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Elk Head CONSERVATION
Native fish, wildlife and their habitat
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On the Ground: The Oregon Conservation Strategy at Work

September 2008

While Wallowa County boasts some of the most beautiful, rugged and diverse country in the state, it is not immune to conservation concerns. Habitats in need of restoration include grasslands, aspen woodlands and riparian. This month, Vic Coggins, ODFW wildlife biologist and regional Conservation Strategy coordinator; Phil Shephard, The Nature Conservancy and the staff of Wallowa Resources talk about some of Strategy-related work going on in the area.

Contents

THE ZUMWALT: ITS PEOPLE, PLACES AND WILDLIFE

Zumwalt Prairie Preserve
From left: Phil Shephard, The Nature Conservancy, Michael Pope, ODFW Conservation Strategy coordinator, and Vic Coggins, ODFW biologist, tour the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve

In the far northeast corner of Oregon, at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains and just west of Hells Canyon, lies the wild, high plateau that is the Zumwalt Prairie, the last, largest remnant grassland of its kind in the west. A unique and valuable habitat, it is being conserved by an equally unique blend of conservationists, community organizations and cattle ranchers.

“This is the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America,” says Phil Shephard, Northeast Oregon Stewardship director for The Nature Conservancy, which owns about 50 square miles in the area. “Without the stewardship of local landowners and other conservationists, this would have disappeared as well.”

The Zumwalt, named for an early settler, is home to a wealth of wildlife—grassland birds successfully nest in the cover of bunchgrass, elk herds find shelter in the occasional aspen grove and one of the largest concentrations of hawks in the nation soar above the rolling prairie, hunting its plentiful prey. Pick-ups are seen traversing the gravel county roads and cowboys on horseback rotate cattle between grazing grounds.

Shephard stands on a ridge within The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, the snowcapped Seven Devil Mountains at his back, looking out over the two-hundred-square-mile grassland, detailing some of The Nature Conservancy’s current research projects.

“In partnership with Oregon State University, we are studying the impact of livestock grazing on the habitat and wildlife by looking at a variety of grazing practices and intensities. The goal is to determine the most sustainable grazing practices to use, because this is a working landscape,” he explains.

Conservancy staff and university researchers also apply prescribed fire in certain areas and monitor its effect on native grasses, wildlife and insect communities. An aggressive noxious weeds management program is implemented in experimental plots—research results will help managers develop techniques for restoring degraded prairie lands. 

Vic Coggins
Vic Coggins and volunteers survey for sharp-tailed grouse on the prairie

ODFW biologist Vic Coggins, who works with the Conservancy on wildlife and habitat issues, points out several scattered aspen groves that have been fenced to keep elk, cattle and deer out so the trees can regenerate. Wildlife exclusion fences also protect an area of native grasses near Pine Creek to allow study of native plants. The creek and upland areas are being restored under the direction of project manager Angie Freeman in a monumental undertaking that includes riparian and aspen fencing and the planting of thousands of trees and shrubs. Riparian areas are planted with native willow, alder and dogwood. Upland habitats are now dotted with chokecherry, currant and elderberry.

Beyond Pine Creek is the Leap Area, where biologists have been reintroducing Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a native bird extirpated during the 1960s. ODFW biologists work with private landowners to manage habitats that benefit the grouse reintroduction. Continued habitat restoration and monitoring of radio-collared grouse will help determine the success of the project.

“As we learn more about the ecosystem and how it works, we can better conserve the native habitat and species,” says Shephard, who knows better than anyone what it takes to make a difference on such an expansive landscape.

Other Conservancy partners on the prairie include Oregon State University, ODFW, U.S. Forest Service, Bonneville Power Administration and private landowners. Funding sources include Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Meyer Memorial Trust and others.

The Zumwalt Prairie is identified in the Oregon Conservation Strategy as a Conservation Opportunity Area. Read about it in the Blue Mountains ecoregion chapter. Visit The Nature Conservancy’s website for more information about the Zumwalt and to learn about public access to the area.

WINGING IT FOR THE BIRDS

bird wings
bird wings

On the way back to the office from the Zumwalt, Vic Coggins, ODFW biologist, pulls off to check one of his wing barrels.

“Citizen science,” he explains. “For a number of years, we’ve been asking upland game bird hunters to turn in game bird wings to help us with population estimates. Then, every winter, we hold a Wing Bee where volunteers and ODFW staff get together and analyze the wings to determine sex, age and distribution of species—all information we use in bird management.”

If you are hunting in northeast Oregon, you can pick up bags and drop off wings in barrels located on any of the major roads that provide access to ODFW hunt units or stop by the ODFW office in Enterprise. Hunters can also contact Dave Budeau, ODFW upland game bird coordinator, for wing bags, david.a.budeau@state.or.us

MAPPING WEEDS FROM THE AIR

Mark Porter climbs into the passenger seat of a cherry-red helicopter and straps a touch-screen computer tablet to his leg.

