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MailTribune.com
  • Best of both worlds

    Vernal pool habitat demonstrates that ecological cooperation can provide economic benefits
  • Who wins if a bovine weighing half a ton and a fairy shrimp that can perch on the end of your pinkie vie for the same vernal-pool habitat?
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  • Who wins if a bovine weighing half a ton and a fairy shrimp that can perch on the end of your pinkie vie for the same vernal-pool habitat?
    Both, providing there is careful planning and monitoring, said biologist Bill Roper.
    "This is strategic grazing — this is not a free-for-all," stressed the director of biological services for Wildland, a Rocklin, Calif., mitigation and conservation-bank company whose intent is to produce ecologic and economic cooperation.
    Roper recently visited 132 acres of vernal-pool habitat adjacent to the historic Wood House in Eagle Point, where both cattle and the rare tiny crustacean spent the winter together in relative harmony.
    A conservation easement completed in March by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy with landowner Wildland ensures the water quality and wildlife habitat will be protected in perpetuity. The conservancy is the permanent steward of the property.
    Now being managed as part of Oregon's newly formed vernal pool mitigation bank, the project, which took four years to complete, also involved the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, Oregon Department of State Lands, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. Once a bank is established, wetland credits can be sold to developers who need to offset their wetland impacts.
    Wildland, the oldest and largest mitigation bank firm west of the Mississippi, has about 35,000 acres under management in Oregon, California and Washington.
    The rare vernal pools, found only in Jackson County in Oregon, provide the life-support systems for two species protected by the Endangered Species Act, explained Diane Garcia, SOLC's executive director. That includes the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam, which is listed as endangered, and the fairy shrimp, federally listed as threatened, she said, adding that the rare plant is found only in Jackson County.
    An adjacent 38-acre parcel owned by Jud Parsons has a similar conservation easement, Garcia noted.
    "This is a very special place — a relatively intact remnant of vernal pool and prairie habitat in the Agate Desert," observed Kristi Mergenthaler, lands steward for the SOLC.
    Less than 23 percent of the original vernal pools originally found in the county remain, she said, adding that the incursion of humanity in the past 150 years has cut deeply into their numbers.
    "Agriculture, Camp White, urbanization — this is flat land, very attractive for settlement," she said.
    Before Wildlands took over the property, it had been more heavily grazed, said Julie Mentzer, director of environmental operations for Wildlands in the Pacific Northwest.
    "The folks who had it were grazing it more than we are," she said. "But our objective is for the vernal pools, for the fairy shrimp and the meadowfoam, a slightly different objective from those who were grazing this before us."
    Now those who are contracted to graze the land follow a closely controlled grazing plan, she said.
    The cattle are typically placed on the land in the fall to munch on the previous year's residual feed, Roper said.
    "They are left on until sometime in mid-to-late spring, depending on the moisture that year," he said. "There were 20 to 30 head on for a very short period. Most of them were pulled a few weeks ago. There are very few cattle left now."
    The "strategic grazing" works because, once the vernal pools dry up in late spring, the animals and plants inhabiting them become dormant until the following winter, he indicated.
    "Cattle are used to stop upland vegetation from beginning to encroach on the vernal-pool fringe and actually shrink the overall wet area," Roper said.
    "What has happened with these lands where cattle historically have grazed and then pulled off for several years, they've noticed these pools begin to shrink up a bit because of the reduced density of the soil and annual grasses starting to climb into the fringe of the pool," he added. "The vernal-pool fringes is where a lot of where our plant diversity is."
    Roper predicts that mitigation banking is part of the region's future.
    "This type of mitigation is going to be the increasing trend in Southern Oregon," he said. "It has been going on in California for about 15 years now. We have several thousand acres protected there right now."
    Because the larger habitat for the vernal pool fairy shrimp is in the Central Valley of California, with the habitat in Jackson County being a distant island, the cooperative mitigation measures are further ahead in California, said Roper, who lives near Sacramento.
    "This is about providing mitigation alternatives," Roper said. "This area of the Agate Desert will remain open forever."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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