Bees to bears: Helping wetland habitat in north Idaho keep its cool
Y2Y is transforming and restoring habitat in north Idaho to help climate sensitive wildlife adapt and thrive into the future.
What is at risk?
The Kootenai River takes a winding, transboundary journey through lands that are important to people and many different wildlife, including the Kootenai River valley of north Idaho.
Passing through a scenic valley in the Idaho Panhandle, the river flows north across the U.S. border and makes its way back into British Columbia — home to its headwaters and also its last destination where it replenishes Kootenay Lake with fresh water.
Historically, the Kootenai River valley in north Idaho was characterized by large areas of forested wetland habitat with seasonal flood cycles, where overflow from the Kootenai River created small wetland ecosystems suited for native amphibians. These flood cycles kept the lands, plants and animals that lived on them healthy and thriving.
However, after Europeans settled in this area toward the end of the 19th century, land-clearing and extensive flood control measures for agriculture and community protection dramatically changed important seasonal processes.
Although the land was restored again to wetland habitat in the 1990s, remnants of human impact on the Kootenai river valley remain, including a dammed river, unnaturally flat terrain, and invasive plants and animals.
Not only does an array of wildlife benefit, the area also sustainably supports opportunities for people to hunt, fish, birdwatch, and enjoy its natural beauty.
Today, some 250 acres (101 hectares) of the meadows of the Boundary-Smith Creek Wildlife Management Area are being restored to address local effects of climate change and help six specific species, plus many other birds and game animals, adapt to these changes.
To help these species survive and thrive in the face of a changing climate, we’re working with volunteers, Idaho state agencies, engineers, scientists and other non-profit partners to restore the landscape with the Bees to Bears climate adaptation project.
A young volunteer helps with native bee identification at one of the community events. Photo: Scott Rulander
This specific area of north Idaho was already shown to have cooler water and air temperatures compared to other parts of the state.
The project aims to enhance those natural qualities by providing extra shade and food for larger animals such as grizzly bears, creating cooler and wetter areas for native amphibians and migrating birds, and providing food sources for vital pollinators.
These changes to the landscape — creating small hills, planting trees and shrubs, and adding seasonal ponds — help cool the environment and create a climate refugia for animals, birds and insects: a place to retreat to as they deal with the impacts of a changing climate.
This work also restores a vital corridor for wildlife between the Selkirk and Purcell mountains, an important linkage at the Yellowstone-to-Yukon scale.
Restoring habitat: How Y2Y and partners are taking action
The Bees to Bears climate adaptation project clearly demonstrates how local, on-the-ground, collaborative work can result in a much larger, and positive impact for nature.
Construction at the wetland site in 2019. Photo: Scott Rulander
The completion of this multi-year, multi-partner effort will mean that we:
Re-forested by planting nearly 50,000 trees and shrubs;
Shaped and created cool air refugia;
Re-established natural flooding cycles;
Restored several constructed ponds and a historic streambed; and
Collected and sowed native seeds and wildflowers.
Thanks to this work by Y2Y, its partners and many volunteers, many species can survive and thrive.
Frogs and toads will have short-lived seasonal spring melt, or ephemeral, ponds to lay eggs; ducks and geese will forage in them during spring migration; native pollinators will have more flowering native plants for food and cooler microclimates for nesting; and grizzly bears, elk and deer will have shade to protect them from the heat, and intact habitat to keep them connected.
Of course, people and other wildlife that share space in this important region will also benefit.
“We know that functional and connected ecosystems are more resilient to climate change. It’s important to be informed and guided by the past, but also by how things will be in the future. That’s why this project combines restoration with adaptation.”
— Jessie Grossman, Landscape Connectivity Manager
To date, Y2Y and its partners have come a long way. We have:
Collected 25 gallons (98 liters) of wild seeds representing 47 different species;
Planted 100 percent of the 50,000 trees needed;
Created four seasonal ponds;
Designed and built three types of cool air refugia;
Restored almost a mile (1.2 km) of stream bed;
Planted 107 acres (43 ha.) of plants including forbs, grasses and wetland species;