I’ve had the great pleasure to chat with the Crew at Harvesting Nature about Wingshooting the Palouse, and I believe you will enjoy the conversation. Give it a listen on the Wild Fish and Game Podcast.
Wingshooting the Palouse is available at Amazon.com.
In April 2021, I wrote a piece for Harvesting Nature on what appeared to be the imminent extinction of the western Monarch butterfly population. Only about 2,000 butterflies arrived on their southern California winter range in 2020 where approximately five million once clouded the skies and trees. When a population sees decline of this magnitude, coming back from the brink is rare, particularly in one breeding season, but it seems there is more to the story on the western monarch butterfly.
The 2021 Thanksgiving monarch count saw an unprecedented number of citizen scientists eager to help collect important population data. Across 283 count sites, the western monarch population estimate was over 247,000 individuals – a 100-fold increase in the 2020 count.
Given the monarch’s astonishing rebound, population limiting factors come into question. What was it about 2021 – a severe drought year in the western U.S. – that was somehow favorable to the marked population increase? According to Emma Pelton, the Western Monarch Lead with the Xerces Society, “There are so many environmental factors at play across their range that there’s no single cause or definitive answer…but hopefully it means we still have time to protect the migration.”
Weather likely played a factor. Dry spring and summer conditions can coax first-generation monarch butterflies out of their cocoons. “Those first-generation butterflies that breed in California and at Santa Cruz landmarks such as Lighthouse Field and Natural Bridges are crucial for the species’ population numbers to sustain” reported Hannah Hagemann of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
While the 2021 count was inspiring, the population increase should be taken with caution. The Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan identifies a five-year-average winter count of 500,000 butterflies to represent a sustainable population. Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still on track to propose an Endangered Species Act listing for this iconic transcontinental butterfly in 2024.
Think you’ve heard it all when it comes to greater sage grouse conservation? Think again. When an icon of the sagebrush ecosystem becomes imperiled, conservation dollars flow to the far corners of habitat and population research to find solutions to species sustainability and persistence.
Mary Meyerpeter and colleagues with the US Geological Survey and Idaho State University are currently studying translocation to stabilize or even grow two declining sage grouse populations on opposite fringes of their North American distribution. The “Bi-State” population on the California-Nevada border was selected as a small, isolated group facing low hatch success and overall decline. A North Dakota population was selected after a suffering a severe West Nile Virus outbreak, reduced the population.
Wildlife translocation has been a tool in the scientific toolbox longer than the words “science” and “research” have been in existence, and with this tool comes many benefits to imperiled populations. Declining genetic diversity and abundance of reproductive individuals are two challenges recipient populations typically face that may be overcome by translocation. Precisely what Meyerpeter et al. had in mind, coupled with estimating the population-level effects of introducing new individuals to the imperiled populations, and removing individuals from the donor populations.
From 2017 through 2019, the Bi-State population received 68 adults and 125 chicks from a nearby source population, while the North Dakota population received 137 adults and 66 chicks from an interior Wyoming population. The populations were monitored across the translocation period and continue to be monitored.
Preliminary study results suggest that translocation efforts have been successful for the recipient populations. The Bi-State population increased 160 percent with egg hatch success increasing from 31 percent to 86 percent. Similarly, the North Dakota population increased 188 percent compared to pre-translocation estimates.
The Bi-State donor population declined 31 percent following translocations, which may have been attributed to that population also being relatively small, among other potential factors. The Wyoming donor population showed no change.
Translocation results are considered preliminary until a monitoring period of up to five years has documented population responses, but the results appear promising. Additionally, successful translocation coupled with habitat restoration can perpetuate the species and play a role in range expansion into historic habitats.
Since its first identification in a cave in New York in 2006, white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats has caused significant population declines. White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that infects the skin of the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bat species across 35 states and seven Canadian provinces at present. The fungus thrives in cold, damp conditions, perfectly suited for winter cave hibernacula. As it grows, the fungus causes changes in hibernating bats that make them become more active than usual and burn fat they need to survive the winter.
Northern long-eared bats (Nyctophilus arnhemensis) suffered a 95 percent population decline in New England between 2006-2012 due to WNS, and are now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Similar declines have been document in the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), among others.
While studying WNS and bats in their winter hibernacula, researchers tracked a small number of bats hibernating in home crawl spaces, basements, and other structures like concrete culverts in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Long Island, New York. Luanne Johnson with Biodiversity Works reported that these bats were surviving the winter even when affected by WNS.
