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Public/Private Partnerships Restore Willamette Valley Wildlife Habitat

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Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service join forces with private landowners to help at-risk species

The lush, fertile lands in Oregon's Willamette Valley are home to a diverse array of fish and wildlife species that depend on native oak woodlands, prairies and wetlands for survival. That includes several threatened, endangered or at-risk species.

Black tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, Western meadowlark, monarch butterfly, Fender's blue butterfly, Oregon chub...the list of species that depend on this unique habitat goes on and on (and on!)

Roosevelt Elk - by Andrea Hanson ODFWPictured: Roosevelt Elk. Photo by Andrea Hanson, ODFW.

An altered landscape

Historical accounts indicate that before European settlement, much of the Willamette Valley was covered by native grasses, forbs, and oak savanna.

The Kalapuya people regularly set fires to improve hunting and travel. The fires helped maintain the valley’s mosaic of grasslands, oak savannas, wet prairies, and other open habitats.

Since the 1850s, much of the Willamette Valley ecoregion has been altered by development (both agricultural and urban), particularly affecting oak woodland, oak savanna, grassland, riverine, and wetland habitats. The Willamette River has been disconnected from its floodplain, and much of the historical habitat has been fragmented.

A growing population

Fast forward to modern times, where an exponentially growing population and resulting development creates challenges in this changing landscape.

About two million people live in the Willamette Valley, and that population is projected to double by 2050, according to the Oregon Conservation Strategy. The valley contains Oregon's three largest urban centers: Portland, Salem, and Eugene. It contains nine of the 10 largest cities in Oregon, and it's the fastest growing and most densely populated ecoregion in the state.

Feeding more people is also a challenge. Fortunately, the Willamette Valley boasts some of the most productive farmland in the state, producing more than 170 varieties of crop and livestock items including grass and legume seeds, tree fruits and nuts, wine grapes, berries, hops, vegetables, nursery stock, Christmas trees, and field crops such as wheat, oats, mint, hay, livestock and poultry. Agriculture plays a vital role in the economy here and provides food and fiber for growing populations.

Private Ownership

Unlike other ecoregions in Oregon, the Willamette Valley has a high rate of private land ownership. In fact, 96 percent of the Willamette Valley ecoregion is privately-owned, with a significant amount in agriculture.

Clearly, finding a balance between human development, population pressures, agricultural needs, and natural resources conservation is complicated here. And in a place where most of the land is privately-owned, partnerships with private landowners are absolutely critical for conservation success.

Enter the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These two federal agencies are working together alongside private landowners to proactively address conservation needs in the valley.

bradshaw's lomatium fieldPictured: A field of brashaw's lomatium on a conservation easement site.

Partnerships for Restoration

NRCS and USFWS have forged a strong partnership in the Willamette Valley to work with private landowners to restore wildlife habitat.

The goal of the partnership is to restore native oak savannah and woodlands, prairie and wetland habitats and protect them from future development.

Wetland Reserve Easements

The primary program that drives this partnership is the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program - Wetland Reserve Easements (ACEP-WRE). This program is authorized by Congress through the Farm Bill and is administered by NRCS.

Through this ACEP-WRE, landowners may take a section of their property with habitat value out of agricultural use and enter it into an easement with NRCS. The landowner relinquishes certain rights to the property, such as the right to sub-divide and develop. NRCS compensates landowners by paying them a fair market rate in exchange for the easement. The landowner still owns the entire property and the easement remains on the property forever (or for a 30 year period), even if the property changes ownership.

NRCS and USFWS work together to restore the site to its historic hydrology and plant communities, and create a functioning habitat that resembles what the area would have looked like before settlement.

Wetland Reserve Easements provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, protect biological diversity and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.

wetland easement sign

Easements Leave a Legacy of Conservation

Participating landowners such as Rick and Judy Smith care deeply about the land and are thrilled to protect it with an easement. Judy’s father Glenn Westbrook initiated the easement process and in 2010, they successfully closed on the largest ACEP-WRE easement in Polk County at 329 acres. It’s also one of the largest easements in the Lower Willamette Basin.

“Glenn had a real love for the property and the land,” Rick said. “He used to hunt waterfowl here. He was deeply connected to wildlife and nature.”

Glenn passed away in 2018. The family scattered his ashes in one of his favorite stands of oak trees on the easement site. A herd of elk miraculously made an appearance that day as they put his remains to rest.

The easement is part of Glenn’s legacy to protect the land forever. Judy and Rick are continuing that legacy by working closely with NRCS and the USFWS to coordinate restoration activities.

“We’ve never regretted it,” Judy said about enrolling the land in an easement. “For us it was a quality of life choice.”

Restoration Expertise

Through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Service is able to provide equipment and expertise to perform restoration on wetland easement sites throughout the Willamette Valley.

Just a few examples of restoration activities include mowing, seeding, prescribed burns, thinning oak stands, and treating non-native weeds.

