Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Wildflowers anchor watershed

Hilda Sexauer is a fisheries biologist.

But on this day, instead of wading streams and counting trout, she's following a ribbon of measuring tape across a field of wildflowers, inventorying plants, organic litter, barren soil and rock.

She's crouched in a meadow at 9,700 feet in the Wyoming Range, about 45 miles as the crow flies west of Pinedale. There's no fish -- or water for that matter -- in sight. Yet, this floral survey is all about water.

'Whatever happens in your headwaters is eventually going to go downstream,' says Sexauer, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department regional fisheries supervisor in Pinedale.

This high-elevation meadow is called a 'tall forb' community -- fields of wildflowers that grow between 6,300 and 11,000 feet in parts of Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. The unique meadows culminate in wildflowers, not trees. According to experts, a healthy 'tall forb' meadow can stand thigh and even waist high. This particular meadow, though, is only tickling our shins.

But now a unique partnership between a rancher and some government and conservation groups has created an opportunity to give this high-elevation meadow a break from domestic sheep grazing in an attempt to accelerate its recovery. Ultimately, the plan is to return sheep grazing to the mix -' albeit at lighter frequencies than in the past.

Overgrazing hurts fragile plants

The benefits of restoration could be significant. Increasing organic matter by 5 percent on the ground can allow the meadows to hold seven times as much water per square foot, says retired Forest Service ecologist Alma Winward.

'That's what they were made for,' he says, explaining how the fluffy, black topsoil absorbs water like a sponge.

When functioning properly, the meadow captures moisture from rain and snowmelt and filters out sediment, thus preventing soil from washing down slope and, ultimately, downstream to cutthroat trout spawning beds. When too much sediment settles in the spawning gravel where native trout lay their eggs, the sediment suffocates the eggs and young fish fry.

On this late-summer day in the high country, Sexauer; Nellie Williams, Trout Unlimited's Wyoming coordinator, and habitat biologists from Game and Fish are here to survey plants. They will set up monitoring plots for the new Triple Peak Forage Reserve, which straddles the Snake River and Green River watersheds on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

A multi-use paradise for hunters, anglers, hikers and horseback riders, the area also serves as spring, summer and fall range for mule deer and moose from the state's largest herds as well as bighorn sheep and elk. The forage reserve falls within a 1.2 million-acre chunk of the Wyoming Range, which U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has proposed for withdrawal from oil and gas leasing.

Roughly four miles down the trail at the trailhead near Soda Lake sits a natural gas well with a fresh coat of green paint. But up in the high country it's wildflowers ' not wells ' that have everyone's attention.

In the early 1900s, ranchers ran an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 sheep from the south end of the Wyoming Range to the north and back again each summer, explains Steve Kilpatrick, a habitat biologist for Game and Fish.

'That was before we knew how fragile the tall forb communities are,' Kilpatrick says. 'Once it unravels it's just difficult to get it back.'

Historically, heavy grazing meant there was less plant material on the land to anchor the soil and soak up the rain. So the black, loamy topsoil washed away, leaving bare ground.

Those are the conditions Jim Magagna's family inherited when they started grazing sheep in the Wyoming Range in the 1940s. Moreover, concerns about predators encouraged ranchers to bed sheep at night in big numbers to protect the lambs and ewes from coyotes and other carnivores, Magagna says. Over time, however, Magagna acquired and consolidated nearly 60,000 acres of grazing leases on the national forest. By using guard dogs to protect the sheep from predators, he was able to spread them out to lighten their impact on the land, he says.

'That gave me an opportunity to do some things that weren't possible historically when there were a lot more sheep in the area,' Magagna says. 'I feel personally that over the average of 30-some years that I had those allotments, that I was able to significantly improve them.'

Even so, studies show that these fragile meadows can take as long as 75 years to return to the fully functioning plant communities they were prior to turn-of-the-century grazing.

