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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ecological Implications of Public & Private Land Management & Use in the 1900s, Class#3 of "The Ecological History of the Methow Valley" Conservation Course

The 8th annual Methow Conservation Course on the “Ecological History of the Methow Valley” began Monday, January 31st.  Here are notes from the third class.  Notes from the first two classes are below this post, and there will be two more classes.  Mary Kiesau prepared this summary.

The third class in our 2012 Methow Conservation Course, “The Ecological History of the Methow Valley” focused on the initial influx of settlers and the heavy use of natural resources, from land to water and timber to minerals, to sustain livelihoods in the Valley.  Ardis Bynum, John Roher and Scott Fitkin helped us understand how the management of public lands changed over the last century and what the implications to habitat and wildlife were.

Ardis Bynum, retired Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Service employee, started the evening off with a quick history lesson of National Forest Service lands in the Methow Valley.  Here are some notes from her presentation:
·        President Cleveland put more than 17,600,000 acres of land into the “Forest Reserves” with the Forest Reserves Act of 1891.  In 1897, nearly 3.6 million acres of the North Cascades were added to the Forest Reserves.  These lands became, in part, the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF, the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie NF, and the North Cascades Park Complex.  In 1908, the Forest Reserves became the National Forests.
·        In 1906, the Homestead Entry Survey(HES) Act provided for agricultural homestead entry on public lands that had been classified by the Forest Service as more suitable for agricultural than for forestry purposes. These surveys were usually made by a Forest Service surveyor, and from 1906 to 1914 this was a major role for the Forest Service in the Methow Valley.  The HES Act was repealed October 23, 1962. 
·        In 1908, the Forest Service began returning 25% of the receipts taken from national forests to the states in which forests were located, to be allocated to counties and local governments for roads and schools.
Creating the 8Mile Ranger Station
·        The first Forest Service station/building/office of any kind in the Methow was the Ranger Station at Eight Mile (on the Chewuch), built in 1910.  For at least the first half of 1900s, the area was a horse remounting station that kept up to 90 horses and mules.  In the coming years, other guard and ranger stations included:  Alder Cr., South Camp Twisp, War Cr., 30mile, Culbertson, Alder Cr., Libby Cr., Gold Cr., Squaw Cr., Black Canyon, Texas Cr., McFarland Cr, Antoine, Goat Cr., Early Winters, Ventura, Russian Springs, Phillips, French Cr., Harts Pass and Foggy Dew.
·        While fur-trading was the first thing that brought white men to the area and the taking of pelts was robust, the number of people was small and very few lived in the Methow.   It was the discovery of gold and other minerals that brought people in by the dozens.  Back in 1893, A.M. Barron discovered the “Eureka Lode” in the Slate Creek area, and the brief mining boom was created with mining towns sprouting up overnight.
·        When mining didn’t “pan” out for most, many people left but many people stayed and became part of the farming/ranching settlement towns that had begun to grow in 1887 (the Methow was “opened to settlement” in 1886).  By the early 1900s, there were at least 75,000 to 100,000 sheep in the Valley.  In the 1930s, there were 13 bands of sheep on the Winthrop District alone (a band is 1000-1200 ewe/lamb pairs), and the mountains were covered with the trails of where the sheep were “driven.”  “Driveways” were the routes that sheep were herded into, over and through their designated range.
·        In the early years of white settlement, the climate in the Methow was much wetter than it is now and homesteaders had a relatively easy time with dairy cows, and growing hay and grain without irrigation.  As the climate began more dry, farmers took to beef cattle and ranging the cattle on public land. 
·        The Okanogan Cattlemen’s Advisory Board was the first such group to become organized in Washington, and they were the first in the state to have a brand registration.
·        Grazing zones and allotments were created in the 19-teens.  There were areas for sheep and goats, and for cattle and horse.  Even in the 20s, there were deer preserves and bighorn sheep preserves, closed to grazing.
The lower compound of the Winthrop Ranger Station
·        In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in the Methow and worked in eight locations (mostly seasonally) until 1943 when they were disbanded.  The “Lower Compound” of the current Winthrop Ranger District Office at the confluence of the Methow & Chewuch is a CCC era compound.
·        Fires on the National Forest were being fought and suppressed from day one, but the era of fire suppression began in earnest in the 1930s.  In 1930, over 50million acres burned in the U.S.  Money was designated for fire prevention and Smokey the Bear became the fire prevention mascot.  The North Cascades Smokejumper Base, the first in the nation, was established in 1939.  By 1960, fire suppression had brought the number of burnt acres in the U.S. down to less than 5 million. 
In the Chewuch watershed alone (340,000 acres), over 1000 fires were suppressed from 1920 to 1994; 700 of those fires were caused by lightened, i.e. they were natural fires.  If we hone in on the area that was encompassed in the Tripod Fire in 2006, we see that over 300 fires had been suppressed there through the 1900s.  Had those fires not been suppressed (even some of them), the Tripod Fire would not have been so large.