“The results are fantastic from our perspective,” Rick said. “Without the partnership we couldn’t do it. NRCS and the Service bring technical expertise to do the restoration and manage the site that is beyond the scope of what we could do as private landowners.”

The Westbrook property borders Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, so protecting it through an easement extends the habitat for wildlife using the refuge. The family has seen countless wildlife on the property…elk, deer, birds, burrowing owls, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, birds and butterflies including threatened and endangered species.

“This is a high-performing, ecologically functioning prairie,” said Cameron King, with the USFWS. “Restoring these sites requires a lot of skilled, well-intentioned people working together.”

prescribed fire Westbrook WRPPictured: A controlled burn on an easement site.

Locally-Produced Native Seeds

A portion of the seed used for restoration was produced by the NRCS Plant Materials Center (PMC) in Corvallis. The PMC has produced more than 677 pounds of native seed for use in restoration projects in partnership with USFWS. They also grew 42,000 seedlings that are planted on restoration sites across the valley.

The seeds were produced for six species of wildflowers—Kincaid’s lupine, golden paintbrush, Nelson’s checkermallow, Willamette Valley Daisy and Bradshaw’s lomatium.

Bradshaw’s lomatium is a parsley-like flower native to the Willamette Valley that was listed as endangered until recently in March 2021. Its delisting is directly linked to conservation collaboration from partners and private landowners.

Bradshaw's lomatium seedlings - PMCPictured: Bradshaw's lomatium seedlings produced at the Plant Materials Center.

Restoration promotes growth of endangered plants

Brett Martin has a 107-acre wetland easement in Linn County where great success has been demonstrated in recovering Bradshaw’s lomatium.

Restoration was a challenge on this site, mainly due to clearing large amounts of English hawthorn, which is thick, woody and invasive. With help from the USFWS, the site was cleared and the hawthorn was piled and burned. They planted 1,000 Bradshaw’s lomatium on the site two years ago and so far the flowers are flourishing. They also plan to plant other wildflowers such as self heal, camas and checkermallow.

Conservation is a core value for Brett—a value he lives by in his profession as a civil engineer and a logging engineer.

“An easement was the right thing to do with this piece of property,” Brett said. “It’s a been a positive experience. The people I work with have been helpful.”

Brett’s easement – like many others in the valley – are unique habitats that are rare and in decline. They are early seral-stage habitats that require disturbance (such as prescribed fire, mowing and grazing) to maintain nature’s intricate processes that keep them healthy.

“Working with private landowners is the ONLY way we can get conservation done in the Willamette Valley," said Jarod Jebousek with the USFWS. "Incentive-based programs such as NRCS easement programs are the best way to get this work done. It’s a win-win for the landowner and for the land.”

NRCS Easements Across the Valley

Voluntary NRCS easements with private landowners have gained momentum over the years, now protecting 10,511 acres of critical wetland and forest habitats across the Willamette Valley, through individual easements with 90 landowners. The program continues to enroll new acres and engage new landowners, with renewed funding in the most recent 2018 Farm Bill.

 

NRCS Easements in the Willamette Basin by County

County                                             # of Easements                             Total Acres Protected

Benton

9

947

Clackamas

0

0

Lane

24

3,624

Linn

9

1,510

Marion

14

1,333

Multnomah

1

121

Polk

16

1,652

Washington

3

424

Yamhill

14

900

TOTAL

90

10,511

Note: Easement data includes current and former NRCS programs including the ACEP-WRE, Wetland Reserve Program, Healthy Forest Reserve Program and Emergency Watershed Protection Program.

Westbrook WRP pilingPictured: Thinning and piling on a conservation easement to improve tree health and wildlife habitat.

Milestones in Species Recovery

In February of 2015, the Oregon Chub became the first fish to be removed from the Endangered Species List due to recovery (not extinction) in U.S. history. The chub is a minnow-like fish native to the Willamette Valley.

Most recently, in March 2021, Bradshaw’s lomatium was removed from the Endangered Species List. Bradshaw’s lomatium was initially listed as endangered in 1988 with only 11 populations and less than 30,000 plants. Now, the species is flourishing with more than 24 populations and 11 million plants.

These historic milestones are directly attributable to decades of conservation work from conservation partners and private landowners. Conservation easements played a key role in both species’ recovery, by restoring and maintaining critical habitats where the chub and Bradshaw’s lomatium could thrive.

Additional species recovery may be on the horizon for plants, insects and animals. Ongoing conservation efforts continue to build momentum in the valley, focused on species such as the streaked horned lark, Fender’s blue butterfly, monarch butterfly, and more.

As conservationists, NRCS and USFWS staff are faced with an incredibly challenging yet intrinsically rewarding job to do—bringing people together, working through their differences, mobilizing funding and technical expertise, and getting work done on-the-ground. Partnerships are critical to conservation success, and as long as they continue to strengthen and build—the sky’s the limit.

Oregon ChubPictured: Oregon Chub, photo by Rick Swart, ODFW.

 

Story by Tracy Robillard
March 2021
NRCS Oregon