Work days on the Zumwalt

June 23, 2011 07:51 pm

Elsbeth Otto, stewardship assistant for The Nature Conservancy, demonstrates to volunteers the proper handling of barbed wire fencing at the annual work day Saturday on the Zumwalt Prairie. JOYCE OSTERLOH photo
Elsbeth Otto, stewardship assistant for The Nature Conservancy, demonstrates to volunteers the proper handling of barbed wire fencing at the annual work day Saturday on the Zumwalt Prairie. JOYCE OSTERLOH photo

Volunteers enhance riparian areas, remove fencing, promote shrub survival on Nature Conservancy land

Twice a year volunteers gather at The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie 20 miles northeast of Enterprise.

This year’s spring work days June 18 and 19 brought volunteers of all ages and from locations near and far to maintain riparian areas, remove fences, and appreciate Oregon’s largest privately owned nature sanctuary.

The Zumwalt Prairie is one of the largest remaining bunch grass prairies in the continental United States and nurtures several species of hawks, owls, grouse and the snakes, ground squirrels, voles and mice they need to prosper.

Thousands of elk spend a part of each year on the prairie along with bears, cougars, wolves, mule deer, cattle and other large mammals.

The Nature Conservancy stewards this 33,000-acre preserve where in 2010 it partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore natural stream flows. Crews removed earthen dams and stock ponds constructed by ranchers in the 1950s along Camp Creek that block flows to downstream trout and steelhead fisheries or overflow and erode the prairie.

Two separate crews of 10 to 12 volunteers, one led by Nature Conservancy Field Director Jeff Fields and the other by Elsbeth Otto, stewardship assistant, trudged willingly in a steady downpour of rain to exclosures that have been built around rehabilitated dam and pond areas.

Their job, according to Fields, was to secure weed mats with 6-inch ground staples,

See ZUMWALT, 6Bclear weeds and help to promote survival of shrubs planted last fall on the stream banks. It is too soon to monitor growth and survival rates of the plantings, according to Fields. 

“We have a pretty good sprouting year so far, but the starts have to get through a dry season before we can assess our success rate,” he said.

However, after visiting several exclosures with ground staples in hand, the mortality rate appeared to be low and very few shrub starts were missing.

Eight-foot buck and pole fences protect the riparian areas and the struggling shrubs from browsing elk, deer and cattle.

According to Fields, five hardy, drought-resistant species — quaking aspen, water birch, willow, chokecherry, and serviceberry — were planted to stabilize the steam banks and eroded areas. When these shrubs are about five to six feet tall, the buck and pole fences will be removed.

“We just want to give them a nudge and then let Mother Nature take over,” Fields said.

About noon the two teams of volunteers regrouped, changed into dry socks if they had them, compared successful and not so successful rain gear, ate lunch and headed back out into the rain to remove a stretch of old fence that is dangerous to the natural travel of wildlife and may interfere with their behaviors.

Groups of volunteers leap-frogged up the hillside with fence tools and leather gloves after a brief review of safety rules.

Veteran volunteer Larry Simmons of Portland has been participating in work parties at the Zumwalt Prairie since 2001. He said a substantial amount of fencing has been removed in the past 10 years. A staggering pile of posts behind the barn is testament to the miles of fences hauled away by work parties. An even larger pile of posts, according to Simmons, has been re-used to build wildlife-friendly, non-invasive fences where necessary.

According to Elsbeth Otto, removal of the fences may promote the re-introduction of the sharp-tailed grouse to the prairie. The medium-sized chicken-like grouse are brown and white spotted with a short pointed tail, white at the base.

During mating season, male grouse display on communal dancing grounds called leks. The placement of the lek is usually on a grazed hilltop — cultivated land or meadows where the birds can see approaching females and/or predators.

Fence rows with high vegetation may diminish the suitability of the rolling fields for lekking. The rows of barbed wire are dangerous and sometimes trap the grouse, which panic easily and can become injured in struggling to free themselves.

In July, weekly work days are scheduled every Thursday, according to Otto. The work parties are mainly Wallowa County residents who conduct seed collection and remove more miles of unwanted fence.

Many local volunteers have adopted quaking aspen exclosures and work to maintain and monitor aspen growth. They collect data and look for elk sign in and around the burgeoning aspen groves.

New Project Steward Justin Jones said the attraction for him to the Zumwalt Prairie is the local buy-in for long-term conservation and the opportunity to develop a connection with the land.

This appeared to be a common theme among the staff and volunteers who work this property.

According to Drew Swayne, volunteer from Portland, the work is more like a vacation than labor. He enjoys doing something useful and meaningful for an organization that is sensitive to the local history and use of the prairie.

Volunteer Maren Murphy, an Americorps Volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said public access to these lands is the most important aspect of supporting The Nature Conservancy’s efforts. She has worked in visitors’ services in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and understands that it is important lands supported by the public remain open to the public. Both Swayne and Murphy expressed an appreciation for the people in Wallowa County who have a cultural or historical connection to the Zumwalt Prairie.