·        WWII found its way to the Methow when the Air Force kept forces at the Slate Peak lookout year-round (!) to look for Japanese aircraft (with fears they would bomb Grand Coulee Dam).  In 1956, the Air Force bulldozed the top 40ft of Slate Peak for a radar station, moving the 1924 cupola cabin.  The radar project was abandoned and the lookout cabin was put on a 40ft metal tower so that it would be at its original height. 
·        After WWII, one goal was to put GIs into homes, and homes started to get much bigger.  In the Methow, another big need for wood was for apple boxes and bins.  Timber demand and the volume taken from National Forest shot up from roughly 1500 million board feet before the war to over 12,000 million board feet in 1965.
·        Finding ways to get over and through the North Cascades, especially for east-west travel was a priority as early as 1814 when Alexander Ross attempted to find a trade route for furs.  The story of roads in the mountains and in the Methow is a long and convoluted one that we didn’t go into deeply in this class, but see for more details on Hwy 20.
·        Along with renewed interest in creating a road over the North Cascades from east-west travel, the 1960s and 1970s included a plethora of federal laws that changed the way land, air, plants and animals, and much more were managed, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the North Cascades Complex Act, which created the North Cascades National Park among other things.
·        The Northern Spotted Owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act throughout its range of northern California, Oregon and Washington by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on June 23, 1990 citing loss of old-growth habitat as the primary threat.  Logging in national forests containing the Northern Spotted Owl was stopped by court order (the Dwyer Injunction) in 1991, including quite a bit of FS land in the Methow.
·        In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was adopted.  The plan was created specifically for national forests within the range of the northern spotted owl, and in WA it spanned the North Cascades to include bits and pieces of the Methow Valley.  The plan was meant to end the owl-induced management impasse, and while it put an end to many things that had been happening in national forests, it also started making some very good things happen such as looking at issues via the whole watershed.
·        In 2010, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest finalized a Restoration Strategy.  The plan is based on “adaptive ecosystem management to restore landscape resiliency,” and the plan states, “We believe restored landscapes provide improved terrestrial and aquatic systems, minimize risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfire, sustain local communities and economies, and contribute to the quality of life.”

See the attachedTimeline for Public Land Management in Methow Valleydocument for more details.

Ardis’ segment was followed by John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologists for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife, respectively.  Their talk focused on the ecological consequences of settlement in the Methow Valley.

John’s very organized presentation first listed the overall settlement activities of the last 200 years:  trapping fur-bearing animals, mining, road construction, fire prevention, fire suppression, horse, cattle and sheep grazing, timber harvest, agriculture, residential and commercial development, and a “war on predators.”  John also noted that climate change could be a factor.  John’s talk focused on his main point:  Settlement resulted in habitat changes and changes in the populations of plant and animal species

Habitat changes were created by (1) a reduction of native grasslands, and (2) timber harvest and fire prevention, says John Roher.

Sheep grazing meadows in the mountains.
The reduction of native grasslands came about through several factors: native horse herds, and cattle and sheep grazing being the primary ones John discussed, though development of towns and homesteads were another factor.  John used documented historical references to show us that native horse herds probably had localized impacts.  Grazing of domestic cattle began in 1886 when the Methow was opened to homesteading and ranchers moved here with their herds.  In 1887, there were already several ranching outfits with small herds (300 head) and most settlers had household herds scattered all over the Valley.  By 1915, there was an estimated 5000 head of cattle in the Methow.  A 1993 Chewuch River watershed report said, “Cattle grazing in combination with fire suppression greatly increased bitterbrush distribution in the lowlands of the Methow watershed in the late 1800s.  Previous to cattle introduction, bitterbrush existed in scattered patches under ponderosa pine at low to middle elevations.”  Now, there are 700-800 head on designated rangeland in the Methow.  Domestic sheep were brought to the Methow at least by 1902 and there numbers were high through WWI.  As early as 1902, sheepmen were complaining of overstocked ranges, according to historical documents.  Forest Service records show that 75,000 sheep were grazed in the Sawtooth range and another 75,000 in the Pasayten range in the early 1900s.  Another FS document said, “From 1921 to 1925 the grazing work had been organized into a system of allotments and we had reduced the carry capacity from 90,000 in 1917 to 25,000 in 1925, and up to 1934 reductions were made to approximately 20,000 sheep.”

Timber harvest and fire prevention/suppression resulted in major changes to the forested landscape, John Rohrer said.  Mature forests of shade-tolerant, old trees have been depleted to a level well below any known natural range of abundance – there has been a loss of large and medium sized trees throughout the watershed.  Ponderosa pine and western larch forests shifted to more Douglas fir, which is less fire tolerant, and our dry forests became more homogenous.  All of this led to a substantial increase in the amount of ground fuels and fuel “ladders” (small trees, close together known as “dog-hair”), and an increase in fire severity and fire size.  
Forest Service records show that from 1910 to 2006 there were 379 fire starts within the Tripod fire area.  The North Cascades Smokejumper Base was started in 1939 and from 1940 to 2006 the Forest Service suppressed 303 fires within the Tripod area.  The red dots are suppressed fires within the area of the Tripod Fire.
Changes in the populations of plant and animal species include both increases and decreases in various native species, as well local extirpation of certain species and the introduction or invasion of non-native animals and plants. 

