I developed a magazine with the idea of showcasing the annual activities and accomplishments of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever, Chapter 258, through photo essay. I also included a couple additional hunting articles.

I retain the magazine as an independent publication with a plan of developing it into a free online magazine to showcase fledgling outdoor writers and photographers, and the beauty of upland bird hunting.

Give it a read at Upland Review.

Featured post

Haying Best Management Practices for Wildlife

Farming and habitat practices to maintain healthy CRP and alfalfa stands provides significant nesting and brood rearing benefits to upland game birds, fawning areas for deer, and nesting and roosting habitat for wild turkey in the early spring and summer. Long, overhanging grasses provide nesting cover while broad-leaf plants like alfalfa and other native forbs provide insect forage for fledgling broods and hens. These stands draw and hold birds but have been called “ecological traps” in areas where haying regularly occurs.

The term ecological trap refers to a beneficial condition that attracts wildlife, but results in additive mortality, affecting the population overall. Quality CRP and alfalfa stands fit the scenario well where haying normally occurs during nesting season.

As haying equipment approaches, a hen pheasant may not vacate eggs or chicks, rather hunker down and use her camouflage for protection as a tractor passes by. This leaves birds vulnerable to the following mower which may be offset from the tractor. Likewise, small mammals and deer fawns use similar camouflage techniques and experience similar vulnerabilities to upland birds.

Best Management Practices

To minimize the potential hazardous effects of haying on wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has developed a few simple best management practices.

1) Defer haying. Apply and maintain at least two of the following management actions specifically for improving or protecting grassland functions for target wildlife species.

  • Do not cut hay on at least 1/3 of the hay acres each year. Idle strips or blocks must be at least 30 feet wide.
  • For at least 1/3 of the hay acreage, hay cutting must be either before and/or after the primary nesting or fawning seasons based on state established dates for the targeted species.
  • Increase forage heights after mowing to state specified minimum heights for the targeted species on all hayed acres.

2) For all haying during the nesting/fawning season implement at least two of the following to flush wildlife from hay fields during the mowing operation:

  • A flush bar attachment will be required on the mower (see figure below).
  • All mowing will be done during daylight hours.
  • Haying pattern:
    • Begin on one end of the field and work back and forth across the field, OR;
    • Begin in the center of the field and work outward.

Following these simple practices can greatly reduce unintentional wildlife mortality, further increasing the benefits of environmentally friendly farming.

flushing bar

Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

 

Elk in the Abyss

Friday, October 28th, 2016, at 10:00pm I was startled awake as my lovely wife Ali bailed out of bed in a mad dash for the phone. We are early to rise, early to bed folks and our friends generally are afraid to call after about 7:30pm; therefore, we instinctively assume that late night phone calls are emergency related and most likely regard our families back in Virginia. As Ali’s tone of voice changed from nervous to confused, then relieved, I realized no one was dead or dying and I was delighted to hear my friend Larry Lamb’s voice on the other end when she handed me the phone.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Larry asked.

“I was planning to take the setters out for a pheasant hunt in the morning.” I replied. “What are you doing?”

“You want to go on an adventure?”

Anyone living in elk country during an elk season knows that when a friend with a pack string calls in what you regard as the middle of the night to ask if you want to go on “adventure” before dawn the next morning, there is likely to be a significant, and possibly unpleasant amount of labor involved.

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?”

“Aaron has a bull down in the Wenaha and asked if I could help him pack it out. Not gonna lie, it’s down in a hell hole and we could really use another back for packing. Still interested?”

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?” I replied, un-flapped.

“Be at the house at 6:00am to help catch the animals and saddle and load ‘em up.”

“Yes sir. See you in the morning.”

Aaron Anderson is one of Larry’s longtime hunting buddies, and one heck of a good guy. I met him for the first time a month prior on our 2016 Wyoming pronghorn adventure. For the second time in four years he drew a Wenaha Wilderness branch antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy 7X7 bull. The Wenahas are a rugged area of the Blue Mountain range between Oregon and Washington. It does not compare to the Rockies in regard to elevation and high mountain cragginess, but make no mistake, the few thousand feet elevation difference between creek bottom and ridgeline characterize the Wenaha with steep, exposed, rocky slopes, sheer cliff outcrops, and deep, dank, brushy draw bottoms fit only for the wild animals that inhabit them; hence, a 350” class bull in this country is not uncommon. Also, with an over-the-counter elk tag you can only hunt spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), so there are many branch-antlered and mature bulls to be had.

