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.

Upland Stewardship Begins at Home

What’s the #1 threat to habitat on undeveloped public lands? If you guessed invasive plant species, you get a gold star for the day. Overall, habitat lost to civil development is a critical threat to fish and wildlife, putting tremendous importance on conservation and management of those precious public acres still intact.

Managing public land is important to provide habitat suitable for wildlife species and is accomplished through taxpayer and sportsman’s funds. For federal lands, this means congressional appropriations must be approved for specific geographic areas and funding limits.

While public lands, both state and federal, are at much lower risk of civil development, the economics of habitat management is a major driver in our ability to maintaining high quality habitat, and here is why.

Invasive species are incredibly competitive and successful at overtaking desired native species. With no natural predator controls (i.e. herbivory and parasitism) and an adaptive edge to the climates in which they occur, many species can create monocultures in short order. What’s more is that the increasing cost of invasive species control detracts from government ability to fund general habitat management and enhancement.

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Once established, eradicating an invasive plant is incredibly difficult and extremely costly, in the billions of dollars nationwide, annually. Our ability to control invasive species on public lands can change dramatically with political leadership. And when natural resources budgets are cut, our ability to effectively maintain habitat is hamstrung.

Early Detection and Rapid Response is the normal mode of operation for habitat managers, but budget cuts cause vulnerability in on-the-ground effectiveness. Labor cuts can reduce the number of employees and hours spent afield performing Early Detection monitoring. Supply cuts can reduce the available tools to implement Rapid Response once invasive species are detected, as well as reduce the overall time or acreage that biologists can treat.

High-quality habitat is not just nice to have for an easy, clean hunt. It’s a must for sustainable upland bird species and hunter opportunity. Its easy to assume that habitat management and controlling invasive species lies in the hands of qualified biologists, but make no mistake, quality habitat starts at home with you, the general public.

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⇑⇑ The seat cover in my Tundra harbors a number of invasive species ⇑⇑

As our talented canines careen across the grasslands searching for sharptails or cut through brush following a running grouse trail, their fur picks up invasive weed seeds that can be easily spread to otherwise weed free areas. Tailgate checks and post-hunt spa treatments (for those of us who own long-haired pups like setters and Munsterlanders)  are necessary to remove to potentially harmful grass awns and bur-like seeds.

Most importantly, uplanders that embark on rooster road trips would be remiss if they failed to clean the nooks and crannies of their bird hunting chariot prior to driving half way across the nation. A single germinated seed from a nasty invader like cheat grass (Bromus tectorum) can quickly threaten native species and impact habitat suitability.

Be sure to clean out the truck bed, pet crates and blankets, truck seats and seat covers, spray down floor mats and vacuum the crevasses that can harbor seeds.

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⇑⇑ Cleaning vests, kennels, truck beds, and interiors is critical ⇑⇑

If your truck cap has a carpet liner, inspect it with scrutiny. Your dog will shake in the truck bed, flinging weed seeds onto the ceiling and anywhere else they may attach, simply waiting to be offloaded in an otherwise clean area 1,000 miles from where they were picked up.

And the cleaning spree should not end with the truck and kennels. Our vests and clothing can trap a terrifying number of seeds. When was the last time you check your hunting vest pockets for seeds? Hundreds of grass seeds can gather in vest pockets as we traverse the prairies. Dog vests can capture a number of species as well, like bur chervil (Anthriscus caucalis), which wreaks havoc on native grasses and even competes with yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) in the arid west.

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⇑⇑ A water bottle pocket of my hunting vest captures many seeds and plant debris ⇑⇑

Conservation and habitat management are influenced by each and every one of us. Its your duty as an uplander to exercise your stewardship abilities and battle the spread of invasive species. The future of our public natural resources and habitat depend on it.

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.

 

Upland Review

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.