Moose, seen on Studorse Mountain.
Some animals whose numbers and/or distribution has increased include:  coyote, white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, raccoon, raven, magpies and Canada geese.

Non-native species whose numbers have shot way up since settlement include: California quail, chukar, wild turkey, pheasant, English sparrow, pigeon (rock dove), Eurasian collared dove, cattle, domestic cats, domestic sheep, European starling, brown-headed cowbird, and hundreds of plant species (various knapweeds, cheatgrass, whitetop, quackgrass, Dalmation toadflax… to name a few)

Native animals that have been reduced in abundance and/or distribution include (but are not limited to):  beaver and other “furbearers,” grizzly bear, badger, gray wolves, jackrabbit, wintering bald eagle, white-headed woodpecker, pygmy nuthatch, Western and mountain bluebirds, flammulated owl, burrowing owls, northern pacific rattlesnake, high-lake amphibians, and several anadromous fish species

Animals that have been local extirpated (no longer exist here) include: bighorn sheep, fisher, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, pygmy rabbit, and possibly grizzly bear, white-tailed jackrabbit, burrowing owl, leopard frog and gray wolves.

John then focused on three species as case studies: Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, bighorn sheep and beaver.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were once one of the most abundant game birds in the Pacific Northwest.  There were thousands of them in Okanogan County alone at some point, and John shared quotes from local old-timers who remember them covering fields of hay and grain, and flocks of them in orchards.  Don Johnson, who grew up on Balky Hill from 1934 to 1950 said, “Used to be quite a few, especially in draws with chokecherry.  Was more farming then, wheat, oats, hay.  Homesteaders fed deer and birds with haystacks.  Fewer predators then because of poisoning and shooting.”

Good habitat for Columbia Sharp-Tailed Grouse.
While the reduction in hay fields may play a role in the grouse’s demise here, it’s also clear that prime habitat has been lost to grazing, clearing for ag and development, and invasive plants.  Good sharp-tailed grouse habitat contains non-forested uplands with perennial bunchgrasses, forbs, and few shrubs along with riparian areas with key species of deciduous shrubs such as water birch, hawthorne, chokecherry and more.  The grazing and clearing of thick, deciduous shrubs along riparian areas greatly negatively impacted sharp-tailed grouse winter habitat.  The expansion of bitterbrush due to fire suppression and localized overgrazing did not help.  The last straw was likely the increase of residential development at lek sites (breeding grounds), which were the hills and plateaus around the Valley.  Sharp-tailed grouse numbers dwindled throughout the 1900s, and the last Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in the Methow were seen in the late 1980s. 
The distribution of sharp-tailed grouse has declined about 97% from historical levels.  Current range is in green.
California bighorn sheep were known to be in the Methow’s high country from documented first-hand reports from the 1800s.  With the introduction of domestic sheep, the bighorn numbers began to plummet.   For example, bighorn sheep populations were strong in the Horseshoe Basin area prior to domestic sheep introduction and as late as 1910.  By 1916, bighorns were seen only in small bands, and by the 1920s, numerous bighorn skulls and skeletons could be found in Horseshoe Basin.  And, a band of sheep was known to live around Azurite Peak near Harts Pass until about 1925.  These bighorns were probably the last resident native California bighorn sheep seen alive in Washington.

While bighorn numbers were certainly reduced because of indiscriminate hunting before the creation of state fish and game departments, disease is probably the principal cause of bighorn declines.  In WA, bighorn declines occurred shortly after cattle and particularly sheep grazing became common in the high country (remember there were 75,000 sheep in both the Sawtooth and Pasayten ranges as early as 1902).  Just like European human diseases quickly killed very large populations of Native Americans, so too did domestic sheep diseases very quickly wipe out the native population of bighorn sheep.

For a success story, beaver were nearly extirpated due to trapping but have made a great comeback in the last several decades.  Known as “soft gold,” beaver were extinct in western Europe by the late 1500s.  Shortly after Europeans came to North America, the east coast was scoured.  The primary reason men came west in the early 1800s was to find a water-based trade route across the country and to trap fur-bearing animals.  There was competition with the beaver fur business, however, and there were political ramifications for who would control the new land, so companies trapped heavy and hard.  In an attempt to leave American and Canadian companies in the dust, the Hudson’s Bay Company (British) ordered its trappers to create a “fur desert.”  “We have convincing proof that the country is a rich preserve of Beaver. . .which for political reasons we should endeavor to destroy as fast as possible” - George Simpson, HBC.