With that in mind, Trout Unlimited brokered a deal with Magagna to give the high-elevation meadows time to heal. Under the agreement, Magagna waived his option to graze four bands of sheep yearly on nearly 60,000 acres in exchange for $209,904 in compensation. The payment comes from a variety of contributors including fishing, hunting and conservation groups.

Magagna said he wanted to downsize his ranching operation to dedicate more time to other activities. A politically active representative of agricultural interests, Magagna serves as executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He first offered the grazing leases to fellow sheep ranchers in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming and received interest from one Idaho rancher, who later decided not to take it, he said.

Working with Trout Unlimited on the forage reserve concept allowed him to give up the leases while keeping ranching in the picture, he says.

'I was not willing to dispose of them and see them closed,' he says. 'I didn't agree to this until I felt that we had come up with a system that I thought was both positive to the resource, but also provided some benefits to the sheep industry.'

Under the agreement, nearly 54,000 acres have been set aside for the forage reserve. This marked the first year the reserve was open for emergency grazing on roughly 60 percent of the acreage ' for ranchers displaced by wildfires or habitat enhancement projects. No ranchers applied to use it this year. The agreement allows ranchers to graze the land for up to three out of every 10 years.

Meadows service wildlife populations

A small portion of the allotment -- 5,115 acres -- has been closed to grazing to protect spawning gravel used by cutthroat trout at North Piney Lake and creeks that drain into it. The lake contains a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. The state collects native trout from the lake to produce eggs for the Daniel fish hatchery, which raises the native trout. The hatchery fish are then used to restore Colorado River cutthroats to streams throughout the Green River basin. The grazing closure aims to safeguard the clean gravel along the lakeshore where the cutthroat lay their eggs.

Both the Colorado River and Snake River cutthroat trout, which occupy the two watersheds covered by the new forage reserve, have been petitioned for listing as threatened species. Although those petitions have been denied, Trout Unlimited's Williams says proactive efforts to keep sediment out of streams could help prevent a future listing.

In addition to the cutthroat conservation area, another chunk of the 54,000 acres ' about 40 percent ' is off limits to sheep grazing for now. The agreement calls for restoring those lands to 80 percent ground cover and a healthy mix of plants before reopening it to domestic sheep. The area encompasses the wildflower meadows above 9,700 feet.

This summer, biologists set up study plots in order to monitor the land in the absence of grazing. Game and Fish has hired Winward to help establish and oversee the monitoring. Winward has been studying tall forb communities for decades. While these meadows can typically withstand light, once-over grazing, he says, that's not always the case.

'If it gets taken down too far ' it can't recover,' he said. That's when the land needs a rest from grazing, he says.

The wildflowers' ability to anchor moisture in the mountains has long been known, he says. Overgrazing at the turn of the 20th century caused flooding that washed out towns and roads, he says. Yet, it's taken decades to get a handle on how to manage these fragile systems.

'Nobody really took time to realize all the values they served and to really know what they looked like,' Winward said. 'Most of them were disturbed at various degrees of severity from 1885 to 1915.'

In addition to benefiting cutthroat, the meadows provide other services for wildlife. For example, research indicates that mule deer feeding on healthy wildflowers put on more fat, have higher pregnancy rates, give birth to bigger fawns and produce more milk for their young, Kilpatrick says. The Triple Peak Forage Reserve encompasses birthing areas for mule deer.

Kilpatrick says mule deer summering in the Wyoming Range are facing habitat challenges on their winter range, with drilling under way on the Pinedale Anticline.

'If we can beef up these animals before they hit winter range, they'll have a better survival rate,' he says.

These high-elevation monitoring plots have a long way to go, but once they demonstrate 80 percent ground cover, with a healthy mix of flowers, domestic sheep can return to this high country. Like the rest of the allotment, the land will provide alternative pasture for ranchers who need to give their own forest allotment a rest ' for reasons such as recovery from wildfire or habitat restoration.

'It gives us flexibility to do (habitat) treatments in surrounding allotments,' Kilpatrick says. It's 'another tool,' he says, for ranchers and land managers to use as they try to balance the needs of wildlife and livestock.

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