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Mountain meadow gets a helping hand

BUTTE FALLS — Catelyn Lambert is busy stacking Shasta fir seedlings and manzanita brush freshly lopped out of an imperiled High Cascades meadow for eventual burning, and she can’t help but look up the hillside for a glimpse of a creamy rump or velvet rack.

In summer, this Blue Rock Meadow could be a haven for Roosevelt elk, but its lush grasses and native flowers have come under siege by encroaching firs and brush not burned away naturally for decades.

But brush cutters and chainsaws are replacing wildfire in this massive meadow in far eastern Jackson County, so much so that the bugle of a bull elk seems to Lambert like it’s just moments away.

“The whole time, I’ve been thinking, ‘Can I rip a few bugles and hear something?’” says Lambert, the southwestern Oregon conservation ambassador for the Backcounty Hunters and Anglers.

Perhaps Lambert’s next visit to Blue Rock Meadow will yield that bugling bull, one of myriad species Forest Service biologists and volunteers like Lambert are trying to reclaim in this 300-acre meadow for native flora, fauna and the people who love them.

Blue Rock Meadow is the latest high-mountain recess within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to get a helping hand in its battle for survival in the 21st century.

These meadow habitats within the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains have been losing ground to encroaching trees and shrubs with the absence of wildfires or prescribed fires over the decades.

Historically, wildfires would occasionally sweep through these high-mountain terrains, burning off the native grasses and flowers as well as any small fir seedlings or manzanita brush that had moved in since the last fire.

Fire also charred trees around the meadow’s perimeter, eventually creating snags that are prime nesting habitat for birds and the insects they desire.

After this natural reset button, the grasses and wildflowers would quickly regenerate in this lush meadow.

A mix of Forest Service chainsaws and volunteer muscle from BHA and the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association recently put a big hurt on fir saplings and manzanita in a crucial 10-acre area right along the meadow’s fringe where the encroaching forest has been most successful.

Many of the volunteers are here to help forest dwellers such as deer and elk find more forage. But other smaller and no less remarkable species rely as much or more on high-mountain meadows like this for survival, and they also need this meadow restored.

“These meadows are really important habitat for many of our avian predators,” says Jade Keehn, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of the partners in these meadow restorations.

When at their healthiest, meadows like this provide great habitat for invertebrates, native rodents and other predators that rely on them, such as great gray owls — one of several sensitive species on Oregon’s Conservation Strategy plan that rely on high-mountain meadows to survive and thrive.

“They provide a very important forage area for birds like great gray owls,” Keehn says.

Great gray owls are the largest owl in North America, standing 3 feet tall and sporting a wingspan of up to more than 4-1/2 feet. That’s far too large to maneuver effectively in timber stands, so they rely on meadows to hunt for voles and other small critters.

But the benefits of meadow reclamation burrow even deeper.

Several rare plans, such as longtail wild ginger, are found only in Oregon meadows, with small flowers right along the base.

“They look like some crazy, prehistoric plant,” Keehn says.

Also, rare plants like Collomia mazama, which is endemic to a small portion of the south Cascades — will benefit from the restoration work, as well as fireweed, wallflowers, Scarlett gilia and other natives under the feet and hooves of those who visit.

“We always think about these big critters, but there’s also this really cool system here with plants that can only inhabit these types of systems, she says. “Sometimes we find plants in places like this that we don’t find anywhere else in Oregon.”

Blue Rock Meadows restoration is not an isolated instance on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where federal and state biologists have been teaming with volunteers for years to reclaim meadows losing the ground battle from the High Cascades to the Oregon Coast.

Forest biologists have long recognized the dilemma, and 15 years ago the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest completed a long-term management plan for meadow restoration, with efforts also including controlled, low-intensity fires, says Sheila Colyer, the forest’s High Cascades Ranger District biologist.

Work is getting done in 5- and 10-acre patches, mostly around the meadow rim but also within islands where firs and manzanita have dominated deeper into the meadow. Colyer says.

The reclamation is as gratifying as it is seemingly never-ending, Colyer says.

“There’s no shortage of work out there,” she says. “We could work out here for years.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Nick, a High Cascades Ranger District Crew 62 member, cuts out shrub growth with other volunteers in a meadow outside Butte Falls. Photo by Denise Baratta