Beaver trappers found the Pasayten country to be the most fertile trapping grounds, especially the Thirtymile area, Hidden Lakes, and the headwaters of the Methow River.  The glory years of trapping and trading were from 1811 through the 1830s or so.  By 1850, the annual beaver “harvest” had dropped from an average annual number of 3000+ pelts in the 1820s and 30s to just 450.  By the time the first settlers arrived, having been told beaver were numerous, most of the beaver had been trapped out.  Because of this, natural aquatic ecological processes changed fundamentally and quickly.  The ecological impacts of a substantially reduced beaver population were in place and regarded as normal conditions by the time the first European settlers arrived here.  Before European settlement of North America there were anywhere from 60-400 million beaver.  Now, there are 6-12 million on the continent.

Beavers are known as “nature’s engineers” and they create landscape level effects not just by creating dams that store water and create wetland habitat but also by increasing nutrients that can increase fertility of entire water courses.  

Beavers cut a lot of vegetation and drag it into and near water.  They don’t eat all that they cut, so many species sprout new growth from the cuttings, creating young riparian vegetation.  The left-over cuttings also become “compost,” decomposing on the bottom of streams and ponds.  The decomposition creates an anaerobic layer in which carbon and nitrogen recycle into a form that micro-organisms can easily use.  Nutrients in beaver ponds seep through beaver dams and travel downstream to increase fertility of entire stream.  The creation and movement of nutrients (called “shifting”) that occurred in beaver pond system streams before the trapping of the 1800s is akin to the nutrient  shifting that occurred with historic passenger pigeon roosts and salmon runs.

Mule deer (with the ears of a mule)
White-tailed deer
 For the final portion of the class, Scott Fitkin gave us a quick session on Methow deer.  Though there are two deer in the Methow, 90% of the deer population is Mule Deer while just 10% is White-tailed Deer.  White-tailed deer are considered an eastern deer and have been a relatively recent immigrant.  They like riparian areas and exploit our human “landscapes” more than mule deer.  They generally have a home-range on the valley floor that they keep year-round.  Agriculture is probably what allowed white-tail deer to get a foothold here, and they are clearly here to stay now.  Mule deer prefer open and semi-open habitats, migrating seasonally up and down in elevation following plant growth, so that in the summer they follow the “green-up” line and in the winter they forage primarily on bitterbrush near the valley floor.  They are thought of as browsers whereas white-tailed are grazers.  Winter habitat and forage for mule deer is their #1 limiting factor – over half of all fawns die in the winter.

Mule deer are the ironic deer of the semi-arid west and evolved in landscapes that had natural, low-intensity fires every 6-15 years.  Fires increases growth of bunchgrasses and forbs, and managed the size and quantity of bitterbrush and other shrubs (deer prefer new, young growth on shrubs to large, decadent shrubs). 

Scott speculated on the history of mule deer numbers in the Methow:
·        Pre-1775: horses were not present in large number and deer numbers were probably moderate with a mosaic of winter range conditions and habitat being augmented with burning by Native Americans. 
·        1775-1850:  horse populations were at their peak with numbers in the thousands, creating competition for forage; natives may have burned even more to create more grass for horses, which would have hampered brush gowth; deer were hunted more too and their numbers were probably fairly low.
·        1850-1890: this was a period of quiet growth in mule deer numbers as indigenous burning of land decreased and shrubs in winter range began to recover.  Fur-trappers were leaving and less people meant less hunting.
·        1890-1930:  Deer numbers were kept very low.  Settlers moved in, converting both summer and winter range to rangeland for cattle and sheep, and subsistence hunting pressure was heavy.  An extremely harsh winter in 1890 put a big dent in the local population as well.
·        1930-1970:  Conditions flipped 180 degrees and deer numbers grew dramatically.  Fire suppression and improved grazing practices (and reduced cattle numbers) led to an explosion of shrub growth in the winter ranges of deer.  The abandonment by homesteaders of dryland farms and habitat conservation made more winter range available (the Methow Wildlife Area was the 2nd wildlife area to be established in WA; the first was in Okanogan County as well).  Game laws were better enforced and science-based management took hold.  Orchards and irrigation of ag land increased, providing easy food, and wild predators were virtually non-existent (wolves had been extirpated and there was still a bounty on cougars).  Mule deer bred like bunnies.  Their high numbers were great for some species, like wintering eagles and large carnivores, but were potentially negative for many other species, not to mention farmers and gardeners.  The mule deer population in western Okanogan County probably peaked out at about 40,000 – 50,000 deer.  Their growth was unprecedented but also unsustainable.
·        1970-present:  Deer numbers have seen a long, slow decline.  The growth of bitterbrush and other shrubs earlier was great but they became old, large and not as nutritious.  Fire suppression that had initially helped create habitat slowly reducing habitat because more trees encroached on the shrub-steppe and new grass and shrub growth was not induced by fire.  The land overall had a reduced carrying capacity for deer.  Noxious weed growth increased dramatically, outplacing native species; and the increase in residential development reduced habitat.  A warmer, drier climate in recent decades was not beneficial to native shrub-steppe plants either.  Less hunting is taking place both because there are less hunters and because there are more private landowners that do not allowing hunting on their property. 