I have lived in Washington for a little over five years now, and have only begun to hunt elk. Unfortunately, friends like Larry have been hunting elk their entire lives, but never ask a portly Virginia boy to join the hunting party or assist with a pack-out. I love horses, have plenty of experience caring for horses, and formal English riding experience, but little saddle time overall. I understand horse demeanor and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country, which justified my suspicion that I was a last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful, and likely frightening pack out as I hung up the phone.

Jumping out of bed, I headed down to my “deer room” in the basement to gather my frame pack, head lamp, knives, and water bottles. I didn’t want to risk forgetting something in the morning, but once back in bed, I barely slept throughout the night. My stomach flipped and my mind raced with excitement and anxiety, running scenarios of pack string wrecks, cliff scaling, and wishing I was dead while scrambling up an 87-degree scree slope with 100 pounds of elk on my back. I suspected by this time the following night (if I survived), I would know 100% if I really had what it takes to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.

I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am, literally rolled out of bed, hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, threw some cream and sugar in a travel mug full of fresh brew, and headed to the truck. My Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the forty-minute drive to Larry’s. Making a hard-right off Highway 12 onto Sapolil Road, I then swung the left into Larry’s driveway and rolled down to the barn where Larry had the trailer hitched and was waiting for me to help catch the pack team.

With head-lamps ablaze, we strolled down to the paddock where Larry had erected a nice chute down to the run-in shed where he feeds. All the animals were finishing breakfast as we opened the top end gate for our initial approach. Most of the team is well seasoned as Maggie and Bubbles are about thirty- and forty-year-old mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope on Maggie, who is slow, steady, and mountain savvy. I led Maggie to the trailer to tie her off for saddling while Larry followed up with Katie, a squatty and portly blonde mule with a barrel twice the girth of her body length. I chuckled as she waddled up to the trailer with a disinterested look, ears laid back in disgust, although calm and gentle as could be. On our second approach, Larry handed me the lead rope hooked to Freckles. Freckles is a large brown and white, dappled paint gelding who would serve as my trail coach this day. Freckles and I have a past ride together under our belts and I trust this horse with every step. Freckles, similar to Maggie, is a seasoned packing and riding horse in his mid-twenties, and big enough to handle a behemoth like me. Larry followed with Riley, a medium sized chestnut gelding with a gorgeous white blaze down his nose. Riley is the squirrely bastard of the bunch, flinching and jerking with every move Larry made. I was glad Larry would be the one to steer him, but Larry has a long history with pack horses and is fit for the task. With the string all tied off to the trailer, we saddled them, loaded them up, threw the panniers into the forward tack room, fired up the diesel and turned toward the mountains.

It was a gorgeous October morning with a slight cloud cover, but early morning sun broke through with the promise of a perfect ride out the mountain top to our descent “trail”. Unfortunately, the forecast was calling for rain by 2:00pm in the Walla Walla Valley, which we all knew would hit us in the higher elevations sooner as the moist air condensed against the western slope. We cruised the hour and forty minutes into the trailhead with ease and gawked in awe (at least I did) at the volume of campers and pickups that choked the parking areas and camp sites along the road in the Umatilla National Forest. It was opening day of the general elk firearm season, so the masses had descended to battle over the eleven spike bulls that can legally be killed in the immediate 600,000 acre area (that may a bit of an exaggeration on the acreage). At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn and pulled up next to a twenty-four-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although we were there to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and we shared a moment of jealousy and congratulations while ogling the beautiful, heavy, chocolate rack with sweeping tines, ivory tips, and beams that could seemingly have stretch back to the bull’s tail. The top of the beam between the G5 and the split crown had a unique swoop to it where the antler arched down on both sides. I wanted my own set immediately. Then, just as quickly as we caught up, we climbed into the saddle and set out across the ridge spine for the hour and a half ride to the top of the draw where the bull lay a thousand feet below.

The ride out was amazing to say the least. The trail was easy with little elevation change, few windfalls, and no creek or cliff crossings, just beautiful views of deep canyons, rock outcrops, the fall greening of the open slopes, and the golden hue of larch scattered among the evergreens. I was reminded of a line I read in a book titled The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told. In his chapter, Spirit of the North, Thomas McIntyre wrote about larch while on a Canadian moose hunt.