Crawl-spaces with dirt floors and homes with block foundations and BILCO style hatch doors are attractive bat hibernacula. Uninsulated foundations provide the proper temperature and humidity, allowing bats to hibernate all winter, where insulated foundations were used occasionally. Bats were tracked leaving the hibernacula occasionally in late winter in Martha’s Vineyard where water was available year-round, but the bats returned to continue hibernation and survived to spring.
Unlike WSN-affected bats wintering in cave hibernacula, bats also affected by WSN and utilizing man-made hibernacula maintained good weight and overall health throughout the winter. Some bats were tracked for up to three years without suffering severe complications from WNS. Another behavioral distinction between cave-dwelling bats and those selecting human homes is that the bats wintering in crawl spaces were tracked foraging much later in the fall, meaning these bats may have entered hibernation with better fat stores for a shorter hibernation period.
Additionally, Auteri and Knowles (2020) found genetic evidence of little brown bats evolving with WNS. Allelic frequencies showed significant shifts in survivors for regulating arousal from hibernation, fat breakdown, and vocalizations. Studies by Biodiversity Works and their partners suggest that bats hibernating in homes are less likely to succumb to WNS, allowing more time for bats to evolve to survive the disease. Therefore, Biodiversity Works is working with homeowners tolerant of bats to potentially treat the WNS fungus on their property and construct new hibernacula onsite if homeowners want the bats out of their basement. Also, they are working with contractors and homeowners to heighten awareness of bats hibernating in homes to minimize potential harm from construction or remodels.
The Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever Chapter (Chapter) held their annual youth hunt at Clyde Shooting Preserve November 8th. The Chapter-sponsored event is typically held in September during the early Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife-designated youth hunt weekend, but fire danger this year resulted in the September hunt being canceled. A lucky break for this year’s attendees.
An inch of snow blanketed the Walla Walla Valley as folks awoke in preparation for the hunt. Twenty youth attendees and their families arrived from as far as Tri-Cities to attend the coveted event. Kit Lane, owner of Clyde Shooting Preserve, welcomed his guests in fine fashion with a bonfire outside, and a shelter with seating and large fire pit surrounded by a lovely brick hearth, blazing warmly to cut the chill.
Friends and families scattered about the yard, toasting hands and bottoms over the bonfire. Stories and laughter echoed among the buildings, setting a celebratory mood.
Fields were stocked and parties assembled to follow the skilled and stylish canines careening across the white-washed prairie. Snow fell in force as the initial hunters embarked, many first-timers eager to experience what the upland hype is all about.
Through snowflakes and windchill, pointing dogs struck statuesque poses while flushing dogs encircled, pushing stunningly-plumed fowl skyward. Wily roosters took to wing as pump guns and doubles tracked.
The occasional bird came to hand by means of luck and skill, sometimes both cooperating harmoniously. Retrieves of all kinds, some at length and some nearby, aided young hunters in securing their airborne quarry. And true to the hunt, a number of birds exacted daring escapes into the hills surrounding the canyon bottom as hunters looked in awe and puzzlement.
Eight waves of hunters passed through the golden range. Experienced mentors handled bird dogs, orchestrated hunts and imparted lessons of firearms and shooting safety. All in attendance enjoyed opportunity and real-time coaching to improve accuracy.
Bird hunting is a balance of chaos for the well-seasoned, let alone someone new to working dogs and kicking up a colossal, boisterous, flailing bird capable of reaching 55 miles-per-hour flight speed in seconds.
While some first-timers were unable to connect, their skill across the hunt improved markedly, becoming accustomed to their scatterguns, dog behavior and the adrenaline-pumping rush of an explosion of cackles and tail feathers trailed closely by a flash of driven fur and wagging tails.
Hunters were all smiles as they parted the fields, eager for the warmth of the truck heater, excitedly recalling the events with a clarity known only to those stricken with the same fiery passion for the hunt. Fortunate hunters selflessly shared their bounty with their unlucky field mates. And talk of next year already on the lips of those eager for another chance.
The Chapter appreciates Kit and Cindy Lane, our membership and the assistance of other volunteer mentors who selflessly sacrificed their day to share the magic of the uplands. Without the support of these fine folks, and the revenue from Chapter fundraiser supporters, this coveted opportunity to inspire the hunters and conservationists of tomorrow would not be possible.
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.
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.
Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.