The Conservation Column

By Pepper Trail

Well. Crazy world, right? At the end of February, I returned to the U.S. from a two-week voyage through the Seychelles Islands, with highlights including the incredible giant tortoises of Aldabra Atoll and such unique birds as the Seychelles Blue-Pigeon and the Black Parrot. Little did I know that soon almost the entire globe – including Jackson County – would be paralyzed by the coronavirus.

At times like these, birds give us blessed respite. The freedom of birds is inspiring when we’re told to spend so much time indoors. And it’s easy to maintain six-foot separations while birding! Open space is living space for birds – and breathing space for people.

Imperatrice Lockdown
On March 6, RVAS member Vince Zauskey set out to enjoy some birding on the open spaces of the beautiful Imperatrice grassland. For the past several years, birders, hikers, wildflower lovers, and photographers have made respectful use of this city-owned property across I-5 from Ashland. But Vince found the public access gate was locked. A call to the Ashland Department of Public Works revealed that the Imperatrice has been leased to a non-profit called the Land Manatee Foundation (LMF). The intended use of the property by LMF is stated to be “for purposes of operating a restorative and regenerative ranch for cattle and horses.”

The Imperatrice is far more than just scenic open space. In 2014, the largest nesting colony of Grasshopper Sparrows known in western Oregon was discovered on the property by Frank Lospalluto. The Grasshopper Sparrow is identified as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and is in steep decline throughout its range. RVAS paid for formal Grasshopper Sparrow surveys in 2016 (conducted by Frank), resulting in a report by the Klamath Bird Observatory. This documented the presence of 32 singing males on the Imperatrice.

Informal botanical surveys by Kristi Mergentaler of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy (SOLC) also discovered the presence of two rare plants on the Imperatrice, California macrophylla and Ranunculus austrooreganus. These were further documented by the “Biological Assessment, Imperatrice Property, City of Ashland, Oregon,” prepared by Pacific Crest Consulting in 2017, which also confirmed the continued health of the Grasshopper Sparrow population.

Although we now know that the Imperatrice lease was granted following a Request for Proposals (RFP) on the city website, we are dismayed that RVAS was not alerted to this proposed drastic change in the status of the Imperatrice, given our demonstrated interest in the property.

We have two primary concerns: public access and the extent and intensity of grazing.

Public Access. Many local residents have become accustomed to hiking, birding, and observing wildflowers and pollinators in the Imperatrice, which is the only expansive grassland area open to the public in the Rogue Valley. We are disappointed that continued public access to the area above the ditch was not made a condition of the lease and would have strongly advocated for that if we had been made aware of the RFP. We hope that access can be re-opened by discussions between the City of Ashland and the Land Manatee Foundation. At minimum, we request that limited access be allowed for scheduled public field trips organized and led by RVAS and SOLC and similar community groups.

Extent and Intensity of Grazing. We are not necessarily opposed to grazing on the Imperatrice. The irrigated area below the TID ditch has a recent history of grazing, and we do not object to a continuation of grazing in this portion – which is the part of the property currently “specifically available” for grazing under the terms of the lease.

We are, however, very concerned about the possibility of grazing being extended above the ditch, as could be allowed by the lease if “appropriate fencing is provided along the canal.” We note that the area potentially subject to grazing above the canal includes the locations of more than half the singing Grasshopper Sparrows documented in the 2016 KBO surveys, and most of the rare plant occurrences.

From the documents available on the City of Ashland’s website, it is not clear how many cows and horses will be grazed on the property, or when they will be placed on the land and when they will be removed.
Given the issues identified above, we strongly urge that grazing on the Imperatrice property during 2020 be limited to the area below the TID ditch. Grasshopper Sparrows will be arriving in the Rogue Valley in the second half of April, and establishing territories by early May. Grazing during the nesting period would obviously be highly disruptive for this ground-nesting species. During this first year of the lease, consultation among the City of Ashland, the Land Manatee Foundation, and qualified botanists and ecologists should be conducted to develop a detailed grazing management plan that would meet the LMF’s stated goal of “providing ecological support and ensuring biodiversity.” We have offered to help with this process, and the initial response from the City has been encouraging.

We will keep you informed on developments regarding this important local conservation issue. For a link to the letter jointly submitted to the City of Ashland by RVAS and the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, click here.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) Update
The Audubon Society of Portland submitted comments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on the proposed changes to the MBTA, one of the country’s oldest environmental laws. The letter represents 11 Oregon Audubon chapters, including RVAS.

For more than a century, the USFWS has had the ability to prosecute industries which harm wild birds through their activities. It is this ability that has allowed the USFWS to force utilities to retrofit power lines to prevent the electrocution of eagles and other raptors, to address toxic chemicals that poison birds, and to go after oil companies for oil spills that kill wild birds. Now, the Trump Administration has proposed new regulations which would eliminate the agency’s ability to protect wild birds from incidental take. Under the new rule, these companies could kill wild birds with indifference and impunity. Decades of effort to reduce industrial threats to birds would be reversed and emerging threats would not be addressed.

The comment deadline was March 19. We will be keeping our members informed on this important issue. In the meantime, read the comment letter here.