While the needles of the tamaracks died off in their own fiery-yellow manner, the always dark spruce stood reservedly back from it all, looking down on this spectacle of deciduousness and having none of it.

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I enjoyed the ride immensely and relaxed in tune with Freckles’ rhythm, but nearing the end of the mountain, I looked down the canyons where the finger ridges and walls above the creeks dropped sharply and abruptly into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehendible reality. A quarter mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a meadow. Larry and I followed, and as he turned to us, he pointed down the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is”, he exclaimed. I could feel my thighs burning already.

While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string up into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear that we needed to keep warm and dry for our ride out in the looming thirty-four-degree rain. I shed my tee shirt and stowed it in a saddle bag, and stowed my heavy jacket in a pannier that we would later fill with the bounty won through God’s grace, the life the bull gave for Aaron’s perseverance, and the intense work that we were about to endure.  Wriggling back into my sweatshirt, I donned my frame pack with a bottle of water stashed on the shelf, took a GPS point of the pack string location, and dropped off the side of the mountain. Beginning our initial descent, Aaron looked back with a smile. “How do you guys feel about cliffs?” He asked.

Our descent was approximately an hour long down nearly vertical slopes, through numerous rock outcrops, along slick, muddy rims with loose granite shards, and through the dim, soupy draw bottoms thick with serviceberry. As for the cliffs, Aaron is afraid of heights, but not Larry or I. What I don’t like is trying to negotiate a cliff face. Luckily, we managed to avoid all sheer cliffs by scrambling around and down the bony ridge spines. The real challenge lay within the final approximately 200 feet to the elk, which fell just above the creek bottom. Here the terrain changed from painfully negotiable to seemingly impossible. We painstakingly placed each step to ensure that our footing would hold while using grass, evergreen roots, and serviceberry branches to maintain balance and distribute weight. Each step down increased mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time to choose to swear off elk hunting for good, this was it.

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Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk as the chill-to-the-bone rain set in. Aaron spent the day prior quartering and skinning out the skull for a shoulder mount, so the work to be done this trip was simply grab the back-straps and other loose cuts, and bone out and pack as many quarters as we could manage to carry. Larry and I clambered a bit further downhill to grab a couple quarter bags and a hind quarter Aaron had hung, while Aaron began boning out a shoulder under the shelter of a massive Doug fir (one of the few places to stay dry and work on three square feet of flat ground). We made a couple trips up to where Aaron was working, ending with the cape. Within an hour we had the shoulders, a hind quarter, and all the other loose meat split between the three of us, leaving only the cape and one hind quarter for tomorrow. None of us wanted to come back down here, but we decided it was better to leave a light load for a second day than take too heavy a load and risk injury. Besides, my thighs were burning by the time we arrived at the elk, and I silently wept inside imagining how the ascent was going to treat me. Our packs averaged somewhere between sixty and eighty pounds, and I estimated our total load weight to ballpark between 180-220 pounds. That’s plenty for a desk biologist who hadn’t hunted as hard as he should have the past archery season.

As quickly as we dropped into the abyss, we turned around to begin the ascent and prayed along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate, and our progress was slow and unsteady for the first couple hundred feet. I lead the team, clawing on hands and knees at times using anything anchored to the ground for stability and leverage. We all agreed to take it easy getting out of here, but there was nothing easy about this. In the draw bottoms, the downed serviceberry branches were slick and gummy from moss and years of grass decaying over them. On the ridge spine, bare soil was greasy from the rain. The soil was squishy and caked on our hands like pie crust dough with gritty, sandpaper-like granite shards.  My cadence carried me five to ten feet where I could locate the next object or flat piece of soil large enough for a foothold. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the evergreens that it grows under held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact. I stopped for a minute or two, calmed my breathing, and commenced the shuffle once more.

