Conservationists work to salvage forgotten prairies
Burning invasive plants, reseeding all part of effort

JOHN DODGE
THE OLYMPIAN

TENINO, WA-- A major restoration effort that has nothing to do with wolves is under way at Wolf Haven International.

While the wolves are the draw that brings the public to the 80-acre wolf sanctuary near Offut Lake, the 40 acres of native prairie land at Wolf Haven garner special attention, too.

With the help of The Nature Conservancy, volunteers and grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the prairie land is getting a face-lift.

Thousands of Scotch broom plants and hundreds of Douglas fir trees -- unwelcome invaders of the prairie habitat -- have been removed in the past four years.

The seeds from more than 20 species of native flowers and grasses have been collected, disseminated and then replanted on the prairie, thanks to the efforts of folks such as Marion Jarisch, who treks from her West Seattle home to Wolf Haven to collect native plant seeds.

Drawn to the prairies by the colorful wildflowers and mysterious humps known as Mima Mounds, Jarisch now knows the botanical names of more than 20 native flowers and grasses.

"I started out pulling Scotch broom, and the prairie restoration work grew from there," she said.

The work at Wolf Haven is part of a mosaic of projects on public and private land aimed at protecting and restoring South Sound prairies and oak woodlands all but lost to development and invasive species.

"We're excited about getting our prairie lands back to what they were like hundreds of years ago," said Wolf Haven executive director Susan Sergojan. "When people come out here, we don't just show them the wolves -- we show them the prairies, too."

Ice Age remnant

Once the dominant landscape in southern Thurston County -- a product of the retreating sheet of ice from the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago -- only a few thousand acres of pristine prairie remain from what once totaled 160,000 acres.

The habitat loss has pushed myriad butterfly, bird and wildflower species to the brink of extinction: the Mardon skipper butterfly, the western meadowlark, the western pocket gopher and golden paintbrush, to name a few.

"I think a lot of people were writing off the prairies as a lost ecosystem 10 to 15 years ago," said Eric Delvin, Thurston County project manager for The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation group whose state office has made restoration of South Sound prairies a top priority.

Prairie reserves such as the county's 1,050-acre Glacial Heritage Preserve and the state Department of Natural Resources' 625-acre Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve are lynchpins in the effort to protect and restore the native grasslands.

The county site southwest of Littlerock was a sea of Scotch broom when the county purchased it in 1989. Today, through controlled burns, herbicide applications and old-fashioned hand pulling, the prairie is coming back to life.

Penny Kelley, a Chicago native, is a caretaker at the county preserve. She came to the Pacific Northwest several years ago expecting a landscape dominated by water, mountains and conifer trees.

"The prairies out here caught me by surprise," she said.

She quickly fell in love with the vast vistas and succession of wildflowers blooming from late spring through mid-summer, including the bright blue flowering Camas bulb, an important food source for Native Americans long before white settlers arrived.

Today, Kelley is active in Friends of the Puget Prairies, which hosts prairie restoration work parties the second Saturday of every month.

Touring the preserves

Currently, Glacial Heritage Preserve is closed to the public except for guided tours arranged through the county Parks and Recreation Department.

But the county's long-range goal is to install viewing platforms, interpretive trails or perhaps a tramway similar to the one at the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, said Chuck Groth, county parks operations manager.

Self-guided tours are available at Mima Mounds, a state preserve DNR proposed for a 441-acre boundary expansion earlier this year. The proposal, which did not include any plans to force people to sell their property, received a cool reception, cool enough that the state agency is scaling back the boundary lines.

A new proposal should be ready for public review soon, project manager Birdie Davenport said.

Involving landowners

Expanding the boundaries did gain some support among the nearby landowners, including Michelle Blanchard, who owns five acres of prairie land.

Blanchard is one of five private landowners The Nature Conservancy is working with to repair prairie habitat on private land between Mima Mounds and the Glacial Heritage Preserve, Delvin said.

"All this prairie in private ownership -- we can't own it all," The Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Leslie Brown said. "With the prairies so fragmented, we have to figure out a way to knit the private lands into the habitat mosaic."

That's fine with Blanchard, who was drawn to the prairie when she moved to South Sound in 1987.

"When the camas is in bloom, it just knocks me sideways," she said.

Blanchard is working on her property, clearing Scotch broom and removing about 25 Douglas fir trees she planted 10 years ago.

In return, The Nature Conservancy will provide her with native grasses and flowers to plant on her property.

The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Washington also have teamed up to work with private landowners to create a trail of western bluebird nesting boxes from Tumwater to Tenino.

The bluebird is a prairie species that all but disappeared from South Sound until volunteers and civilian employees at Fort Lewis started erecting nest boxes on the prairie lands found at the military base.

There's evidence that progeny from the 100 or so nesting pairs at Fort Lewis are starting to nest on other South Sound prairie land, Delvin said.

The Western Bluebird Trail Project is another way to get private landowners attuned to saving prairie habitat, he said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has its eyes on 300 acres of mounded prairie, 400 acres of wetlands and 40 acres of oak woodlands owned by Citifor Inc., near Maytown.

The state agency, along with DNR, secured a $2.71 million state grant from the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation to buy this and other prairie lands in South Sound.

Jay Allen, Citifor's managing agent for the property, has said the company would be willing to sell the prime habitat if it receives county permits for a gravel mine on another 535 acres of its Maytown property.

The state agencies have until Nov. 30, 2005, to use the money, or face the possibility of losing it, state Fish and Wildlife real estate manager Dan Budd said.

Taken as a whole, all of the work to preserve and restore the South Sound prairies offers hope for this special place, Delvin said.

"We're trying to find the common ground with landowners, and work from there," he said.

John Dodge covers the environment and energy for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@olympia.gannett.com.

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