WDFW takes Important Step in Post-fire Habitat Recovery

Wildfires that tortured the Pacific Northwest in September did a number on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area (Swanson Lakes), located about 10 miles south of the town of Creston.

Swanson Lakes is a 21,000-acre tract of native grasslands nestled among the channeled scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Shrub-steppe and riparian/wetlands comprise the dominant habitats and much of the area is rangeland, with some old Conservation Reserve Program fields. The undulating landscape is characterized by numerous pothole and rim rock lakes and one intermittent stream.

Z Lake in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area is one example of the unique channeled scablands and shrubby habitat. Photo courtesy of WDFW.

In western habitats, wildfire threatens native vegetation in two ways. First, given our rangeland’s generally unnatural fire cycles from fire management and encroaching invasive species, wildfires often burn much hotter than they would in pristine habitats. Fires that are too hot scorch the seed bank and possibly the underground root structure of native shrubs like sagebrush, damaging the plant’s potential to regenerate. Second, invasive weeds are incredibly prolific and competitive. In the case of the earth being blackened down to bare soil, weeds can quickly flourish, outcompeting native plants, often by simply covering the area, effectively shading out the native species.

Fortunately, WDFW was poised to respond, leveraging funds in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to quickly apply native grass seed mix to the charred Swanson Lakes landscape. Aerial seed drops covered about 930 acres on October 22nd, scattering two varieties of bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, Sandberg bluegrass, and prairie dune grass across Swanson Lakes and a portion of adjacent BLM lands, said Mike Finch, WDFW Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area Assistant Manager.

Fall is not the ideal season to sow grasses, but the timing could not have been better. The WDFW and BLM made the seed drops in October to ensure native seeds were available to germinate on the exposed soil ahead of any invasive species seeds. Additionally, wet snow that fell October 23rd and 24th worked well to soak the seed into the soil surface, increasing the likelihood of establishment through good seed-to-soil contact. The WDFW plans to return with machinery in drier conditions to scratch the seeds slightly deeper into the soil surface.

Finch mentioned that Swanson Lakes was one of three areas receiving fall seed drops. The areas were prioritized for immediate reseeding due to their deeper soils, being more likely to establish and sustain healthy native grasses by allowing roots to grow down into moist soils for good summer survival. Understanding site conditions and prioritizing restoration efforts is important for project success and the best use of resources, particularly with the cost of native grass seed as high as $200 per acre, plus application time.

Native grass seed being dropped in Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, October 22nd. Photo courtesy of Mike Finch, WDFW.

Native shrub-steppe communities are a critical part of the ecosystem in the arid west, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of wildlife. The sharp-tailed grouse, for example, is an iconic western prairie grouse species that thrives in shrub-steppe habitat. Precisely why maintaining quality native habitat in Swanson Lakes is of critical importance. The area was acquired by the Bonneville Power Administration, primarily as a wildlife mitigation project for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a state “threatened” species.

By leveraging funding and relationships with the BLM, and making smart decisions on the use of available resources, WDFW can sustain unique and important shrub-steppe habitat areas like Swanson Lakes to benefit wildlife and the public user well into the future.

Raising Pheasant from the Ground Up

Sustainable farming practices to benefit wildlife is a topic for discussion in grain capitols across the country. To the farmer, the mention of sustainability may trigger consideration of production and bottom line. To the biologist, thoughts of crop rotation and managed fallow lands provide wildlife food, water and shelter. And to the economist, efficiency and bang-for-the-buck in the form of yield versus effort/acreage sewn would likely provoke a back-of-the-napkin chart explaining the benefits.

So how does one actually define sustainable farming? A combination of all of the above. Sustainable farming includes economics, reducing production acreage to focus on the most productive for maximum yield. The less productive ground can be leased into CRP or to an NGO like Pheasants Forever to manage for wildlife.

To take it one step further, habitat-minded agriculture may provide a mix of no-till planting and forage and cover crops built into rotation schedules. This permits soil replenishment and works to combat invasive species by providing different plant competitors, insects, and invasive plant treatment options. Forage or cover crops can be sewn alongside winter cover like cattails and other wetland habitats to reduce energy expense and vulnerability critters may experience when seeking food and cover in winter. Pollinators benefit as well.

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Sounds great, right, but are the benefits actually attainable? Absolutely. Case-studies have proven the benefits to the farmer and wildlife through these sustainable practices. Midwest farms have shown production of preserve-scale wild pheasant through habitat-minded farming practices while maintaining or increasing their bottom line. And who out there would argue that they don’t enjoy wildlife like upland birds? If you answered “no one”, we couldn’t agree more!

If you find this encouraging from any perspective, reach out to your local Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever Chapter. In southeast Washington/northeast Oregon area, contact us at bmpf@bmpf258.com for more information.

Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

From Raghorns to Riches

A special draw elk hunt in Idaho’s Unit 37, Big Lost Wilderness, gave us four seasons with warm summer sun, frigid winter temps, gale-force winds, snow and fog, forty-five miles of steep mountain terrain, botched stalks, and sleepless nights. What we took from it? Incredible scenery, solitude, mental and physical health, and in the end, a hard-earned, beautiful raghorn bull elk and heightened sense of respect for the wilderness.

Read the full story in the Spring 2019 edition of Strung Magazine. Available on Amazon and at most general bookstores and magazine retailers.

Raghorns to Riches (2)

 

Raghorns to Riches (3)

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.

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Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.