Down-ridge about twenty yards were Larry and Aaron, carefully picking their way up behind me as I relied on my GPS track log to keep me on-trail. Ascending the bottom quarter of the climb felt like climbing Satan’s staircase in an attempt to escape the clutches of a hell frozen over. The going was slow and I speculated it would take us about three hours to reach the pack string. Where the terrain was too steep to climb, I fell into the edge of the draw and used the serviceberry to my advantage where it was rooted deep enough to pull myself a little further up the mountain. Stopping for a break after another five feet of elevation gain, I heard Larry shriek below followed by a few muffled obscenities. Aaron asked if Larry was okay, to which he replied yes, but he nearly lost his place on the mountainside and was afraid he may take out Aaron in the tumble. We continued to struggle on hands and knees for another approximately twenty to thirty minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, I picked up an elk trail and broke out across the face of Satan’s staircase, which ended as we weaved our way up through a rocky outcrop and stood firmly, without fear of a slip, on a slope that was still absurdly steep, but manageable.  Breaking over the top of this vertical nightmare renewed our drive and we mounted the remaining mountain side with fresh confidence, and surprisingly strong legs.

The remainder of the climb was slow, but our progress was steady with better footing. We even managed some conversation along the way. I was enjoying the scenery again despite being soaked to the bone in sweat and rain. I always find it interesting how different a mountain looks while climbing up compared to shuffling down. Breaking down over the tops of the rocky outcrops pays a mountain little justice as looking over the top masks height and cragginess, but the outcrops and cliff faces loomed intimidatingly overhead on the ascent. About half- to two-thirds of the way up, the reality of how long and steep this climb was began to work on our mental status, but we were still going strong and the terrain only became more forgiving as we neared the crest.

Reaching the only small outcrop with a semi-flat top brought a sigh of relief. On the way down, we discussed walking the mules down to this spot which was about 300 yards from where the stock were tied. Without a word of dropping the packs and going for the stock, we boldly continued. The worst was over. We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the opening. Another blessing of the day was that an old burn that swept through this area left few windfalls, the majority of which were in this final stretch. Continuing on, we carefully stepped, hopped, crawled, and slipped across the decaying, charred, and spiky evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim.  With a short push through what appeared to be sumach saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Perfect timing.

We swiftly closed the gap to the stock and shed our packs, which made a solid thud as they connected with the soft ground. I made for Freckles and looked around to see that we all had one thing in mind. We pulled out our rain gear, shed our wet cloths, dried our heads and arms, and slipped into something more comfortable for the ride out. It was 3:30pm and we made haste in loading the bulging quarter bags into the panniers, hoisted and hooked the bags onto the packsaddle, and lashed down the empty pack frames on top.

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The stock were sheltered nicely among the trees and we didn’t even notice the wind as we finished our hike up the mountain. However, as we untied and led the string out of the timber, the cold wind settled on our wet fingers and faces, and stung with the near-freezing needle pricks of late fall. Mounted up, I settled in and rested my hands across the saddle horn, completely at peace and feeling at home. Taking in the dreary grays of a low ceiling, the bright greens of freshly growing grasses and forbes that feverishly sprout with fall rain, and the calming dark green of the evergreen forest, I can understand how my grandpa and uncle must have felt when they entered the wilderness of Idaho for the first time. My uncle has yet to leave it, and I assumed that by now, my grandpa had returned for eternity.

Our ride out was a bit quieter than the ride in. The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well from former experience. I let him lead, and although I have the utmost confidence in him, I took notice of his curiosity and lack of attention to the trail at times.  As we covered the mile back to the main trail, I gave Freckles a couple suggestions to either follow Aaron and Maggie, or choose another route that would reduce the potential for eye impalement or being swept off the saddle by a large, low-hanging branch. Freckles accepted my direction with aplomb and kept me unharmed, even comfortable while weaving through the timber and over the windfalls. Once back on the main trail I allowed him his complete freedom to roam and was amused at his desire to check out meadows, grab a yarrow snack, and basically meander across the mountain. Sometimes he even stepped slightly off trail on less traveled soil if he anticipated a slip in the mud. We plodded along in silence until the trailhead appeared, and while we had all enjoyed the experience, we had long passed the twelve-hour mark of this adventure, and the cold rain had our spirits fizzling.

Approaching camp, we carefully rode up to the trailer and tied off the critters. We made quick work unloading the elk and packs, then removed the harnesses and bridles and trailered up, leaving the saddles attached for warmth. Aaron invited us into the travel trailer and we shared a beer, some of Larry’s venison jerky, and a couple laughs, reminiscing of the day and Aaron’s hunt overall. It was an awesome experience with some great guys, and I dare say I plan to put in for this elk tag, now knowing the brutal physical demands and risks. Luckily, Aaron’s bull went down where it could be reached, but there is potential in this country to have one hell of predicament on your hands if a bull runs or takes a nasty tumble. This was my test to see if I have what it takes to be an elk hunter. I passed.