Valley-floor mule deer.
There are probably more deer living on the valley floor now than in the past, but the total number of deer are down, though the population is still robust.  These valley-floor deer include both mulies and white-tails and they tend to be year-round residents taking advantage of private lands.  They feed on agricultural lands in the summer and ag land, landscaping and private feeding in the winter.  The state-led winter feeding program during the harsh winter of 1997 only increased the population of valley-floor deer because it taught them that they could get easy food here, and mother deer passed on the info to their young.  Mild winters followed that winter and deer survived much more easily.  Many people have continued to feed deer during the winter.

Scott gave a quick synopsis on the status of the Methow’s rare carnivores:
·        Highway 20 was probably the final blow for grizzlies – it broke up the largest roadless area in the lower 48.
·        Wolves were once common in WA; nearly 15,000 pelts were traded between 1827 and 1859; they were extirpated by 1930s
·        Lynx has persisted with highly variable numbers
·        Wolverines were probably never here in great abundance and those that were were trapped out
·        They were all heavily trapped for pelts; later, grizzly and wolves were targeted for elimination with bounties made by the County Auditor.  By the mid-20th century, wolf and wolverine were gone; lynx were greatly reduced and grizzly were functionally gone.
·        Now, grizzly are barely hanging on; lynx are doing okay; wolverine are viable and potentially expanding; and wolves are increasing steadily though the small population was greatly reduced recently. 
Wolverine are in the Weasel Family.

A Methow Valley gray wolf
Scott thinks that human attitudes and the potential for climate change to affect us locally will decide the future of these rare carnivores.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Magical Days

by Sarah Brooks, Associate Director

Some days are just magical.  They start out like any old day, but somewhere along the line they transform into one of those make-you-thankful days emblazoned in your memory forever.

Yesterday was one of those days for me.  Here’s how it unfolded:

After dropping my daughter off at the bus stop, I came into work knowing I had a lot to do before my meeting with a dedicated volunteer and then a meeting with our Finance Committee to discuss the budget for next fiscal year.  My mind was on numbers and spreadsheets, dwindling government grant funds and the like—nothing really all that magical. 

I knew our conference room downstairs would be chilly, so I decided to run down stairs (our only stairwell is outside the building) and quickly turn on the heat so we could at least talk finances in some comfort. 

The stairwell, with the window I would look out framed in blue.

I remember taking the stairs somewhat slowly.  They are old and wooden and tend to be very slippery on cold winter mornings.  I stood on our lower deck and unlocked the door.  I walked through Stewardship Director Heide Andersen’s tidy office space and entered the conference room.  The light switches were to my right, next to the large picture window that so often can distract us in meetings as we watch all the activity at the confluence of the Methow and Chewuch Rivers. 

I turned to the right to flip the switches and looked out the window.  My angle had me peering into the space under the stairwell I had just carefully come down.  I remember freezing, stopped in awe.  I was looking at a cougar, no more than 5 feet away under the stairs standing up and looking right at me.  (Sorry, no picture…I was too stunned!)

He was beautiful and powerful and our eyes locked.  We stared at each other for what seemed like a really long time (though I admit time stopped, while I wondered if I had really closed the door firmly and reminded myself that I was not at a zoo peering through glass, but right here at work).  His tail was thick and long and so noticeable and graceful.  His head was small and compact and inquisitive.  His paws seemed huge. 

The view from the window.
I felt a rush of adrenaline, a wave of respectful fear, and most of all just so lucky.  What a beautiful animal, so rarely seen.  I admit to also feeling a tinge of guilt, for I’m sure my stair climbing had disturbed its quiet place of comfort.  It was one of those moments when you really consider your place in the universe and feel rather appropriately small.

I broke our gaze and went around the room to the phone.  I figured I should alert my co-workers, so no one else would come down the stairs and surprise the cougar.  It was then that it dawned on me that I was somewhat trapped downstairs, for the only way up was to traverse the stairwell by the cougar.  No one had yet arrived upstairs and I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

I don’t think I thought through the next 20 minutes very rationally or clearly.  All of my co-workers were in transit, so I didn’t catch anyone, except a few spouses who I’m sure were not expecting such a call.  I worried especially about my volunteer, who would find the office unlocked upstairs, but no one there and then might try to come downstairs.

The tracks we found around the deck.
I heard his footsteps on the stairs and I rushed to the door to shout a word of warning, sure that by now the cougar had probably moved on his way, but still, just to be safe… And as I got to the door, the cougar popped out from under the stairwell area (guess he had been there all along just out of my view) and he ran across the deck just a few feet from where I stood inside behind the closed door.  He ran upriver with the most graceful, quiet, yet strong and fast gait I’ve ever seen.

