Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Conservation for People and Nature

By Ryan Haugo, forest ecologist

Conservation scientists from across the Conservancy gathered last month in San Jose, California to discuss the science of conservation for people and nature. This “all-science” conference was incredibly wide ranging, with topics from conservation of sage grouse to the use of social media to track the impact of nature experiences on peoples’ well-being. 

One common theme throughout the meeting, however, was that “conservation for nature and people” represents evolution, not revolution. People always have been and always will be a critical piece of the conservation equation. In Idaho, the Conservancy embraced the concept of “Working Landscapes” more than 15 years ago. For almost two decades we have been focused on finding conservation solutions that benefit both our state’s biodiversity and our rural communities.

Members of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative discussing forest management. Photo ©TNC

Since joining the Conservancy one of my primary focuses has been working with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. The Clearwater Basin is renowned for its pristine waters, productive fisheries, diverse wildlife, vast wild landscapes and scenic vistas. It has also seen tremendous battles over the management of its lands and waters. The collaborative, a group of conservation, business, government and tribal leaders, formed 5 years ago to help resolve these longstanding conflicts. The Conservancy is involved with the Clearwater Basin because of the outstanding biological diversity that this landscape supports. Yet, the focus of my work in the Clearwater has been defining how the tools of ecological restoration (mechanical harvests, controlled burning) can be used to meet the needs of both human and natural communities. While this work is a far cry from my early career when I focused on classifying and measuring biological diversity, it has been some of the most rewarding of my professional life.

Across the Northwest there are many other examples of conservation projects that are built around the needs of local communities. During this past New Years I spent a week on the Washington Coast with my family and had a chance to visit the Ellsworth Creek Preserve. Ellsworth contains some of the last remaining ancient forest stands left on the Washington Coast, isolated within a landscape of private industrial forest lands. The Ellsworth preserve also contains thousands of acres of former industrial forests. Here the Conservancy is conducting a groundbreaking study examining the use of mechanical thinning to both provide jobs for the local economy while accelerating the development of old-growth habitat and healthy watersheds in these young forests.

My wife and daughters taking in an ancient western red cedar at Ellsworth Creek. Photo ©Ryan Haugo/TNC.

Thinning operations at Ellsworth Creek. Photo ©Ryan Haugo/TNC

As conservation scientists, we’re no longer able to solely focus on the question of which lands we should protect to maximize the diversity and resilience of the natural world. We are also called to evaluate the benefits of our conservation actions for people and find ways to balance the “nature and people” equation. It’s an amazing and interesting time to be a scientist at TNC – and that’s a good thing! 

Thursday, January 09, 2014

In Search of Marshmallows

By Susanna Danner, Director of Protection

When I went home to Massachusetts to visit my family this Christmas, I had an agenda besides my typical holiday pursuits of assembling jigsaw puzzles, eating ham, and wrapping presents. I wanted to see my very first snowy owl.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Photo ©Janet Haas

You may have heard about the snowy owl irruption of 2013. The word “irruption” shares the same Latin root as the word “eruption,” but it means to burst in, rather than to burst out (like lava.) These enormous arctic birds have been bursting into the northern United States this winter, including in our neighbor states of Montana and Washington. The “polar vortex” that froze the central and eastern U.S. in early January probably felt like old home week to the snowies visiting the States.  These birds have feathered feet and legs to protect them from the cold, and one thing that makes them easier to find than other owls is that they perch on low posts, fences or the ground. Where they come from, tall trees are less common, so these birds are comfortable perching low.

The reasons for this irruption, which is one of the largest on record, may have to do with climate change. Conditions in the Arctic are changing dramatically, and scientists speculate that changes in sea ice, small mammal population dynamics, or seasonal temperatures may be factors in this owl incursion.

Several snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) had been observed at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge near my hometown, so my mom, my sister-in-law and I decided to put on our parkas and go birding. At the refuge entrance, we asked the ranger where we might have luck finding snowy owls. “Look for the cars,” he said. Apparently we weren’t the first bird tourists of the day.

We drove to the end of the refuge, past a few clutches of idling cars. All we could discern through our pocket binoculars were white refuge signs masquerading as white owls, and the previous evening’s snowfall made picking out white shapes on the icy salt marsh a challenge.

Sus and her mother owling. Photo courtesy Sus Danner.
We climbed an observation tower and saw a pair of mute swans winging their way just above the low tide, but no owls. Just when we were losing hope, a couple of local birders climbed up the tower stairs and renewed our resolve.

If you’ve ever birdwatched in winter, you know that while the weather conditions can be tough, the people are often a joy. There is a siege mentality to winter birders. The sentiment seems to be, “if you’re out here braving frostbite and hypothermia, you’re my friend.” The local birders seemed thrilled that we were out on the refuge, and gave us unexpected advice on how to find a snowy. “Look for a marshmallow,” they said.

I had read how large snowy owls are (two feet tall!) and so I had been looking for a big white Doric column among the salt marsh grasses. But the owls hunch up to conserve heat, and their proportions are marshmallow-like. Now that we knew what to look for, we found one right away. Sitting on a sand dune, just above the slate-colored Atlantic Ocean, we found a preening adult snowy owl. A giddy group of us formed, helping each other pick out the bird amongst the pale dunes.  Another benevolent local birder saw us peering through our binoculars and stopped to offer us a look through his spotting scope. In the scope, I could see the speckled black on the owl’s shoulders, and its blazing yellow eyes.

Huddled around the scope with a group of birders from all over the world, with a biting wind coming in off of the sea, my feet numb with cold, I couldn’t have been happier.