Larry, Aaron, and I shared a congratulatory and thank you man-hug, then Larry and I hit the road. I wouldn’t return tomorrow as Aaron had a replacement back lined up, but Larry and the stock would make a repeat performance. As we bounced down the mountain road toward home, my mind drifted off to my own challenging, successful hunts for mule deer, and the fire that burns so deep sparked to life. I will see this trail again in the coming summer.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: 100 Years of Federal Protection

2018 marks the 100th year of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (Act); one of the most influential laws in history that is critically important for protecting the variety of songbirds and raptors that we enjoy in North America. The Act prohibits take (killing), possession, import, export, transport, sale, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. What this means, is that no one can lawfully kill (intentionally or accidentally), or even reach down and collect a shed feather or take an abandoned nest from a non-game, migratory bird species.

Songbird species like cardinals, finches, juncos, and warblers typically come to mind as protected under the Act, but the Act actually protects about 1,000 species.

The Act came to be in response to the popularity of colorful bird feathers adorning hats and clothing dating back to the 1800s. The feather trade was tremendous and unregulated, and at the end of the century, several waterfowl species were hunted into extinction. Soon to follow were species like the passenger pigeon (photo below by James St. John), which was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world, with migratory flocks consisting of possibly billions of birds.

Ectopistes_migratorius_(passenger_pigeon) by James St John

The first legislation protecting migratory birds, the Lacey Act, was passed in 1900, and still stands today. The Lacey Act prohibits the sale of poached game across state boundaries. The Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1913 protecting migratory birds from being hunted during their spring migration; however, this act was soon ruled unconstitutional. In 1916, The United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain in which the two countries agreed to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. Then in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed as a means to implement the treaty with Great Britain.

The next major milestones following the creation of the Act came in 1970 when US courts began prosecuting oil, timber, mining, and utility companies for “take”. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths (“incidental take”) each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the US Department of Justice (Audubon Society). Then, in 2001, President Clinton ordered all relevant federal agencies to consider migratory bird conservation as part of their regular decision making.

As one of the oldest federal wildlife regulations, the Act has saved millions, if not billions of birds, according the Audubon Society. One of the most obvious successes is the snowy egret (photo below by Frank Schulenburg), which was hunted to near extinction, but has rebounded splendidly. Over time, however, the Act has been tweaked here and there. In its final term, the Obama administration issued a legal opinion stating that the Act applied to the incidental killing of birds. Incidental take includes scenarios such as birds striking power lines or wind turbines and falling into open oil storage containers, but on a more literal note, a person unintentionally hitting a bird with a car. However, the Trump Administration has suspended that opinion, according to NPR.

snowy egret by Frank Schulenburg

So, what does this mean? It means that industry may no longer be held liable for the accidental death of a bird due to energy extraction such as timber harvest, or mountaintop removal mining. This also means it is no longer a crime to accidentally kill a bird while driving to work. While incidental take is nearly impossible to avoid or completely enforce, there are potential consequences to repealing industrial liability.

The Audubon Society cites the US Fish and Wildlife Services estimates of power lines killing up to 175 million birds a year, communications towers rack up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates hover at about 300,000 bird fatalities a year. It is reasonable that the Trump Administration finds incidental take to be government overreach, but without potential repercussions for industry-related migratory bird deaths, entities may be less likely to implement costly best management practices that could reduce incidental take resulting from daily operations.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, was cited saying the Obama Administration interpretation of the Act was too sweeping, while the Trump Administration interpretation is far too narrow. Although the future of the Act and its application is uncertain regarding incidental take, the Act has survived a passel of presidential administrations. Barring the abolishment of the Act entirely, the basis of the act, prohibiting intentional take, remains intact and is certain to provide continued protection for migratory birds.

For more information, keep an eye out on the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society websites.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Audubon Society

Energy Development Act Meets Habitat Conservation (Maybe)

I am a fish and wildlife biologist. I get my kicks (and earn a living) assessing environmental impacts on, and managing and restoring fish and wildlife habitat. I track tightly within my lane of technical, scientific expertise, and typically leave the politics to folks with a desire to argue and decipher that sort of thing. However, in 2017, a bill was introduced that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) brought to my attention.

