Wednesday, April 27, 2011

‘Subject to whackage’

Will loss of water-loving cottonwoods harm valley wildlife?

Express Staff Writer

The removal of thousands of cottonwood trees from a south valley irrigation ditch results in huge slash piles lining Highway 75. Though concerns over water scarcity are growing in the region, concerns are also sprouting regarding the impact of the tree-cutting on local wildlife. Photo by Willy Cook

In a valley where both wildlife and water rights are fiercely protected, piles of slashed cottonwood trees lining state Highway 75 have raised questions about the environmental impacts of the trees' removal.

"It's so frustrating," said Bellevue resident Candy Funk. "Those trees have been there for more than 30 years."

The trees, thousands of cottonwoods that have become somewhat of a local landmark, have been growing along the banks of an irrigation canal for decades. Concerns over water scarcity have been growing as well, especially in the south valley, and Water District 45 is removing the trees to conserve water.

District spokeswoman Pepin Corso-Harris said last week that cottonwoods are notorious water hogs.

"Cottonwoods are a block for noise, but they take an incredible amount of water and ruin the banks of the ditches," Corso-Harris said.

They also provide habitat for a number of species, said Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ed Mitchell.

"[The district] has a point. Cottonwoods take a lot of water, so they're subject to 'whackage,'" Mitchell said. "But they're kind of important."

Mitchell said cottonwoods are in the same family as aspens, and both provide food and shelter for a variety of native animals.

The most obvious of those species are winged. Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger said the trees in the canal, which originates in the trust's Howard Preserve, provided habitat for woodpeckers and other nesting birds such as robins and sparrows.

Raptors such as hawks, falcons and kestrels also frequented the area, using the trees as perching spots for hunting.

"It's just an ideal spot," Boettger said, adding that even bald eagles can be spotted in the area over the winter.

Funk, whose property adjoins the canal, said she's seen a marked decrease in bird numbers since the trees came down. The vole populations are skyrocketing as a result, she said.

"[The birds] were good vole control," she said. "My dogs can only eat so many (voles) a day. You can see the damage on our land—the voles are digging holes all over."


Mitchell said the department has managed predator bird populations in the past by removing perching trees. But, he said, the voles make this situation different by providing a food source, and it's unlikely the birds will leave.

Funk said other species have disappeared, too.

"There was a moose that lived back there and a bunch of elk that used to come by," she said.

Elk, moose and other ungulates such as deer use cottonwood saplings as a food source, Mitchell said. But it's not the only food source available, and ungulates also will feed on scrub and shrubs in the area.

Boettger said the possibility for weed encroachment increases with the tree removal.

"Whenever you have disturbed soil and moisture, the weeds just go crazy," he said, adding that he would be concerned that the seeds from those weeds would make it into fields irrigated by the canal.

The impacts of the trees' removal are emotional as well. Boettger and Funk both said the loss was jarring.

"It's a local landmark that's lost," Boettger said. "Yes, it's private property, but there's this sense that it's public space."

"It's such a sad, sad sight," Funk said. "[The trees] have been there so long that they've become part of the environment. It's just so ugly now."

Funk said that there was probably little point in fighting the district, as the trees have already been removed.

Some of the root balls will be transported to the Heart Rock Ranch, formerly the Diamond Dragon Ranch, on the Big Wood River west of state Highway 75 near Timmerman Junction. The balls will be used to shore up the riverbanks there and help create better fish habitat.

Many of the root balls have been removed and the slash piles burned. But Boettger said cottonwoods grow quickly, and he hopes that neighboring landowners and conservation organizations can eventually work with the district.

"I'd really love to see the finger-pointing stop and see if we can come together in some sort of collaborative effort," he said, adding that there must be a way to mitigate the water lost to the trees.

Even if a solution can't be reached, there's still hope for the wildlife that used to make its home along the canal. Mitchell said that even though he understands that residents are upset, neither ungulate nor bird populations are likely to be devastated by the removal of the trees.

"To make it sound like wiping out the cottonwoods is going to decimate wildlife is probably not realistic," he said. "This is about hating the tree-cutting."

Katherine Wutz:

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