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Idaho Fish and Game

Red River Restoration Benefits Wildlife and People

By Miles Benker The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is increasing its wildlife habitat improvement work on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in order to help wildlife and fisheries. The department manages 32 WMAs ranging in size from a few hundred acres to over 78,000 acres. In almost all cases, these areas were purchased with revenue from the sale of hunting licenses and a federal tax on hunting equipment. These acquisitions help conserve important habitats, but they also were purchased to provide public hunting, fishing and other enjoyment for present and future generations. One example of a small WMA rich in wildlife and fisheries is the department's 314 acre Red River WMA near Elk City. The property is the site of a large stream restoration effort completed with funds coming from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to address the fish and wildlife losses resulting from the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake River systems. Over the last decade, over 2.5 miles of Red River has been restored. Red River was once prime habitat for cutthroat and bull trout, lamprey, as well as spawning habitat for steelhead and Chinook salmon. However, a long history of overgrazing and dredge mining has resulted in the loss of the meandering riparian plant community vital to providing habitat for a variety of terrestrial as well as aquatic wildlife species. The initial stream restoration work included reconnecting historic meanders, constructing new meanders, and reshaping the stream channel. Over 115,000 native woody and herbaceous plants were also planted to restore the riparian vegetation. Over time, these plants will not only improve the wildlife habitat, but will also improve the fisheries habitat by reducing erosion and lowering summer water temperatures. The improvements have already raised water levels and have increased wetland and wet meadow habitats adjacent to the stream. As a result, wildlife enthusiasts have seen an increase in waterfowl and shorebird use, most notably dabbling ducks, Canada geese, various shorebirds and great blue heron. Even sandhill crane and tundra swan sighting are increasing. The establishment of herbaceous plant cover in the form of grasses, sedges and rushes was successful. However, the establishment of shrubs has not been as successful with survival rates on riparian shrubs lower than expected. Many factors including competition, the short growing season and recent drought have slowed the shrub growth. However, browsing by big game has been identified as the most likely factor limiting the establishment of native shrubs. To reduce browsing damage, several techniques, including wire cages, electric fences and five foot tree protective tubes were installed and evaluated for their overall effectiveness. Several large fence enclosures were also installed to protect the shrub seedlings. The benefit of the large enclosures is the most evident. Most willow dogwood and hawthorn shrub are eight- to ten-feet tall inside these fences. As a result, the enclosures seem to provide the greatest level of protection at the lowest maintenance cost. BPA recently awarded IDFG additional funding to continue this ongoing project, but will focus solely on the successful establishment and protection of the native shrub community. Utilizing a combination of new techniques, IDFG plans to annually plant and maintain between 10,000 and 20,000 native trees and shrub seedlings for several years. The need for higher planting densities, proper location and protection from browsing are necessary to assure successful establishment. Plans to irrigate some areas as well as chemically treat seedlings to reduce and control the spread of competitive and noxious weeds will also improve plant survival. This project will help protect the initial stream restoration effort and increase the quality, quantity, and diversity of habitats and species dependent on them. For more information on the Red River WMA and other department properties, view IDFG's website at Miles Benker is a wildlife biologist for IDFG who manages the Red River Wildlife Management Area and works to improve wildlife habitat in the Clearwater Region.