfire.
  • Ways to model and predict wildfire flow so we can locate fire breaks in the most effective places.  
  • Satellite and infrared images that help locate best places to control juniper near sage grouse lek.
  • Which types of sagebrush are preferred by sage grouse for feeding and winter cover and even a robotic sage grouse hen that attracted male sage grouse on the dancing grounds. 
  • Understanding of threats from transmission lines and new invasive grasses coming to the west.
  • Radio tracking for big-horn sheep and sage grouse as well as way to be more cost effective in aerial surveys of wildlife.
Ranchers, agency land stewards, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy presented a suite of success stories including:
  • Using Air Force aircraft to control cheatgrass and increase survival of native bunch grasses.
  • Using mastication equipment and chainsaw crews to control juniper encroachment in sage grouse nesting areas.
  • Protecting riparian habitat and cold headwater stream or springs to help redband rainbow trout survive the summer heat and drought.
  • Understanding the practical side of ranching economics and helpful sources of funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that assist ranchers in doing conservation practices to benefit the lands and waters on which all life depend.

    To find out more about our work in the Owyhees, check out this link. To learn about how you can get involved, contact Art Talsma:

Monday, November 04, 2013

Moving Fish at Silver Creek - an update on the restoration at Silver Creek

Editor's note: The Kilpatrick Pond project is the largest enhancement project to take place at Silver Creek. The project is restoring the impounded section of the creek known as Kilpatrick Pond to address rising water temperatures and decades of sediment build up. Presently the pond contributes a significant amount of warm water into the system because of its large surface area. This affects over 15 miles of creek downstream. Every month we will post an update about the project on this blog.

About 1,000 fish were captured and safely returned to the Silver Creek system after water was diverted from the Purdy side of the Kilpatrick Pond as part of the restoration. The moving of the fish was made possible by volunteers and staff from the Idaho Fish and Game, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.

Want to learn more? Read these first hand accounts about the move from Trout Unlimited's Chad Chorney and the Conservancy's Art Talsma:

The rescue went well. We probably took out 1,000 to 1,200 fish. Some water and fish remain around the “horseshoe” but I think we were able to get at the majority of the fish.  I’ll be checking the condition of any remaining fish periodically. Nick has agreed to add well water as necessary to ensure the fish survive until the site is re-watered. - Chad Chorney

We safely moved over 1,000 fish to Silver Creek so the restoration project can proceed on schedule and be successful. My estimate was 60% were Rainbows and 30% Browns and 10% others. The trout are free to move back upstream to the Preserve or go downstream. I observed fish moving upstream in the Kilpatrick pond by-pass within one hour of the fish rescue. Chad did an excellent job of organizing this event. Fish and Game crew were great to work with-- as always. - Art Talsma 

Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at the Kilpatrick Pond Project webpage.

Photo ©Rydell Welch
Photo ©Rydell Welch
Photo ©Rydell Welch
Photo ©Rydell Welch

Friday, November 01, 2013

Installing A New Dam - an update on the restoration at Silver Creek

Editor's note: The Kilpatrick Pond project is the largest enhancement project to take place at Silver Creek. The project is restoring the impounded section of the creek known as Kilpatrick Pond to address rising water temperatures and decades of sediment build up. Presently the pond contributes a significant amount of warm water into the system because of its large surface area. This affects over 15 miles of creek downstream. Every month we will post an update about the project on this blog.

We are nearing the end of the first phase of the restoration at Kilpatrick Pond. This month we completed dredging of the pond on the Purdy property, and began installing a new dam structure that is designed to allow for fish passage and the flow of cooler water under the dam. Recently water was diverted out of the pond to allow for the dam's installation. Fall is upon us and we are making steady progress. Stay tuned for more ...

Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at the Kilpatrick Pond Project webpage.
Looking upstream at The Nature Conservancy’s half of Kilpatrick Pond, following the downstream diversion of Silver Creek. Photo taken from the float tube access farthest downstream on Silver Creek Preserve, just above Kilpatrick Bridge. Photo © Rydell Welch/TNC.

Looking downstream from Kilpatrick Bridge, towards the Purdy’s (RR Ranch) half of Kilpatrick Pond.  Diverting Silver Creek through one of the Purdy’s irrigation canals exposed much of the ‘pond’ sediment for restoration work. Photo © Rydell Welch/TNC.

Silver Creek diverted through Albrethson Ditch, an irrigation canal on the Purdy’s property. Diverting Silver Creek at this point exposes most of the pond sediment and allows for the construction of a new irrigation dam. Photo © Rydell Welch/TNC.

The old dam used for irrigation on the Purdy’s property. The new dam is designed to allow fish passage and the flow of cooler water under the dam. Photo © Rydell Welch/TNC.

An overview of the Purdy’s half of Kilpatrick Pond, taken from the south side of Silver Creek. Silver Creek is visible along the northern side of the pond until it disappears into Albrethson Ditch. Photo © Rydell Welch/TNC.