Restoring habitat

A habitat restoration project at the Wakanet Wildlife Area aims to bring more western meadowlark, Oregon's state bird, to the area.<br><I>Photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Last week the Oregon 150 Project announced funding to help Oregon's symbolic species, which include the state bird, the western meadowlark. One of those grants is going to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Wanaket Wildlife Area to restore native grasslands for better meadowlark habitat.

The CTUIR manages the Wanaket Wildlife Area near Highway 730, between McNary and Hat Rock State Park, two miles east of the junction of Highways 395 and 730. The area includes 2,700 acres of upland, wetland and aquatic habitats.

Wanaket Wildlife Area Manager Jenny Barnett said this specific project will aim to replace 50 acres of cheatgrass (an annual invasive grass) with native bunch grasses. She said there are western meadowlarks on the Wanaket area, often more than in the surrounding farmland.

"But we can make the habitat even better if we reestablish some native plants, some native grasslands out there," she said. "Meadowlarks need a diverse plant community and a different type of plant structure than cheatgrass provides."

Cheatgrass, Barnett explained, tends to cover all of an area, leaving no spaces in between. Native grasses, on the other hand, grow in bunches, leaving spaces between.

The meadowlarks build their nests on the ground and Barnett said the nests are better protected if there is grass to hang over the nest and the sitting meadowlark. That's the kind of shelter native grasses can provide, but cheatgrass can't.

A diversity of grasses - rather than only cheatgrass dominating the acreage - also will foster a diversity of insects the meadowlarks can use to feed themselves and their young.

"It just makes for a better habitat all around," Barnett said.

Abolishing the cheatgrass and establishing the native grasses will take nearly a year.

"Reducing cheatgrass is fairly challenging," Barnett said.

This winter, Wanaket project staff and subcontractors will clear old grass from the site so when the cheatgrass germinates and begins to grow early in the spring, staff can spray it with herbicides.

Over next summer, the land will fallow.

Then next fall, staff will plant native seeds on the cleared land. The following spring, they will see if the seeding was successful.

"Once we get some native grasslands established, that will help the site recover," Barnett said. "And hopefully over time it will let the grass come back."

Barnett said she chose to complete the project in this order because, for example, if she chose to plant the seeds now and sprayed herbicide in the spring, there's a good chance the herbicide would hurt the native plants as well as the cheatgrass.

This strategy is one of several Barnett said she is trying on the area and through study she hopes to find which one will work best for the wildlife refuge.

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