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (HR 825) is a bill that establishes two main authorities; 1) continued authorization of the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970; and 2) the authority of the subject act.

HR 825 sounds dangerous, because it is. While “renewable energy” typically includes sources such as timber, hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal power, developing energy-harnessing opportunities on public resources has potential impacts to public use and fish and wildlife. It is prudent to point out that Section 4 of HR 825 includes a clause stating that potential development areas identified by the Secretary of the Interior must be coordinated with appropriate State, Tribal, and local governments to “…avoid or minimize conflict with habitat for animals and plants, recreation, and other uses…”

I don’t intend to hang up on possible impacts here, but I want to draw attention the benefits of the bill. Section 7 of HR 825 (Disposition of Revenues) is aimed directly at habitat conservation. A Treasury fund for this Act will be established to deposit any fees or revenues from energy production that may be used for “restoring and protecting…fish and wildlife habitat for affected species; fish and wildlife corridors for affected species; and water resources in areas affected…” (Section 7(c)(2)(a)). My interpretation: In other words, revenue from energy production is authorized to be used for impact mitigation.

Section 7(c)(3) states that “The Secretary [of the Interior] may enter into cooperative agreements (a flexible, federal government work agreement) with State and Tribal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other appropriate entities to carry out the activities described in [Section 7(c)(2)].”

So, what does this all mean? Well, as you can glean from my synopsis, HR 825 is a renewable energy development bill that makes my hackles prickle. Every bill aiming to develop public lands has the potential to harm precious public natural resources, either directly or indirectly. The federal government is mandated to follow the National Environmental Policy Act to identify impacts and evaluate alternatives for all federal actions, including developing energy sources or issuing permits for such activities, but impacts generally occur to some degree.

On the flip-side, the bill proactively authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to use allocated revenue to mitigate any impacts efficiently and effectively through cooperation with States, Tribes, and nonprofit organization. As far as public land energy development goes, this is a good deal. The TRCP blog post by Julia Peebles couches HR 825 as a “rare win-win scenario for fish and wildlife” and I trust her more politically savvy perspective. You can find that blog post at TRCP.org.

If you have not already, I encourage you to venture over to the TRCP and read their blogs to see what the organization is about. It’s a great resource for keeping tabs on Capitol Hill and our precious public resources.

Invasive Plant Management: Where to Begin?

Have you ever been faced with a task that was seemingly insurmountable? Maybe felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for something entirely impossible to control? This is precisely how many public land managers feel every day as they struggle to maintain and restore quality fish and wildlife habitat among a world of progressively formidable invasive plant species.

Invasive plants that we (everyone) commonly refer to as “weeds” can be a mammoth problem because of their adaptability and competitive advantage over native plant species. While weeds are present and troublesome across the world, in the US, the western states struggle particularly due to dry climate. Weeds have adapted to dryland famously and express astronomical seed production, germination success, early germination before native plants, and furious growth rates in some instances.

Healthy grasslands are a prime example of an ecosystem highly susceptible to noxious weeds. Where healthy native grass stands occur, weeds may commonly be found interspersed, but in relatively manageable numbers. However, if a major disturbance occurs that destroys or inhibits those native grasses from quick regrowth, the seed bank from noxious weed species can be activated and flourish immediately, forming dense monocultures in one season.

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To some, this may sound like the plot from a horror movie. The problems that noxious weeds impose on quality habitat are all too real. For readers that are members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the July-August, 2017, edition of Bugle Magazine presents a two-article special on noxious weeds that puts the potential impacts and the struggle for control into clear perspective.

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Control methods such as pulling and spot spraying can be effective in quality habitats, but where to begin tackling major weed infestations can be mentally crippling. Nothing is more humiliating and defeating to a public land manager than failing to keep ahead of the weeds. On more than one occasion I have felt as though I failed the wildlife, taxpayer, and fellow sportsmen and women upon finding a noxious weed hell of Canada thistle, Russian thistle, and kochia on public land under my supervision. Recovering from the initial shock, I try to keep cool, consider the options, and make a game plan. The best place to start? Somewhere! More specifically, here are a few tips and considerations to get you moving.

