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.

Mourning Smoke

Published September 2021 @HarvestingNature

The dove opener is a fancied event in many states across the U.S., including my Virginia hometown. While I personally looked forward to October squirrel and whitetail seasons most, I always made time for a few sultry evening tree line sits with friends, awaiting a passing shot at a dodgy mourning dove as it traveled between cut silage corn and farm ponds.

Fast forward 20 years to living west of the Rockies in southeast Washington, my interest in mourning doves had increased tremendously, largely due to a growing passion for upland bird hunting in general. Throw in the Eurasian collared dove and you’ve got the makings of a connoisseur of the dove species. Interestingly, my daily and season bags remain comparable to those of my youth, although my wingshooting has improved somewhat over the years, but 2020 had some tricks up her sleeve that led to the most memorable mourning dove season on record.

The rewards of a mere 30 minutes of gunning in the smoke

September 11th was the day I had scheduled to depart for Oregon to experience a bucket-list hunt for sage grouse. The pups and I were to drag the camper down to a small BLM parcel on the Malheur River where we would lounge for a few days, between bouts of chasing birds across the high country. My On-X map became polluted with waypoints from scouting aerial imagery and talking to prior successful hunters and biologists. But, as with all the best laid plans, the smoke from rampant western wildfires swallowed eastern Washington and Oregon that very day, smothering the extremely short sage grouse season with hazardous air quality.

Standing at the kitchen sink, sipping coffee and staring longingly out the window into the ominous charcoal haze, I noticed doves coming in droves and hanging around the boney black locusts edging my plot. While the air quality literally stung the eyes, I slipped out back of the barn for a short hunt.

My barn is situated nicely between mature trees, and their overhanging limbs provide good cover on either side for sneaking out for a hunt unnoticed. On the left is an overgrown drainage loved dearly by the quail covey. On the right is the toe of a steep slope and a tree line of locust where the doves perch as they swoop in and out of the food plot. Slipping in beneath the locust sent a hoard of doves sailing up and over the hill. In their absence, I settled on the corner of the barn and waited for the birds to return.

Moments later, a flight circled in from the wheatfield, approaching low and close, thanks to the poor visibility. Steadying my 20-gauge double just ahead of a dove, it tumbled with the powder burn, sending birds circling in chaotic confusion. Swinging through on a crossing bird deposited my second into the bunchgrasses.

Quickly reloading, I could hear the faint chirping of a dove in flight approaching over my right shoulder. I’ve never been good at the steeply angled or straight-away shots, and true to my weakness, I shot behind as the bird sailed past. Within 30 minutes, four doves met the bag and the majority of the flock sought the safety of the adjacent field, but the evening brought more of the same, as did the rest of that week. Was it the smoke or just a good dove year? Maybe both.

Mourning doves have a modest appearance, yet their subtle beauty, table fare, and wingshooting challenge are undeniable

My curiosity on the effects of wildfires on migratory birds got the better of me and I began scouring the internet for scientific literature, only to find there is virtually nothing available on the subject. Studies on captive birds suggest smoke inhalation affects them similarly to humans, causing lung damage and pneumonia. A plausible explanation for the hundreds of thousands of songbirds found dead in the southwest U.S. and Mexico in September 2020. If migrating songbirds suffered lung damage and other illness from the western wildfires, they may have succumbed to compromised health later along their migration route.

Biologists suggest that heavy smoke may cause birds to change their migration patterns and use more body fat than typically required for migration. Additionally, food sources such as insects and feeding behavior may be affected, all leading to additional stress on migrating birds. That said, it could be that my homestead was a hotspot for food, water, and shelter, enticing an unusually large volume of mourning doves, as birds can meet all of their needs here with little effort.

Across the U.S., 2020 appeared to be a good dove season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 194 million mourning doves in the U.S. as of September 1st, up 11 million from 2019. Hunter harvest was estimated at 4.65 million birds by 293,800 hunters in the eastern U.S., 5.89 million birds by 368,200 hunters in the central U.S., and 1.19 million birds by 86,800 hunters in the western U.S. That equates to a total of 15.8, 15.99, and 13.71 birds per hunter across the eastern, central, and western U.S., respectively. Estimates from the Harvest Information Program (HIP) identified noticeable increases in hunter and bird harvest and nearly double the hunter days afield in the eastern and central U.S., and a slight increase in the western U.S. from 2019.

Wildfires may not have greatly affected populations elsewhere in the western U.S., but my HIP report certainly points to a positive exception in dove season success. An unexpected and pleasant consolation for sparing the greater sage grouse for another season.