At this point, the volunteer and I met on the deck and looked after the direction the cougar had gone, though he quickly disappeared from sight.  We shared a stunned expression.

The cougar resting before relocation.

We called the Fish and Wildlife experts to let them know about the sighting. By mid-afternoon, they had tracked the animal and tranquilized him so they could relocate him to a more remote location.  They were kind enough to stop by our office and let us have a look at our visitor as he slept in their truck.  They figure he was about a year and a half old, 100 lbs or so, and a male.  He was collared and would be released with a deer carcass for a first meal.

My concentration the rest of the day was a bit shot.  I made it through the budget meeting and my other tasks, but always I was thinking about the cougar.  Where was he?  Was he scared, disoriented?  Did my stunned face still resonate in his memory as his did in mine?  And, still today, I wonder about his fate.  I’d like to think that there is plenty of space for all of us to thrive.

In the end, there’s no word to describe the encounter, really, other than magical.  I’ve been known to say several times a week that I can’t believe how lucky I am to live in the Methow Valley, but when I concluded recanting my cougar encounter to my daughter last night, I found myself saying it with even more passion than ever.  How did I get so lucky?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"The Bitterroot Grounds - Notes from Class #2 of "The Ecological History of the Methow Valley" Conservation Course

The 8th annual Methow Conservation Course on the “Ecological History of the Methow Valley” began Monday, January 31st.  Here are notes from the second class.  Notes from the first class are below this post, and there will be four more classes.  Mary Kiesau prepared this summary.
 Bob Mierendorf, the archeologist for the North Cascades National Park, was the instructor for our second class in our Conservation Course, “The Ecological History of the Methow Valley.” 

Bob was the very first archeologist for the Pacific Northwest region of the National Park Service and has worked at the North Cascades National Park for 25 years, researching and managing (primarily for conservation and protection) archeological sites in the rugged interior of the North Cascades.
3,800 year old ash from a Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Bob started us off with an overview of what the Methow and the North Cascades looked like upon retreat of the Ice Age glaciers and when colonization by humans began.  Scientists know this from studying pollen and plant macrofossils in the layers of mud at the bottom of lakes.  They are able to create timelines based on significant events such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens 3,800 years ago which deposited large layers of ash for thousands of miles.

The last major ice age this area saw existed from about 2 million years ago (mya) to about 11,500 years ago (y.a.).  That was the Cordilleran Ice Sheet and it began to retreat from our region 13,000 years ago.  Around this time, the very first people begin to appear in what is now the western United States from other places on the globe.

  • 13,000 to 10,000 years ago:  there were few trees; the land was more like the Serengeti with grasses, sage and some 5-needle pines.  The climate was still relatively cold and dry, and ungulates or grass eaters such as giant sloth, giraffe, mastodon, ancient bison were dominant.
  • 10,000 to 5,000 years ago:  the climate is warming and getting drier. Forests formed at higher elevations, with more of an emphasis of 2 and 3-needle pines such as ponderosa pine.
  • 5,000 to 2,500 years ago:  the climate began to cool and get moist again.  Douglas fir were more abundant now, grasses and sage were less abundant and western hemlock and western red cedar were migrating west to east.
  • 2,500 years ago to the present:  A “little ice age” with colder temps than what we are used to today, more moisture and an expansion of mountain glaciers began 3,000 to 2,500 years ago and ended about 200 years ago.  Large tracts of forests formed, and the land would have looked familiar to us.

The earliest peoples, say from 11,500 to 5,000 years ago did not see what we see today - they lived in a very different landscape even though it is the same land.

Clovis-period (~13,000 y.a.) stone and bone tools from East Wenatchee
So, who were the first people of the Methow region?  Bob, says, honestly, we don’t really know.  No “early” sites have been found in the Methow yet.  Here, “early” means Clovis (around 13,000 y.a.) or even Pre-Clovis (15 - 13,000 y.a.).  While, the Ice Age glaciers could have lingered in the Cascades, and Methow and Okanogan valleys longer than places further south and west, it’s also true that lots of archeological artifacts and sites have been lost in the Methow due to flooding and river erosion, ditching, digging, etc., so we just may never know exactly when humans arrived in our neck of the woods.  Still, the Skagit, Columbia and Frasier Rivers created a major convergence zone with high biodiversity important to foraging communities, and it’s clear that people were living in the region (Wenatchee and south and east of Wenatchee) 11,500 y.a. and very likely earlier than that.  Stone and bone tools estimated to be 13,000 years old were found in East Wenatchee in 1987, and there are two sites in the Puget Sound area that are estimated to be 13,800 years old. 

In the past, typical archeologists didn’t think Native Americans had lived in the mountains, in the Cascades.  They assumed it was too rugged and that there was no reason to go there. 

