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The Good Place: A society to match the scenery (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and neighboring)


Homesteading Ninepipe
   Refuge dreams


New homesites have popped up all around the Ninepipe refuge, south of Polson. The refuge is part of a prairie ecosystem that starts east of the Mission Mountain Wilderness buffer zone and extends west to the Moiese Hills. The area is visited by a diverse array of threatened or endangered species:  bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and trumpeter swans. As many as 136 species of neotropical birds use the area, including twelve that use the land as a breeding site.

Other birds and animals I’ve seen there include osprey, long-billed curlew, avocet, black-necked stilt, short-eared owl, burrowing owl, canvasback, mountain bluebird, and river otter. The place has high densities of breeding redheads and other waterfowl. In 1991, almost five breeding pairs per wetland acre were found. This makes the area a significant part of our continent’s wetlands heritage. 

Though the land where houses at Ninepipe are being built is privately owned, the complex ecosystem of water, plants, birds and animals is a shared resource, larger than the holdings of any one individual. It’s a checkerboard ownership pattern: federal refuge land, state land, tribal land and private lots.

Housing development threatens ground nesting birds in several ways. Once they select a nest site, the birds are committed for four weeks. Pets become a sizeable problem. While the refuge staff was banding ducks some years ago, dogs got into the traps two of the four days they were working.  One dog killed twenty-eight birds in a single incident, including a brood of canvasback, which was the only brood known to have nested at Ninepipe.

Other threats are less obvious. Home owners usually plant trees. In open areas like Ninepipe, shelter belts are popular. People are accustomed to thinking of trees as “good” for the environment, because they provide cover for many animals. But Ninepipe is a prairie ecosystem. With shelterbelts a predators not common on prairies becomes more plentiful. Some owls and hawks are nonprairie predators. All of them are destructive of nesting birds.

And as people build rock piles, sheds and culverts, another predator also thrives: skunks. Skunks are notorious nest raiders. Human changes to the environment have led to many more skunks than would be found in a natural setting, and this led to sharp declines in the rates of nest success.

Housing development also tends to reduce coyote populations, which would allows the numbers of red foxes to increase. Red foxes are nest stealers, who not only eat eggs, but cache them.  A refuge manager told me that he once watched an Arctic fox in Alaska cache 200 eggs in a single day. 

Another common human change that may seem inconsequential is the installation of fences. At least five varieties of birds found at Ninepipe characteristically fly four feet off the ground: blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green winged teal, short-eared owl, and northern harrier. As the number of fences increase, so do the number of birds tangled and killed in them.

I sometimes think that the constant building private ranchettes is related to a larger disillusionment with the world we’ve made.  More and more people seem to be fleeing, dreaming maybe of private refuge.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey

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