Friday, September 3, 2010

Providing safe haven

Sage grouse, pygmy rabbit habitat purchased by land trust

Express Staff Writer

Trey Spaulding, director of operations for the Wood River Land Trust, surveys the Timber Dome Ranch, 10 miles west of Arco. The ranch was bought by the land trust on Aug. 13. The land will still be used for light livestock grazing, as well as conservation of sage grouse and pygmy rabbit habitat.

Sage grouse and pygmy rabbits now have 1,609 more acres of protected habitat, thanks to a recent acquisition by the Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust.

The organization closed its largest acquisition deal in its history on Aug. 13 with the purchase of the Timber Dome Ranch near Arco. According to the trust, about 250 elk and 500 mule deer make Timber Dome their home, and the sagebrush-steppe habitat is ideal for pygmy rabbits and the endangered sage grouse.

The ranch was slated to become a privately owned, fenced hunting preserve before Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the South Eastern Mule Deer Foundation bought the land in 2003.

The land trust entered into negotiations with these organizations in January 2010, eventually buying the land with individual donations.

Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger said the land will remain open to light grazing while still preserving sage grouse habitat.

"We're not trying to buy it and lock it all up," Boettger said.

He said the recent acquisition is part of a larger, long-term plan for the area in which agriculture and conservation are combined.

Though some of the wetlands and springs in the area will be fenced to provide areas for young sage grouse to grow and forage, Boettger said light grazing is not necessarily detrimental to sagebrush habitat.

The ranch is 10 miles west of Arco, just east of Craters of the Moon National Monument. Elk, deer and antelope all migrate through the land yearly, and the area provides year-round habitat for songbirds and raptors, in addition to the sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.

Pygmy rabbits are the nation's smallest species of rabbit, easily able to fit in the palm of a hand. They are generally only 9 to 12 inches long and weigh less than a pound.

Normal habitat includes tall, dense stands of sagebrush and soil that lends itself to burrowing. Though a subspecies of pygmy rabbit that lives in central Washington is already protected under the Endangered Species Act, Idaho's rabbit population is still being considered for federal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pygmy rabbits typically share habitat with the greater sage grouse, a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird up to 30 inches long and 2 feet tall, weighing from 2 to 7 pounds.

Boettger said the land near the Timber Dome Ranch is ideal for the trust's conservation efforts.

"There's some very undeveloped wildlife resources out there that are incredible," he said.

According to Boettger, the land trust is currently working on several other projects. Funding for these programs is provided by the Blaine County Open Space Levy and federal programs such as the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, which enables the purchase of development rights on otherwise undeveloped agricultural land for the purpose of conservation.

Katherine Wutz:

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