COCOLALLA — The number of monarch butterflies has significantly decreased in recent years.
“Three years ago, the population estimate in California was 200,000,” Bill Ament, retired Idaho Fish and Game fisheries biologist, told Southside Elementary fifth graders on Thursday. “This last winter, they estimated there was only 30,000. Since the 1980s, the numbers have dropped 99 percent.”
Ament has been introducing milkweed to the wetland restoration site at the south end of Cocolalla Lake in an effort to attract monarch butterflies migrating to and from California. He also tags the butterflies for tracking and identification. The butterflies migrating to California, however, will never see this area again, Ament told the kids.
“They are going to take three to four generations to make it all the way back up here,” he said.
Thursday marked the third annual wetland exploration for Southside’s second-, third- and fifth-grade students, where the kids learn about the restoration efforts happening just across the highway from their school. Some of the kids, such as fifth graders Aspen Ames and Aiden Evans, were returning students as they had been in third grade the first year of the field trip.
“The first year was just kind of a general walk around, teaching kids about wetlands … but now we have more identified stations,” Miles Benker, wildlife habitat biologist with Idaho Fish and Game.
Both Aspen and Aiden said they remember the walk the most, pointing out some of the things that had changed since 2017 as they strolled along behind Benker on Thursday, who detailed some of the vegetation and restoration efforts on the land. Aspen said she also remembered the milkweed station being where the invertebrate station was this year. Also the first year, Ament did not have any live butterflies, a caterpillar or chrysalis as he did this time.
The educational experience for Southside students started through a partnership between IDFG and the Cocolalla Lake Association, and Lake Pend Oreille School District Trustee Gary Suppiger helped coordinate the program with the school as well.
“The people at Fish and Game have really gotten excited about this,” said Fred Vincent with the Cocolalla Lake Association. “They are excited, the school is excited … and the teachers have done a lot to build this into a curriculum, so it’s a good thing.”
One of the biggest hits with the kids was the invertebrate station, which was not part of the 2017 program. While the kids were at the station, the crew from IDFG pulled a sampling of water, weeds and mud straight from one of the man-made wetland cells, placing it in a plastic tub for the kids to look through. The kids found a few different bugs, though tadpoles had the largest population of the living creatures pulled from the cell. The also learned about the food chain, and how primary consumers eat things like plants, secondary consumers eat the primary consumers, and tertiary consumers eat the secondary consumers.
Restoration efforts of the wetlands at the south end of the lake began in 2015. Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Bonneville Power Administration, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Cocolalla Lake Association, Ducks Unlimited and the Natural Resources Conservation Service all had a hand in the restoration project.
The lake surface is 805 acres, and the overall watershed surrounding the lake is approximately 41,000 acres divided into five smaller watersheds — Cocolalla, Fish, Butler, Westmond and Johnson creeks. Benker said the restoration project covers about 200 acres.
One step in the restoration project was to incorporate man-made wetlands, which were engineered to mimic natural wetlands, Benker said. The area includes five wetland cells, the largest of which, at about two acres, has a water-control structure that allows IDFG officials to actively manage the water level, Benker said. They are all shallow-water wetlands, he said, no more than three feet deep.
Repairing the Fish Creek channel was a priority of the project as well. Because the area had been used for farming at one time, the creek was straightened over time to direct the water away from the fields. That caused it to head toward a ditch alongside the railroad and back to Cocolalla Lake.
“That’s not good for water quality,” Benker said, adding that it picked up sediment and contaminates from the railroad. “So we want to just capture that water coming in from Fish Creek and spread it over our 200 acres here as best we can.”
To help keep the water going the proper direction, Benker said they took trees from the property that were dead or dying and linked them across the ground as a natural barrier. They also used straw bales as a secondary barrier.
Two years ago, during Southside Elementary’s first educational field trip to the wetlands, Benker said IDFG was actively managing between six and seven acres of the invasive reed canary grass. Since then, he said, they have converted it to a native mix, and have been working on food plots for big game such as deer and elk.
Wildlife and wildlife habitat are the primary reason for the acquisition of the property. However, the restoration efforts have had a significant impact on the quality of the lake as well.
“This year, we had the clearest water since we have been monitoring in the ‘80s,” Vincent said. “... This has been a great partnership, and thanks to Miles we have been able to now spread this into a community education process.”
The wetlands restoration area is open for the public to enjoy for nature walks, hunting and fishing, though it is important to heed the rules. No motor vehicles are allowed in, no camping and “pack it in, pack it out.”
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.