What’s in a refuge? Management tour of Turnbull NWR

This past Saturday was the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge’s first annual Spring Nature Festival – and it was pretty awesome! There was a glass box of mounted specimens of wild bees from the area, showcased by the West Plains Beekeepers, the Northeast Chapter of the Washington Native Plants Society was there, the Ice Age Floods Institute gave guided information tours on the natural history of the area, the Audubon Society brought folks on birding trips, and Mike Rule, the refuge’s wildlife biologist, brought me and a van load of folks on a management tour.

Native Bees found at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these bees are obligate feeders of particular native wildflowers - are any of these bees suffering from the decrease in native flowers due to increasing suburbanization of this region?

Since I personally hate to be a bother and bop into Mike’s office or into his email box asking lots of questions, I took the tour as an opportunity to learn more about the different areas of the refuge that may be useful for future lichen studies. And boy did some interesting ideas sure pop up – from lichen presence in forested areas that have received burns and areas that are about to receive burns, to lichen distribution patterns in dense ponderosa pine forest versus more savanna like ponderosa pine communities. But first, lets get into a little bit of the history of the refuge, and then cover some of the restoration projects at the refuge.

History of the area: The Homesteaders

The Turnbull NWR sits in the eastern end of the Channeled Scablands – gosh I love that name, it makes this place sound really mysterious, which it is (check out the post about the Ice Age Floods talk by John Soennichsen). And the title is fitting when you consider who named it: homesteaders who were trying to eek out a way of living which was more conducive in the deep soils of the Kansas plains than the rocky terrain found out here. Our homesteaders saw the land as having been scraped up, leaving giant scabs, i.e. the columnar basalt.

The town of Cheney, back in the early 1915 - notice the old electric train on 2nd avenue that used to take commuters the 25 mile trip to downtown Spokane.

Rocky terrain does not bode well for plows, nor for putting fence posts in the ground, so its not surprising that this area was one of the last places in the state of Washington to be inhabited by the homesteaders. They came in droves on the newly built railroads back as late as the early 1900′s! And many homesteaders settled on the 16,000 acres that is now a national wildlife refuge.

“This area used to be pretty densely inhabited” Mike Rule explained as he drove a group of visitors through a non-public area of the refuge. When the refuge was established in 1937 there were 35 families on the refuge, and it took about 10 years for the refuge to purchase land from those families and make the refuge almost the same size it is today. These original land purchases came at a time when many families were looking to get out of farming there — a major drought was occurring, and the Great Depression was still wreaking major economic havoc.

The mark of an old homestead: lilac bushes. This one of over near where the squatter, Cyrus Turnbull, lived. Turnbll was one of the main providers of meat for the town of Cheney when it was first getting established.

The legacy of the homesteaders still remains on the refuge – lilac bushes and apple orchard mark the areas where homes used to be. And the wetlands themselves still retain the legacy, but it is not as obvious to an untrained eye: about 70% of the wetlands were drained, and the bottom of the wetlands made into crop and pasture land. Although the refuge managers have been working to restore these wetlands, the farms around the refuge still have their wetlands drained, and this has impacts – both ecologically for the migratory birds, and for the quality and levels of water at the refuge.

The Establishment of the Refuge: Sportsmen

A great Blue Heron flies over lower Turnbull Slough

In 1937, at the urging of sportsmen, the refuge was established. The landscape had changed so dramatically due to the homesteaders, and migratory bird patterns and presence were so impacted that wildfowl hunters were called into action and they urged the federal government to grant money for land purchases. This is not an uncommon history, sportsmen are responsible for forming many of our national wildlife refuges, including the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island. You can see a list of sportsmen and sportswomen and how they’ve contributed to saving the places that our wildlife friends call home, here.

No narrative accounts describing the refuge’s per-settlement landscape

“if we had interviews with folks describing what the landscape here used to be like, that’d be extremely helpful for what we’re doing” said Mike Rule when I asked him about historical narratives from the old homesteaders. “But as far as I know, there’s none that describe the land.”

The forest encroaching on the mima mounds located between upper and lower Turnbull Slough

And this loss of history is sad, because for the past month I keep looking at the mima mounds that seemingly are almost everywhere – from the BLM land surrounding Hog Canyon, to the east and west side of the refuge – and I keep wondering what those mounds were like before the homesteaders with their cattle grazing pushed the soil around. Perhaps the mounds were as distinct as the ones out near Olympia. But there’s evidence showing that the mounds were never as distinct, even before the settlers. Although some mounds were flattened for farming, the main impact on the mounds from grazing were the invasion of non-native plants. The mima mounds in the Puget Sound area suggest the possibility that aboriginal fire may have played a role in maintaining the mima mound prairie here, too, but this idea remains unsubstantiated beyond a few suggestions, such as the gradual disappearance of mima mounds into the forest.