HERBICIDE APPLICATIONS

Herbicides are quick, and generally effective, but application methods can be costly depending on habitat type, the presence of sensitive desirable species, and the acreage needing treatment. Keeping noxious weeds from flowering is key, but I find that broadleaf herbicides like Amine 2-4-D are most effective when it’s hot and dry (July – August). Unfortunately, by this time of the year, a lot of weeds are already flowering. Even if flowers are immature and have not been pollinated, seeds may be viable. Hitting weeds in the early, rosette stage (March – May) can help get ahead of the game.

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I recommend learning about the plants you are treating before diving into a treatment. Timing can be critical, and for plants like Canada thistle that reproduce through roots, not just via seed, a fall application before green thistle dies back for winter can give you an advantage in the coming spring.

LIVESTOCK CONTROL

Goats have proven a useful tool in mowing through vegetation. Anyone unfortunate enough to have goats trespass onto their property can attest to their voracious appetite. Goats can clear vegetation to the ground in little time allowing for effective herbicide treatments behind grazing. Furthermore, appropriately timed grazing may knock back noxious weeds long enough to allow desirable species time to germinate and stand a chance of competing, and possibly thriving.

Some commercial outfits rent goat herds specifically for weed control. I am unsure of what a common rate may be for this service, but it is certainly something to consider if you would rather avoid applying herbicides, but maintain a chance at success. Prepare for several seasons of grazing.

MOWING

Keeping vegetation mowed back is a good option for weed control, but have you ever mowed a plant like yellow starthistle? If so, you know darn well that it takes to a pruning by flowering aggressively. The next thing you know, its three inches tall in full bloom. Mowing is best used in combination with herbicides. Herbicide applications are more efficient and effective when the vegetation is low and plants have less mass to treat. A couple seasons of mowing and herbicide application can be quite effective, but you have to be willing to give up usable wildlife habitat during treatment to be successful.

Picture5

DISKING AND HARROWING

Disking and harrowing can be used to keep noxious weeds from establishing. Regular cultivation activates the seed bank, allows plants to grow, then uproots them before they flower. Like mowing, this method requires habitat to be essentially lost during treatment, but disking can significantly tax the seed bank, allowing for reseeding with native, desired grasses and forbs.

One disadvantage is the potential for erosion. If rain or snow melt could cause runoff problems and scour the habitat area, particularly if runoff could enter a stream, you may want to select another method.

That sums up some common, effective approaches to noxious weed control, which fit cooperatively with the grassland management techniques discussed in the previous post. The severity of an infestation can help determine the best course of action, but I like to approach it as though I were considering surgery to correct a medical crisis. When possible, go with the topical treatments before digging in to remove an organ.

If you want to get serious about habitat improvement, accept up front that the weed control battle requires commitment. There will be no instant gratification (except maybe from herbicide-shriveled weeds), so settle in for a long-term game. I recommend making fast friends with folks who either have the farm equipment you need, or those willing to volunteer their time pulling weeds. And, as always, feel free to consult your friends on the Pheasants Forever chapter habitat committee.

Grassland Management for Upland Birds

Pheasants Forever emphasizes native grasses being a limiting factor for upland game bird nesting and brooding. For this reason, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever focuses and invests locally in southeast Washington habitat enhancement projects with a native grassland focus. However, identifying and understanding limiting habitat factors for focused improvement programs is deeper than quantifying acreages of cover and crop types.

A healthy native grassland includes grasses that provide adequate nesting cover and open ground space and forbs for brood rearing and foraging.

finn in bunchgrass

To better understand the status of upland bird habitat and limiting factors, I selected about a dozen pertinent scientific journal articles from around the world and found several common themes revolving around one main conclusion. A loss of native grasslands has led to a noticeable decline in game bird populations. For example, between 1980 and 1995, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) noted the number of pheasant harvested declined from 500,000 birds to 70,000 birds annually.

There were a few other common points, as well as grassland management practices that are summarized below.

Common Worldwide Themes:

  • As agriculture practices have evolved and become more efficient and effective, more grasslands have been converted to cropland, thus reducing available quality nesting and brood rearing habitat.
  • As grassland species composition changes from frequent mowing, grazing, or haying, available food sources for upland birds wane, particularly for juveniles.
  • Maintaining robust stands of native grasses is key to upland bird reproduction success and winter survival.

