If you venture out toward Enterprise in Oregon’s stunning northeastern corner, you’ll find a little-known gem of natural beauty. But you’ve got to travel far into the countryside,
beyond the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains, past fields of stacked hay, tractors tucked into red barns, and farmyards sheltered by old apple trees. Keep going until the pavement turns to gravel.
You’re now in the Zumwalt Prairie, the most extensive swath of native bunchgrass prairie in North America and a haven for birds of prey. Spalding’s catchfly, a wildflower that is federally listed as threatened, blooms here; and Snake River steelhead, also threatened, spawn in the prairie’s streams. About 50 species of butterflies flitter about, and elk, mule deer, and bobcats find shelter in the rolling fields and wooded slopes. And, cattle graze here.
The prairie, most of which has been used as summer pasture for cattle since the 19th century, is a living laboratory for Oregon State University and The Nature Conservancy. The latter bought 33,000 acres of the more than 200,000-acre plateau to protect and restore natural habitats. The two organizations are working together to study the impact of cattle grazing on plants, insects, soil, and ground-nesting birds to discover how production agriculture and conservation can coexist.
The researchers will have most of the studies complete by the end of 2009. They will make the findings available to ranchers in the region to help them evaluate the sustainability of their operations.
Here’s a look at some of the research they’re doing.
Watch OSU ecologist Pat Kennedy as she traces the complex interconnections of life on the Zumwalt Prairie on Oregon Field Guide.