Today, you can see the forest slowly eating the mounds here, mounds trapped in the forest, as is happening in the Mima Mounds National Area Preserve near Olympia, Washington. But the Olympia Mima Mounds were preserved from the encroaching forest by periodic fires set by the indigenous Salish tribes. It seems to me that similar kind of actions may have kept the prairie mounds here in Eastern Washington free of forest — and that the cessation of those prairie fires may be the cause of the encroaching ponderosa pine forest. But Rex Daubenmire, a professor Washington State University, has said that there’s little chance there was aboriginal fires here, so for now the case remains closed.

Restoration Projects on the Refuge

Its amazing how much we humans have changed our landscapes, but it’s also heartening to see that we can also restore the landscape to function somewhat similarly as it had in the past. And the managers at Turnbull are doing just that.

The roots of an upturned ponderosa pine show how shallow the soil is here at the refuge due to the thick basalt bedrock. Because these roots don't have a tap root and are so close to the surface, hot fires can cause the death of old growth trees, more frequent light fires are needed to protect the older growth communities.

The wetlands have been plugged, and the migratory bird populations have increased. In lower Turnbull Slough there are 29 heron nests and 12 cormorant nests. Although there are some issues of invasive species, including invasive plants like Cheat Grass and Reed Canary grass, and invasive fish including Pumpkin Seed and Brook Stickleback, the restoration of the wetlands continues to be a successful process.

“We’ve got a good handle on the wetlands,” said Mike Rule as he drove through the ponderosa pine forest. He explained that the forest restoration has been more tricky, ”The forest though, we still have a lot of work left on it.” but forest restoration is also a more recent goal, as the paradigm of forestry has changed quite dramatically over the past few decades.

These aspen would not be here if it wasn't for the fencing around them -- elk and beavers are stalling the restoration of aspen communities at the refuge.

Mike Rule and many other foresters and ecologists conclude that the dense, single aged stands of ponderosa Pine that dominate the refuge are a legacy of the homesteader’s logging activities, not a natural composition pattern of the native forest. Rule believes that the forest in this area was more of a ponderosa pine savanna, with meadow grasses in between clumps of ponderosa pines. And periodic fires played a role in minimizing the amount of pine duff (thusly allowing for more soil crust lichen to fix nitrogen :) ), helping the aspen stands regenerate, and burning out the young pine saplings so that more forbs and grasses for wildlife could flourish. A more open canopy would also allow for increased snowmelt in the winter, allowing wildlife more access to undercanopy growth.

As the refuge is reinstating the fire regimes, they have been keeping a close watch on the response of the forest creatures, including birds and rodents.

Forest restoration monitoring began in 1999, and so far there’s evidence that the restoration process has been successful: there’s been an increase in chipping sparrows and western bluebirds, both are indicators of a healthy forest ecosystem in our bioregion. Naturally, lichens would be great indicators as well, as lichens are considered among the best bioindicators of ecosystem health.

… Sites that would be interesting for lichen monitoring include:

1) N47.24-283 W117.34-616 : Left side of road in non-commercial thinning, right side of road commercial thinning in 2002, fire in 2009-2010. Logging used feller buncher, a three-wheel vehicle that cuts trees and puts them in basket reducing dragging and minimizing ground impact. Logging occurs when ground is frozen, or just slightly moist (which is smart because cryptogamic soil crusts have more cell damage when compacted if they dry than when they are slightly moist.

A management burn in a ponderosa pine community, burn happened just over a week ago at the beginning of May.

2) N47.24-156 W117.34-974 : Left side of road will be burnt in fall – would be interesting to see succession of lichen species,diversity and abundance pre to post-fire.

3) N47.23-785 W117.36-307 : Forest here was burned just a bit over a week ago, would add to understanding of lichen succession post-fire.

4) Head west on Salnave road to the area where there was a fire storm in 1991: here there are aspen stands have been regenerating very successfully, while on the refuge aspen stands are struggling due to elk – which is unfortunate because aspen stands have some of the most diversity in terms of bird population associations.

5) N47.24-290 W117.36-436 :Wetland restoration, increase in microclimate humidity as shown by lichen succession or changes in diversity and abundance?

2 thoughts on “What’s in a refuge? Management tour of Turnbull NWR

  1. This is fascinating. I love this landscape in the region where I grew up and I am eager to learn more about its ecology. Thanks for writing, I am subscribing to this blog right now!

  2. Thanks Mariah :) I agree – the Channelled Scablands are awe-some. Everyday I fall more in love with the landscape. Glad you like the blog!
    All the best to you ~Nastassja

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