Two Generations Work to Improve Mule Deer Habitat
Working in a steady rain, students from Highland High School's Environmental Academy Class spent part of a spring weekend planting bitterbrush at the Harkness Burn. Their goal for the morning was to improve habitat for mule deer and other Idaho wildlife by planting 1,500 antelope bitterbrush seedlings on a steep burned-over side hill east of McCammon. Habitat biologist Tom Maeder showed students how to plant various native plants and directed their efforts along the hillside to restore lost winter range plants.
Soon, noise from revving power augers echoed across the hills as students drilled holes for plants. Some students carried canvas bags filled with antelope bitterbrush and hobble creek sage while others used special planting bars or their hands to carefully plant seedlings in each hole.
"Justine is planting the old fashion way, one plant at a time," quipped Dean Rose, Idaho Fish and Game habitat biologist.
Justine Bishart placed a bitterbrush seedling in each hole. Rose dug and tamped dirt around the plant. Justine also took a turn using the power auger.
"I really like doing something for wildlife. This is long term," Justine said. "It is harder than I thought it would be, but it is worth it."
Fifteen other Highland High School students were spread out across the ridgeline digging holes and toting canvas bags full of seedlings for planting. Three of the students ran power augers digging holes.
"This is a class based around a different kind of learning," said Heather Bechtolv, Idaho State University graduate student and class monitor. "It is enquiry-based learning where students can go outside and learn about native plants by doing it. What is really great is that this is helping mule deer and all the other wildlife that benefit from native plants."
The students laughed and joked about being out of school. It helped keep their minds off the rain and wind. Some were soaked.
Jeffery Fellman was planting bitterbrush for the first time "I don't really mind the rain and we are out of school" he said "So I can't really complain."
Each year Highland High School and other schools from around the region pitch in and plant native plants for Idaho Fish and Game. Some are science classes and others are specialty classes.
"This class is like other biology and science classes we have taken, but this one goes much more in depth. That way if we ever wanted to go into an environmental job, we would be prepared for it," Fellman said.
A week later in the Rockland Valley, Dean Rose helped transfer boxes full of bitterbrush seedlings from his pickup to a farm tractor.
"Working with private landowners like (Kent) Rudeen and (Logan) Robinson of Rockland, we are going to plant another 40,000-plus plants and effect thousands of acres," Rose said "Soil conditions are perfect and we are ready to plant. We are getting our contract crew into as many parcels as possible. This year we are providing all the plants."
Two workers were seated behind the tractor on a specially designed harrow. From their seats each could place bitterbrush seedlings into the furrow dug by the tractor. A set of three-inch thick blades pushed soil around the seedling as the tractor putted along.
Fish and Game contract tractor driver Steve Peterson of Blackfoot said, "We just completed planting 3,800 bitterbrush seedlings at another property. This system of planting works pretty well and is real efficient."
Getting the weather to cooperate is the main hang-up with mechanical planting. The road to one of the fields scheduled for planting was snowed in. Another field soaked up too much melt off and the tractor could not work there. Workers shivered in the biting 25-mile per hour wind coming off snow-covered peaks whipping down Rockland Valley.
"It is important to improve diversity of the landscape and find a viable way to include plants like bitterbrush in our CRP fields that benefit mule deer and lots of other wildlife," said Rudeen. "I am eager to see something that works. If it works, I will buy the shrubs next year if Fish and Game will plant them."
This program has other benefits. It can help land owners on their application for the Conservation Reserve Program. Landowners who plant certain types of plants benefiting wildlife receive points on their application for enrollment in the CRP program and mule deer benefit from all of these efforts.