Living the wildlife: Programs help local landowner create inviting habitat for wild animals near the city

If you talk to Dan West about his land, you’re likely to get an earful.

He’s particular about his few dozen acres and has a vision for what it’s going to become.

“There’s a reason we don’t put cement on every gosh dang square mile in Idaho Falls,” West, a retired Naval officer said. “We need to keep indigenous plants going and the local animals — they need a place too.”

West, who lives on the flat land west of the Comore Loma and Blackhawk Estates area in Ammon, is following the examples of neighbors and planting several acres of vegetation just for wildlife.

One neighbor in particular, Jared Finn, is a habitat director for the local Pheasants Forever chapter. Finn has 90 acres of land adjacent to West’s property and several years ago planted much of it in trees and shrubs that would attract wildlife, in particular deer and pheasants.

Recently, a group of volunteers, Finn included, were on hands and knees busy digging holes and planting chokecherries, white spruce trees and red osier dogwood.

“(Red osier) has a white berry that pheasant like and deer munch on,” Finn said as he pushed the roots into the ground and pushed soil over it. “That’s my land over there,” he said pointing to rows of trees and bushes. “There’s about 100 deer there right now.”

Finn was joined by eight other volunteers who were busy planting about 1,500 trees and shrubs on West’s property. The dogwood bushes, chokecherries and trees were placed in a certain order to eventually create an attractive habitat, natural food plots for wildlife and a wind barrier to keep soil in place. The specific combination of plants provide food and nesting opportunities for wildlife.

“Habitat’s messy,” Finn said. “It will be like a fun land for wildlife when it grows in.”

New plants need water. To accommodate the several acres of new trees and shrubs, West recently installed about $25,000 in irrigation with the help of Finn and other Pheasant Forever volunteers. West said the arrangement also is done with the help of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game through its Habitat Improvement Projects and the National Resources Conservation Service, a federal program. The programs help get much of the equipment at a discount and cover some costs.

“We’ve worked with Pheasants Forever a lot. They’re a good group,” said James Brower, a communications manager with Fish and Game. “If they want to make their land more wildlife friendly, then we have monies available for them to do that. We do it fairly strategically. We’re looking for bigger projects on larger pieces of ground and those that are adjacent to other projects and lands that are also good for wildlife.”

West said besides planting, installing all the irrigation equipment was a big task. Finn’s expertise and experience guided the operation.

“Water is king in this area,” Finn said. “If you don’t have water, you don’t grow a whole lot. Most of our projects we have a partnership with Rain For Rent where they give us a discounted rate for all the products and service they do.”

Finn said Pheasants Forever signs a contract with the landowner offering financial help and expertise. The landowner commits to take care of things and manage the property to promote wildlife. Should the landowner break the contract, they have to reimburse the funds.

“The first thing we do is vetting the landowner to make sure they are engaged and in it for the long haul,” Finn said. “We are very critical and concerned about how the money is spent and where it goes. Dan is fully invested so that’s the main thing.”

Finn said he tries to find areas that have maybe 80 percent of what they need so it’s a quick turnaround. “We try not to find a bare field that has nothing to offer, it takes so much to build habitat.”

Last week, West drove some visitors along 15 acres he recently purchased and added to his property next to Crowley Road.

“Developers were going to put 100 homes in here,” he said waving his arm at the land. “I’m going to put 600 trees in here and leave that section in alfalfa.”

Finn said several properties in his neighborhood have joined in the program, about 1,000 acres in total.

“We have 200 to 300 deer that winter down here,” Finn said. “They just work their way down through Comore Loma and Blackhawk and end up at my place and Dan’s place and others down here.”

Brower said that historically, much of the area was deer and elk habitat.

“There’s a small deer herd that resides right there and they’re there for a good portion of the year,” he said. “Idaho Falls sits right where there used to be a large winter range for deer and elk. This is where they want to be, especially when the snow gets deep.”

West said he wants to be a part of making it inviting for wildlife. Next to his home is a tiny pond with a few wild ducks and geese.

West said he isn’t from Idaho, but has family ties here.

“My grandmother was born in Bone and went to that little school up there,” he said. “I just retired from the military, 32 years in the Navy. We took a vacation out here in Idaho and ended up buying this beautiful property 16 years ago with every intention of becoming local ranchers. I retired at the end of 2019, and we have just been going to town. This was our first full year here. I think it’s important to champion the people who are keeping their soil green.”

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