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Study of wetland pastures launched on Lopez Island

Kwiáht researchers have launched a study of how different kinds of farming and livestock management affect the functioning of Lopez wetlands, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The study will compare seasonal wetlands currently used for summer pasture with wetlands that have been left undisturbed for 50 years or longer.

Kwiáht biologist Anne Harmann and Lopez students Tamira Vojnar, Lyra Dalton, Tasha Wilson and Jen Reeve will sample algae, tiny freshwater crustaceans and insects through September, and send water samples for analysis of nitrogen cycling by Kwiáht intern Hannah Snow, a student at Friday Harbor High School. Students in the Lopez Farm-to-School program will visit field stations and learn about the study as well.

Kwiáht director Russel Barsh explains that most of the island’s deep arable soils are found in shallow seasonal wetlands. Coast Salish peoples burned and cultivated these wet “prairies” for camas and native carrots, and later for potatoes. Early settlers turned Coast Salish gardens into summer pastures for sheep and cattle, or drained them for field crops such as peas. Most large seasonal wetlands are either still farmed or are overgrown with reed canary grass, introduced more than a century ago because it tolerates flooding.

“Agriculture and wetlands are inextricably linked in the islands,” Barsh says. “If local food production is to continue and prosper, we need to find ways of minimizing its environmental footprint.” He adds that local farmers generally do not use pesticides and other toxic chemicals. “The issue isn’t contamination, but the effect of animal waste and physical disturbance on nutrient balance, aquatic plants, and the food web in wetlands.”

He notes that Kwiáht and volunteer researchers on Lopez and Waldron found that juvenile Chinook salmon relied heavily on insects as a source of food during their stay in the islands last summer. “Most of those insects probably came from wetlands, including farmed wetlands, suggesting that under prudent management, local farming and salmon can probably co-exist here.”

A focal point for the project is Sweet Grass Farm, where Scott Meyers raises beef cattle in a long-farmed seasonal wetland. Besides exploring different stocking levels and field rotations, he has come up with innovative ways of managing and making use of reed canary grass. Kwiáht researchers believe that some of these practices can restore nutrient cycling and invertebrate diversity better than taking farming out of the wetland.

The American Farmland Trust has expressed its support for the study, and a hope that it will foster more interest in reconciling agriculture and wetland ecosystems. Kwiáht hopes to launch a second phase of the study on San Juan Island next year, and is looking for interested farmers.

For further information contact: Russel Barsh, RLBarsh@gmail.com Or visit Kwiáht’s website: www.kwiaht.org

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