Charisma on the Wing

By Molly Absolon
From Black-Capped Chickadees to great Blue Herons (right) to mountain bluebirds, the valley teems with bird life. Photo by Cody Downard.

Along the edge of the Teton River, a pair of trumpeter swans glide downstream. They move without visible effort, their long white necks arced in a graceful curve, no doubt oblivious to their connection to conservation in eastern Idaho.  

In the early 1900s trumpeter swans were thought to be extinct. Large, slow moving, and brilliantly white, they were easy targets for hunters who sought their meat for food, their skin for women’s powder puffs, and their feathers for quills. Then, in 1932, sixty-nine of the birds were identified at Red Rock Lakes in southwest Montana. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s blessing, the land there was set aside to protect the birds and other wildlife, and a national campaign to conserve the trumpeter began. Now, thanks to continuing habitat-protection and -restoration efforts, the North American trumpeter swan population is stable. 

Part of that effort is taking place in Teton Valley, one of Greater Yellowstone’s primary wintering grounds for trumpeter swans. Sandhill cranes, owls, hawks, shorebirds, waterfowl, eagles, and songbirds also use the valley, making this place important habitat for a broad range of species. That importance was codified in 2003 when an effort spearheaded by Teton Regional Land Trust (TRLT) succeeded in getting Teton Basin named an Important Bird Area. 

Photo by Cody Downard.

Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are part of a global initiative by BirdLife International, Audubon, and local partners aimed at conserving areas around the world that are vital to birds. There are 1,930 state IBAs in the U.S., totaling more than sixty-seven million acres. The Teton Basin IBA encompasses 194,886 acres. (It spans the Idaho-Wyoming border, and at the Audubon IBA website you’ll find it listed only under the latter state.)

IBAs simply recognize an area’s importance, and do not include any rules or regulations to protect the designation. What is done in an IBA depends on local land managers, residents, and land trusts and other conservationists.

“Some of the most productive lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are low-elevation private lands like we have here in Teton Valley,” says Rob Cavallaro. Regional biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Cavallaro worked for TRLT when it applied for the IBA designation. “A lot of the protected lands around here are high elevation. There is a physical limit to their productivity. They are cold and snowy half the year. It’s the valleys surrounding the high country that support our wildlife populations.”

The valley’s mosaic of habitat types is vital to that support.

“There are 26,000 acres of wetlands in Teton Valley,” says Michael Whitfield. He was the executive director of TRLT for seventeen years and, with Cavallaro, one of those responsible for securing the IBA designation. “We also have spring-fed creeks that are warm and stay open all winter. We have edges—where aspens and shrubs grow—and cottonwoods along the creeks that are really important to songbirds and birds of prey.”

Photo by Cody Downard.

In addition, Cavallaro says, biologists now realize how vital agricultural lands are for many birds, including trumpeters, which “loaf” (that’s a technical term) in the stubble in winter to rest and conserve energy.

“People sometimes take this place for granted,” Whitfield says. “We get used to seeing trumpeter swans and cranes around. We don’t realize that’s not the case everywhere. We live in a pretty special place.”

Wintering trumpeter swans are just one of the reasons Teton Valley is special. Whitfield says in the spring you can watch long-billed curlews perform elaborate mating dances out in the barley-field stubble. In the fall, hundreds of sandhill cranes congregate in those same fields, in preparation for their annual migration to New Mexico. You can hear their prehistoric-sounding cries rattling from the farm fields in the early morning calm. A number of owl species live in the valley, including the largest of them all, the elusive great gray owl. Raptors hunt from the cottonwood tops and thousands of ducks stop over along the Teton River during their journeys north and south. In fact, Whitfield says, you’ll see and hear something going on in the bird world the year around if you pay attention.

“The Important Bird Area designation draws attention to what we have,” says Susan Patla, nongame biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish. Patla, who lives in Teton Valley, launched the local Christmas Bird Count project in 1994.

Attention can mean funding. Cavallaro says the IBA designation is a powerful leveraging tool for conservationists trying to secure money and support for habitat protection. We don’t have a lot of big game in Teton Valley, he says, but we do have birds—and birding is big business. Roughly 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as birders. Most birders are over fifty, well educated, and have money to spend on their hobby.  

Those who watch birds are not the only contributors to bird conservation. Hunters also provide a vital source of funding for wetland protection. In 1934, President Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which required all bird hunters to purchase a conservation stamp with their hunting license. Since then, roughly $800 million has gone into the fund, protecting more than 5.7 million acres of habitat. 

But the dollars raised by the duck stamp program are spent exclusively on public lands. In Teton Valley, most of the important bird habitat is privately owned. To protect these places, conservationists must find ways to work with landowners. 

“Funding conservation is often driven by charismatic species,” says Joselin Matkins, the current executive director of TRLT. “Waterbirds enable us to access funding. The land trust has protected 11,000 acres in Teton Valley, most of which is along the river corridor or in wetlands. We’ve worked with willing landowners in a non-regulatory framework to do that.”

So, charismatic birds attract dollars to fund conservation, and conservation helps ensure the birds have a haven to return to year after year. A win-win situation for the winged things and for the humans who enjoy their company. 

Plotting for the Future

Teton Valley hosts the largest population of pre-migration staging sandhill cranes in the Greater Yellowstone region. Sandhill cranes rely on the close alignment of cultivated grain and wetland roost sites found in Teton Valley to efficiently bulk up prior to migration. To secure cultivated grain foraging resources for sandhill cranes in the valley, Teton Regional Land Trust (TRLT) is working with local farmers and partners—including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—to manage a portion of agricultural land for forage for the birds. Through compensating willing landowners in key foraging areas, TRLT is facilitating the existence of sandhill crane food plots, which consist of cultivated grain that is knocked down to stubble but not harvested. TRLT has facilitated an average of forty acres of grain food plots per year since the initiative started in 2014, and the plots have seen significant use by the cranes. The food plots are also utilized by a wide variety of other birds and wildlife, including trumpeter swans, northern pintails, sharp-tailed grouse, white-tailed deer, and many other species. In addition to the food plot initiative, TRLT is working to encourage grain producers to delay tilling of their grain stubble, as leftover grain provides ample foraging resources for wildlife until it is tilled. In fact, grain stubble that remains standing until the following spring will continue to provide significant forage resources for resident and migrating wildlife.

– Joselin Matkins, executive director, Teton Regional Land Trust