While it’s clear that fallow, native grasses are crucial for reproduction and brood rearing, dense riparian and wetland areas provide critical winter cover as well. Shrubs and cattails provide wind breaks and refuge from extreme cold.

grassland

Habitat area is not critical, but research suggests that game birds prefer smaller grasslands (less than 8 acres). This supports Conservation Reserve Program agriculture buffer management and enhancement practices.

Finally, providing a variety of grasses and forbs is important for brood rearing. Adult pheasant feed primarily on grains, but laying hens and chicks require insects for growth and development. Broadleaf plants, such as native weeds and forbs, provide this important food source.

Several different habitat management actions can be implemented to maintain healthy stands of native grasses, whether in a pasture or crop field buffer. Below are the most effective actions.

Management Actions

  • Prescribed Burning: Prescribed burning mimics natural grassland processes which clean out heavy thatch and return nutrients to the soil. Burning invigorates grasses and opens the stand at ground level providing  forage cover for chicks. This technique may be one of the most effective management tools.
  • Disking: Disking breaks up grasses and opens the stand at the ground level providing foraging cover for chicks, encourages decomposition and organic nutrient inputs, and stimulates seed bank germination. Disking may be recommended in lieu of burning, but is less effective.
  • Herbicide Applications: Herbicides have proven effective and important in controlling noxious weeds and are commonly applied locally. Literature review did not pinpoint dramatic direct effects of herbicide applications on game birds, but indirect effects including reduced insect forage were noted. While herbicides are not recommended for use in early successional vegetation, appropriate herbicide use in combination with the above actions is recommended.

Scientific literature confirms that habitat loss has led to a major decline in game bird populations worldwide, and nesting and brood rearing habitat are limiting factors. The Pheasants Forever mission includes habitat creation and enhancement as a focal point, not only for pheasant, but for all native vegetation and wildlife. Whether you can provide 2 or 200 habitat acres, a little management can provide big benefits, and BMPF is available to assist.

pf pollinator

Small-Tract Habitat Provides Big Benefits

In southeast Washington, and many other big agriculture areas, hunters are blessed with vast farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the Farm Service Agency. Basically, through CRP, Farm Service pays farmers and land owners an acreage rental fee for reestablishing or enhancing habitat. The CRP acres are invaluable to wildlife and hunters.

While it’s great to have large farm tracts enrolled in CRP, one common misconception about habitat enhancement is that little benefit comes from small tracts (~10 acres or less).  Whether you have 1 or 1,000 acres, there are simple, cost effective options that can draw and hold upland birds, as well as other wildlife. Here are some options and techniques you may be able to implement at home.

Food plots are always a solid option for providing important forage. Broadleaf plants such as brassicas (turnips), sunflowers, peas, and alfalfa provide crucial insect forage for young birds, while grains such as wheat, sorghum, and millet provide seed forage for adults. You may want to experiment with your own mix of crop species to maximize benefits for upland birds, deer, and pollinators while you are at it. I plant brassicas and spring wheat in my 0.2-acre plot and have been pleased with the number of pheasant, quail, and deer that make it a regular stop in their daily forage routine. Planting food plots can be quite simple requiring only a tiller or drill seeder, glyphosate (herbicide), and seed.

food plot

Brush piles are another great option providing forage and dense escape cover, protecting upland birds from predators, wind, and precipitation. Brush piles may be strategically placed, like in food plots or near other forage and watering areas for maximum benefit. Another bonus is that brush piles can be free (minus some sweat and gas) if you have any clean-up projects going on around your property. I deposit all of my tree and shrub debris in piles and large coveys of California quail use them consistently, even within an hour of having created them.

brush pile

Another technique described as “edge feathering” can be useful if you have more than one habitat type on your property. For example, if you have a stand of trees that gives way to a grass pasture and can give up the pasture fringe, trees can be dropped along the pasture edge to allow grass to grow up around the downed trees providing quick escape cover and brood-rearing habitat.

Finally, invasive species removal and planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbes are options to provide a variety of valuable cover types and forage alternatives. Evergreens like Rocky Mountain juniper can provide important snow and wind breaks and create edge effects that benefit all wildlife species, while native grasses provide critical nesting and brooding habitat for upland birds like pheasant.

More information on small-tract habitat enhancement is available by visiting the Pheasant Forever “Pheasant Blog” at the web address below and consulting Pheasant Forever’s Essential Habitat Guide. If you want to speak to person, feel free to contact me through my Contact page.

Pheasant Blog

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