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Conservation Educator’s Niche – December 2017

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

I’ve already been gathering research materials for the FAS 2019 Phenology Calendar. Informal discussions with our ad hoc committee are centering around a return to “Birds of Glacier Country” ideas, but I’ve been working on the assumption that we will arrive near that topic with our theme, and I’ll write the monthly/daily content and gather photography with Jake Bramante – who will also make it stunningly gorgeous …

Some general notes on Owen Sowerwine Natural Area: The FHS student’s study (presented to us Nov. 13th) will make it quite obvious that our cottonwoods at OSNA are great Vaux’s Swift habitat (really old, really big and many broken and hollowed), but there is almost no recruitment or regeneration anywhere but on the low river silt bars on the far east main channel of the Flathead River. We don’t know yet if the tree age classes correlate to historical flood events; students are working on that right now. They will also be show-and-telling about their work to rescheduled elementary school students on their field trips this spring.

I will be examining the feasibility of doing student-led follow-up studies on (a) plant succession patterns under the old cottonwoods, (b) the mitigating effects of invasives on that succession and on cottonwood regeneration, (c) a whitetail deer exclosure study on regeneration in the two small areas we have found seedlings, (d) a study on the effects of micro-elevation differences and river channel down-cutting on cottonwood succession, and (e) a comparison study using the same techniques on regeneration at the much lower Old Steel Bridge FWP land. All of this has to do with bird diversity strongly correlating with cottonwood age class diversity in other Montana river-bottom studies.

I would like to use our same permanent plots to do yearly spring breeding bird surveys – preferably with us Auduboners teaming with high school students as a learning experience for them.

Despite the dedicated work of our small crews in the past, OSNA is suffering from invasives neglect. Away from the trails, hound’s tongue and Canada thistle are everywhere. The growth of invasive highbush cranberry in all low and open areas in the last couple of years has been exponential. Common tansy invasive has taken over the small field where the trail approaches the Stillwater River. Many hard workers have helped, but we need bigger crews, working much more time, in multiple years, to take care of new growth stimulated by the removals, to get ahead of this. And this is just on the smaller mainland area of the 442 acres. It is obviously affecting plant and animal (bird!) diversity. A few of us are committed to plugging away at the cranberry even during the winter months (it is easy to see). But, follow-up with carefully applied chemical control of new suckers will be essential in the spring, or we will just exaggerate the problem.

We have a great educational resource in OSNA, but some problems to solve to make it as available as it should be. Treasure Lane and Greenwood entrances can never function as drop-off areas for more than two or three cars, let alone busses of students. We are working with the Montessori School staff to formalize dropping students off in their parking lot for access to the north end of OSNA through their property. In exchange, we are flagging and building an access trail for them (and the other students) that will connect the north accessible area to the southern trail system – along the Stillwater River. Two bridges will make the area accessible during the high-water months (also known as “school field trip” months!).

We want to make school “programs” more outdoor and OSNA oriented, and continue developing outdoor curriculum to augment the Riparian Wetlands: Birds and the River trunk. We will need LOTS of volunteer help for many of these projects – teaching and trail work. Can you help?

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