Breadth of knowledge on display at gathering in the Willamette Valley

By Edward Alverson

Even though we now live in the “Age of Information”, where technology provides countless tools for sharing and accumulating knowledge, there are times when there is no substitute for in-person interaction. Proof of this was found on February 19th, when about 75 Willamette Valley habitat managers, restorationists, and researchers gathered in Eugene to hear a series of presentations on a variety of habitat-related topics. This was the third year in a row that this get-together has happened.The presentations covered a range of topics, from conservation planning to project results, and while the agenda included talks related to the entire range of habitats in the Willamette Valley, prairie and oak projects were prominent on the agenda.

These formal presentations showed the breadth of current habitat management and restoration activity in the Willamette Valley. Opportunities for informal discussion during the mid-morning break, as well as before and after the meeting, provided another venue for catching up with fellow restorationists. All in all, it was an impressive display of the breadth and depth of the work being done to manage and restore native habitats in the Willamette Valley. Read on to learn more about the presentations from the day.

Public and Private Lands
Kevin O’Hara of the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened the session with a brief overview of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Willamette Valley Conservation Study. The agency has undertaken this ecoregional assessment to set quantitative conservation objectives and identify priority conservation areas, in part to inform a possible future expansion of the Refuge system in the Willamette Valley. Nicole Maness described efforts by the Willamette Partnership to merge a set of conservation incentives into a single program to support conservation and recovery of the Fender’s Blue butterfly. The focus is on privately owned “working lands” that may also provide opportunities for listed species recovery. Adam Novick gave an overview of his Master’s thesis research on addressing regulatory disincentives for managing “maintenance-dependent” at-risk species (such as prairie and oak species) on private lands, with a focus on finding policy efficiencies that may reduce landowner disincentives.

Historical Mosaic
Although some of the talks focused on floodplain habitats and associated species, the Willamette Valley historically was not completely forested, but included a mosaic of forest, savanna, and prairie. Jason Nuckols described The Nature Conservancy’s 2014 work re-connecting old gravel extraction ponds to the adjacent Middle Fork of the Willamette River near Mt. Pisgah, just upstream from the confluence with the Coast Fork. Susan Barnes from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife provided an overview of recently developed best management practices and associated guidance for conserving Oregon’s native turtles, which is available online.

Mapping and Data Analysis
Many of the presentations did focus particularly on different aspects of prairie and oak conservation. Jim Reed described his efforts to use GIS to compare LiDAR data taken four years apart to identify the locations and rates of growth of conifers invading prairie and oak woodland at Mt. Pisgah. Tom Kaye from the Institute for Applied Ecology discussed an analysis of vegetation data from a set of wet prairie restoration plots, which showed trade-offs between native cover and native species richness, and compared the merits of different prairie management techniques (mowing and burning).

Grassland Birds
The West Eugene Wetlands have been a focus of wet prairie restoration for over 20 years, and Bob Altman presented the results of a recent study of grassland bird use in this landscape, which is now a mosaic of remnant and restored prairie habitats. Bob mapped breeding territories of grassland birds and showed that in particular, Western Meadowlark and Grasshopper Sparrow have benefitted from wet prairie restoration in west Eugene.

Thurston Hills NA 008

Thurston Hills Natural Area, located near Springfield, OR.