Bob said that a friend of his, Ms. Adeline Fredin (of Methow and Wenatchee descent)  who served as her tribe’s historian said to him once, “You archeologists, you want to know where Indian People were?...Throw a stick…where it lands is where we were.”  She was trying to tell him that they traveled widely and lived in the valleys and the mountains.

With more recent research, including that of Bob Mierendorf’s, we’ve learned that the Methow is literally surrounded by archeological sites dating from 6,500 y.a. to as early as 9,500 y.a., and it’s not uncommon to find them at mountain passes.  Bob says people must have started coming to the Methow in this time-frame.  It was the time when the climate was warming and getting drier, trees were growing and animals were changing though there were still lots of large grass-eating mammals.

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The Methow is literally surrounded by early Holocene archeological sites

Bob has been doing research in the Cascade Pass area (just outside of Marblemount, and one of the known travel and trade routes from east to west for at least more recent native americans) for several years.  What he found is astonishing.

A quartz chisel from Cascade Pass
There are cooking hearth pits at Cascade Pass that are 9,500 to 9,600 years old!  This is the earliest dated/known use of a subalpine zone in the Pacific Northwest.  Mierendorf and his team have found charcoal made from pine, fir and hemlock; quartz artifacts and microblades, and more.  Bob predicts that mountain passes have great archeological significance and that scientists will start looking at them more.

Rock Art in the Methow
 Bob then moved on to cover Methow archeology

  • Harold J. Cundy, a young researcher in the 1930s documented sites with rock art throughout the Methow Valley.
  • Earl Swanson, working for the WA State Division of Mines & Geology, did an archeological survey of the Methow in the late 1950s.  He found house pits, rock shelters, talus pits, fishing sites, lithic scatters, burial grounds, cooking pits, and sweat lodges.
  • In 1986, the DOT did one large-scale excavation at the mouth of Wolf Creek for the expansion of the Highway.  To date, the oldest artifacts found in the Methow Valley were found there and they were 3,000 years old.  Of note, obsidian from Three Sisters, Oregon was found.
  • More researchers found bits and pieces of things through the 1980s. 
  • Now, there are over 50 known archeological sites in the Methow Valley, and many of them are rock art sites.  One site up the Chewuch is dated to 1600 years ago and is the earliest rock art date known in Washington State.
  • It’s clear that pre-contact (before settlers) Indians paid attention to the slope and aspect of the land when siting pit houses and other shelters.  Areas slightly distant from the river and with some slope angle provided air movement and tended to be warmer.
  • It’s also clear that the area we call Wolf Creek was important.  The use of the area from Wolf Creek to the Chewuch reach for fishing is ancient, and native people continued to fish there in early 1900s.  The more recent archeological past shows an influence from the Plains Indians with the use of tipis and travois, and of course horses.  It is believed that the Methows were great horse people.
  • In general, it appears that Indians in the Methow trapped and speared fish mostly, hunted secondly, and collected berries and other plant parts third.
  • The presence of nearby high elevation archeological sites suggests the mountains were used by natives but almost no archeological research has been done in the Methow high country.

Bob left us with some meanings of our place.  He said, “language preserves connection to place and gives it meaning.”

  • The xantci’n people called the entrance to the Methow “little rocky gate” village.
  •  The Interior Salish, spa’tlmulux, people, called the Methow Valley the “bitterroot grounds” valley.
  • Verne Ray, and ethnographer and anthropologist who studied Salish people throughout Washington, says Methow means “land of sunflower seeds.”
Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) has an edible root that was a staple for native americans

Bob concluded with, “The Methow pre-contact history is virtually unknown, but there’s a lot here!”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"A Breadbasket" - Notes from Class #1 of "The Ecological History of the Methow Valley" Conservation Course

The 8th annual Methow Conservation Course on the “Ecological History of the Methow Valley” began Monday, January 31st with guest speakers Elaine Timentwa Emerson & Jack Nisbet.  There will be five more classes and we'll post notes from each class on this blog.  Mary Kiesau prepared this summary of the first class with notes from class participants Leah Swayze and Joyce Bergen.  For more information about the course click here.

(A quick history note on the timing of things...  Prior to 1886, there were very few white people living in the Methow, just a small handful of men.  Still, the local Indian population, which traveled in and out of the Methow Valley seasonally, had been drastically reduced by disease - there were probably about 300 people in the Methow band in 1886 according to historians.  A crucial period of change began with the opening of the Methow to homesteading (1886), which was primarily due to the potential for gold and other mining-related minerals.  In a very quick period of time, 15-20 years, 1000 plus white people moved into the valley.  There was no easy transportation into the valley for decades so food had to be grown, creating a big increase in cultivated land.  For more information on what happened to native populations in the region see the “History of the Colvilles” page on the Colville Confederate Tribes website)