 “One less thing to worry about,” he says. “It’s hard enough to record data when you are flying at 40 miles an hour—this stabilizes the computer and makes sure it’s not going anywhere.“

The helicopter is equipped with a GPS receiver that feeds data to Porter’s computer. A moving map on the tablet screen tracks the copter’s progress across the landscape and allows Porter to input the location of noxious weeds.

Mark Porter, Wallowa Resources
Mark Porter, Wallowa Resources

On this day in September, Porter, who coordinates the Wallowa Canyonlands Partnership Cooperative Weed Management Area for Wallowa Resources, is flying with Jim Pope of Leading Edge Aviation. They will cover about 40,000 acres in northern Wallowa County, looking for medusahead rye, an invasive grass that out-competes native grasses. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, once land is invaded by medusahead, it becomes almost worthless, supporting neither native animals, birds or livestock.

“Medusahead has destroyed many thousands of acres of habitat in the West,” says Porter. “In Wallowa County, we still have a fighting chance if we can find it early and treat it.”

Treatment includes a prescription of burning, spraying and reseeding, customized to the location. Porter flies about four times a year—the rest of the time is spent on the ground coordinating weed management projects and working with landowners and managers in the Lower Grande Ronde and Imnaha watersheds.

The Wallowa County Weed Mapping project is funded, in part, by a Conservation Strategy grant. Additional funding comes from the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon State Weed Board, Bureau of Land Management and others. For information about Wallowa Resources, visit their website. To learn more about medusahead rye, visit the ODA website.

ASPENS: NOW AND FOREVER

Nils Christoffersen, director of Wallowa Resources, sees too many of Wallowa County's aspen groves fading from the landscape and is focused on doing something about it.

Although aspens have been in decline since European settlement, the decline seems to have quickened. Today, groves may be present in only 5 percent of their historic range, putting pressure on the wildlife that depend on them. The decline is usually due to overgrazing by elk, deer and cattle, fire suppression policies and encroachment of coniferous trees. Hotter, drier summers are also a factor.

An aspen grove protected by buck and pole fence
An aspen grove protected by buck and pole fence

“Aspens really create a unique habitat. In a flat, dry landscape, they provide structure for nesting birds—hawks, songbirds and cavity nesters depend on them—and deer and elk use the groves as protection from the sun,” says Vic Coggins, ODFW biologist. “The groves also contribute to the watershed by holding snow and slowly releasing moisture.”  

To effectively protect and rejuvenate these declining habitats, Christoffersen knew he had to take a broad, long-term look at the situation. ”Fortunately, the work has attracted a lot of partners.  Together, we've been able to make a significant investment in restoration.”

To date, work has involved fencing degraded aspen stands to exclude wildlife and cattle and using prescribed fire to encourage regeneration. There is also a monitoring component.

“When we started the projects, we documented bird occurrence and abundance, nest success and other habitat parameters,” ;he said.

The initial research identified more than 80 species of birds in the study areas. New research is assessing changes in the habitat parameters relevant to non-game birds, including cavity nesting woodpeckers.

Ann Humphreys, a consulting biologist, is doing much of the research. She is also looking at the six types of fences used in the project to see how fencing affects aspen re-growth and bird use. “This research will show us how effective our current techniques are and provide a direction for future work,” she said.

Partners in aspen restoration in the county include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, American Bird Conservancy, Ford Foundation, Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation, OWEB, NRCS, The Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, private landowners and others. ODFW support comes from the regional office, the Access and Habitat program and an Oregon Conservation Strategy grant.

For information about Wallowa Resources, visit their website. Aspens woodlands are an Oregon Conservation Strategy habitat. Learn more on ODFW’s website.

A buck and pole fence
A buck and pole fence near Pine Creek on the Zumwalt excludes wildlife and cattle

ONE SMALL THING

One type of fence currently used to protect aspen groves in Wallowa County—the sturdy buck and pole—is a conservation project in itself. Built by volunteers with local materials, the fences sit on top of the ground so there is no need to dig postholes. They are less intrusive on the landscape than wire fencing and reduce the risk of wildlife entanglement. They also collect snow in the winter, harboring moisture at a critical time of year for wildlife. And, the wood fences decompose naturally—just about the time the fledgling alders are above elk browsing height. To see a photo of an aspen grove protected with a buck and pole fence, visit Wallowa Resources website.

ABOUT THE OREGON CONSERVATION STRATEGY

The Oregon Conservation Strategy offers a blueprint for the long-term conservation of Oregon’s native fish and wildlife and their habitats through a non-regulatory, statewide approach to conservation. It was developed by ODFW with the help of a diverse coalition of Oregonians including scientists, conservation groups, landowners, extension services, anglers, hunters, and representatives from agriculture, forestry and rangelands. See past issues of the Strategy newsletter on the ODFW website.

EDITOR

Meg Kenagy
Oregon Conservation Strategy Communications coordinator
(503) 947-6021
meg.b.kenagy@state.or.us

FOR PHOTOS OF THE PROJECTS

Contact Meg Kenagy

FOR STRATEGY INFORMATION

Contact Michael Pope

FOR A COPY OF THE STRATEGY

Contact Karen Buell at ODFW.

 


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