Hunting for Habitat

Pheasants Forever hosts their first hunt test fundraiser to bolster habitat and youth shooting funds. Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 14th, 2019.

14 Feb 2019 Hunting for Habitat

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.

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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.

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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.

Upland Pursuits: Conservation of the Western Monarch Butterfly

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, livestock pastures peppered the landscape. Black and red angus, and Holstein to supply the dairies were commonplace. Spring and early summer sprouted lush green fescue and stands of various weeds unbeknownst to me at the time, save for the patches of flowering thistle and milkweed, head high to a five-year-old.

Back when youth were allowed to roam free, I would stroll across the county road and explore the neighbor’s pasture toting an empty Mason jar. I was fascinated with all things wild, to include the brilliant variety of butterflies and moths that frequented the fuchsia thistle blooms.

Standing motionless amid the spiked stalks, I waited for a butterfly to land and pipe the sweet nectar from a flower. Slowly reaching out, I delicately pinched its folded wings between my chubby fingers, admired the spectacle momentarily, then released them, similar to catch-and-release fishing. Occasionally, a new or particularly fine specimen would make its way into the jar to be added to an immaculately-framed representation of our local species.

Tiger and pipevine swallowtails, common buckeye, eastern tailed blue and painted lady to name a few. And, of course, the royal highness monarch with its orange and black hues. While monarchs rely on milkweed for reproduction, I found they visited the thistle nearly as often as the swallowtails.

Monarchs present a nation-wide distribution as an iconic pollinator species. They display a fascinating behavior of seasonal migration, similar to songbirds. East of the Rockies, monarchs overwinter in southern portions of Florida and Mexico. In our neck of the woods, the winter “hiver” is the southern California coast.

Monarchs on the winter hiver (Public Domain)

At present, a number of environmental factors, including the loss of milkweed habitat, are threatening monarchs across their range. A February 25th article in The Guardian cited illegal logging and land use changes in Mexico as compounding factors in a 68 percent population decline on the winter hiver since 2018, and the population west of the Rockies is faring no better.

In 1997, the Xerces Society established the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, similar to the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, where “citizen scientists” document monarchs on their western winter hiver. According to Washington State University, the 10 million monarchs documented in the 1980s declined to 30,000 in 2018, and fell below 2,000 in 2020.

Dramatic loss of the western monarch population led to special interest groups petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the butterfly and their habitat with a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A FWS status review determined that “…listing the monarch butterfly as endangered under the ESA is warranted but precluded by higher priority actions.” In other words, there are more than one hundred imperiled species ahead of the monarch in need of FWS resources and protection.

Additionally, under the ESA, an insect species cannot be segregated into subpopulations like birds, mammals and fishes. Therefore, the FWS must consider the status of the monarch butterfly as one population across its North American range. If the western monarch were to be carved off as its own “distinct population segment”, it’s ESA listing priority would likely be much higher.

While it appears that our western monarchs are spiraling toward extinction, there is always hope and potential for recovery. Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the Xerces Society promote pollinator initiatives that benefit monarchs among other pollinators. Many Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chapters are willing to cost-share on pollinator enhancement projects, like the Blue Mountain chapter in Walla Walla, WA.

Showy Milkweed

Additionally, two congressional bi-partisan bills, the Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat (MONARCH) Act, and the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, were recently introduced to avoid the extinction of the western monarch.

The MONARCH Act would authorize $62.5 million for western monarch conservation projects, and another $62.5 million to implement the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan, paid out over the next five years. 

The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Native American tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

But positive change does not require an act of congress. Milkweed promotion in our back yards can benefit the western monarch. Research suggests milkweed patches as small as two- to five-square-yards in area could be affective for increasing monarch reproduction. Patches that small are easily managed in a backyard flowerbed or garden, and the western native “showy milkweed” boasts a beautiful spiked ball of pink bloom worthy of any flower garden.

While recent legislation is late to the table for the western monarch, the potential for new conservation funds and our ability to act as interested citizens suggests hope for this iconic pollinator. Will the western population boast a success story similar to species like the greater sage grouse or bald eagle? Only time a few congressional votes will tell.