Elaine, a Native American whose mother was from the Methow band and whose father was from the Okanogan band, started things off by speaking to us in her native language.  Elaine grew up on a cattle ranch in Monse, WA (just northeast of Brewster), but would come up the Methow 10-12 times a year with her mother and other “old ladies,” first on horseback and then by car.  Elaine said even before the Methow was opened to homesteading and Indians were moved, most Methows were nomadic, wintering in the Okanogan, or further east and south, and coming to the Methow the rest of the year, though some probably did live here year-round.  The Methow Valley was a “bread-basket” Elaine said, “every native food type grew here, except for camas.”  People would fish, hunt (deer for meat, big horn sheep for wool), collect roots, berries, and other native food, even basket materials and rocks (for pipes, bowls and implements).  Elaine remembers collected cedar bark by Goat Wall and wild cherry bark in Lost River.  She said that over time (through the 1900s) it became harder to collect things - farms expanded and the number of people and homesteads increased; the use of sprays killed many native plants, including one of their favorites, Indian Celery (what we call chocolate tips); and native families were getting more split up, losing parts of their culture, language and sense of place.  For example, her mother’s grandfather specialized in canoe-making but his apprentices died of disease brought by settlers.  After the Methow was opened to homesteading and throughout the first half of the 1900s, families either moved to the Colville Reservation or took homestead allotments in the Okanogan.  The Okanogan Valley was far too dry and low for many of the native foods that grew in the Methow however.

Elaine says there are very few descendents of the
A basket made by Elaine Timentwa Emerson
Methow band left - the culture has been in danger of dying out.  She and others are trying to change that and teach the younger people that “they came from a place,” and “how to live in tandem with the land.”  Her elders taught her the language when she was young and for the last 17 plus years, she has worked with the Okanogan Language Preservation Program as a fluent speaker in documenting and teaching Okanogan native language and culture. Elaine also comes from a long line of accomplished basket makers.  When she was just six years old she began being taught basketery skills.  By her mid 20s she noticed that no one was making them anymore.  Now and for the last 25 years Elaine has taught her own people how to make traditional cedar baskets.  Elaine showed us several baskets including a very large one for berry collecting that took her many months to make.  Elaine’s sister Tillie was also with us on the 31st.  Tillie is a beader and she shared some of her work as well. 

Author, naturalist and teacher, Jack Nisbet spoke after Elaine, giving us a brief human and natural history lesson about the “period of contact” time in and around the Methow.
Jack started off with the first known white person to not just come into contact with Methow natives, but stay with them, observe them and write about them in some detail.  It was July 1811, and the person was David Thompson, who was traveling by boat from Kettle Falls down the Columbia for the North West Fur Company.  David Thompson wrote that the natives pronounced the name of the area as “Smeethhowe.”  He also noted that they were used fish nets made of Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum).  Indian Hemp is a fibrous
Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)
plant like nettles but it can get wet and dry over and over without rotting.  David Thompson made the first notes of the Methow River on maps.

This business of trapping and trading fur from beavers, muskrats and numerous other animals continued on in earnest for several decades and it’s the reason white europeans and native americans interacted with each other.  In exchange for furs, natives were given meat and grease, saddles and saddle blankets, hides and skins, snowshoes and many other products. 

The Methow people were some of the many regional tribal people who traded goods at Fort Okanogan.  Alexandar Ross a Scottish fur trader working at Fort Okanogan, attempted to travel up the Methow Valley and over the Cascades to the Skagit with the help of some native guides in 1814.  They never made it but Ross was the first known European to try.  Ross kept journals but they’ve all been lost.  Historians and archeologists now know that Indians throughout the region traveled from the lower Methow to the Skagit River over a few different routes, generally ascending the Twisp Pass to the Stehekin valley and then over Cascade Pass.

David Douglas, a British botanist/naturalist, arrived at Fort Vancouver on the Washington coast in 1825.  He explored the northwest, including the “big bend” area of the Columbia River in northcentral Washington, in three trips, spending a total of four years in the Northwest (1825 - 1827 and 1830 - 1832), and it’s from these excursions that we have the first bits of expanded information on what plants natives ate, how they cooked and used plants, and how they “managed” land such as encouraging root crops to grow and burning patches of land.

Jack Nisbet noted that tribal names for plants described the food part of the plant (often the root), not the flowers -- for example, Indian Potato for what we call Spring Beauty; Indian Celery for what we call Chocolate Tips; Biscuitroot, Bitterroot, Balsamroot and so on. 
a very large spring beauty root

Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata)


David Douglas also noted “weeds” or european plant species that were already present in the early 1800s, such as pigweed and reed canary grass.  John Richardson, who wrote the first fauna book of the american west in 1829, noted that sage grouse nested in reed canary grass.  Now, sage grouse have decreased from numbers in the hundreds to nothing, locally, whereas reed canary grass is everywhere.  While some things like this are out of balance, Jack Nisbet reminded us that some things are the same, such as the fact the pocket gophers have been stealing food and pestering people for many generations, even eating the Indian’s camas roots.  :-)