Make Hay While the Sun Shines, Conserve Wildlife When the Water is High

Conservation and Community Align as Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge Teams up with Local Ranchers

By: Amanda Smith, public affairs officer, USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

A large, snow capped mountain and blue sky with a grove of orange and green trees in the foreground
Photo: Fog lifting over Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Washington. The Refuge is roughly half seasonal wetlands, but also boasts spectacular aspens groves (foreground) and other forest habitats. Credit: David Patte/USFWS

What is in a name? Depending on the time of year, the lake for which Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Central Washington is named may be more of a marsh or, in very dry times, completely gone. The damp meadows, wetland, and grasses beneath the tall shadow of Mount Adams are the heartbeat of this scenic refuge. They provide habitat for a chorus of numerous geese, swans, sandhill cranes… and one very rare frog.

However, this area of Klickitat County also has a proud tradition of ranching and farming. Hayfields and farms dot the rural landscape. At first blush, the agrarian and conservation components of the area’s identity may seem to stand in contrast, but the refuge and local ranchers have worked together for years on water infrastructure projects that help both man and frog.

An old log cabin sits among dense trees and high grass
Photo: Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House near refuge headquarters is one of only a few pioneer log homes still standing in Klickitat County. In 1891, John Cole acquired the land from Stephen Whitcomb and built the main structure of the house, which included a large downstairs room that served as a kitchen, dining, sitting and family room — pretty cozy quarters for a family of seven! Credit: USFWS

“There is so much to experience out here at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge,” says Refuge Manager Trevor Sheffels. From the historic Whitcomb-Cole hewn log house and ancient archaeological sites to the rare Oregon spotted frog and the only breeding population of greater Sandhill cranes in Washington, Sheffels calls the refuge “a hidden gem with amazing diversity in terms of ecological and cultural resources.” As I continue my talk with Sheffels, I realize that there is an added gem at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge — a diamond in the rough (or the marsh, as it were) — and that is partnership.

Partnership, as I learned, is what makes both conservation and community shine at Conboy Lake.

A property map displays the Refuge and the three surrounding ranchlands
Photo: A property map of Conboy Lake NWR and the surrounding ranchland, Photo credit: USFWS

Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 6,300 acres of diverse landscape in the Glenwood Valley and is home to numerous rare and special species. These protected wildlife do not tend to pay much attention to property lines and, as a look at the project map to the left tells us, the refuge is not an island. These may be fairly obvious observations but they are important because it means that in order to ensure a connected, coordinated approach to conserving species, refuge staff and ranchers have to team up.

“Landscape level conservation doesn’t start and stop on the borders of a wildlife refuge,” says Nick George, of the Partners for Fish & Wildlife program, which works with private landowners to encourage voluntary conservation. George and Sheffels have relied on relationships with all three of the landowners around the refuge on recent projects.

“We are lucky to be surrounded by dedicated farmers who love the land and the wildlife and want to work with us.”

Photos: Oregon spotted frog eggs are typically found in a mass in the spring (left) and adult Oregon spotted frogs (Rana pretiosa) can be found on the Refuge in the summer. Credit: USFWS

This spirit of collaboration is crucial for the rare and sensitive species that call this scenic refuge home. Among the most notable is the Oregon spotted frog, a species that was federally listed as threatened in 2014. This amphibian only occupies a small fraction of its historical range in the Pacific Northwest, but may be found in marsh and wet prairie habitats on the refuge. Wet meadows are particularly important, as they provide core breeding habitat. The frogs lay their green egg masses in about six inches of water at the time they are deposited in the spring, and the eggs depend on this water to survive and mature. The refuge also hosts rare plant and birds that may be found in some of these same wet meadow complexes.

For the past two decades, Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge has been actively managing habitat for the Oregon spotted frog on its land by doing things like replacing failing water control structures, fixing spillways, and controlling vegetation. The refuge is working hard to stabilize the reproductive numbers of the Oregon spotted frog. However, “we still need help from our neighbors” Sheffels says.

“Cooperative habitat restoration and enhancement is needed between Conboy Lake and the surrounding community to recover the Oregon spotted frog population in the Glenwood Valley.”

Initially, the needs of the refuge and those of its neighbors can appear be at odds. While the refuge needed to ensure the stability of water levels on Oregon spotted frog habitat, neighboring ranchers needed the ability to manipulate water levels efficiently. The solution turned out to be a mutually beneficial infrastructure project funded by the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Through the installation of water control structures, the refuge is able to stabilize water levels in early spring, critical to frog eggs and breeding, and slow the rate of water drainage from pasture lands in late spring before tadpole metamorphosis occurs. The additional control over the water also allows ranchers to irrigate pasture land in the spring and have dry land when they need it in the summer for pasturing and haying.

A top photo showing an old drainage system before the project implementation and a bottom photo showing the newly installed structures
Photos: OK Ranch site before (photo ‘a’) and after project installation (photo ‘b’). Credit: USFWS

All three ranchers involved in this project attested to the positive impact of collaboration with refuge staff on this project. “Both sides agreed on the end result and we came together — FWS helped with the funding and labor and brought in the backhoe and I provided time and material from my property — it was great to unite in this way,” says Travis Miller of Quarter Moon Ranch. John Jorgensen of OK Ranch echoes Miller’s positive experience and adds that “it was a little extra work initially to get us all involved, but it was well worth it because now it is operating smoothly and people and wildlife throughout the community are benefiting.” Keith Kreps, co-owner of Kreps Ranch and the refuge’s third ranching neighbor, attributes the effective planning and implementation of the infrastructure project to open communication and solid relationships:

“I’ve been here a long time and over the past forty years our relationship with the Refuge has only gotten better; I give full credit to the management at Conboy for approaching us like partners and building trust.”

A series of photos showing the installation of the structure at Quarter Moon Ranch
Photo: Water control structure installation at Quarter Moon Ranch. Credit: USFWS

What’s next for Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Oregon spotted frog, and its neighbors? “Now that we have the water control structures in place, we will conduct Oregon spotted frog egg mass surveys at the project sites annually in the spring for at least the next three years,” says Sheffels. This data will be used to assess habitat as part of an index for monitoring Oregon spotted frog response. As for the surrounding ranching community, Miller says he “will be looking for more opportunities to partner with the refuge” and Kreps says he will “make hay while the sun shines and conserve wildlife when the water is high.”



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