The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve is considered one of the "finest examples left of bunch grass prairies in the United States," according to Phil Shephard, director of the preserve which has been owned by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy since the fall of 2000. "It's a big bunch of summer pasture and also an amazing piece of prairie."
The prairie has been used for livestock grazing since the early days of county settlement and that use continues under Conservancy stewardship, which also includes limited opportunities for hunting.
The 26,920 acres owned by the Conservancy - part of the 200 square miles in the entire Zumwalt Prairie ecosystem - is also part of extensive wildlife habitat that consists of a combination of prairie, canyons and forestland. Wildlife that makes its home on the preserve includes elk, mule deer, cougar, bear, chuckar, coyotes, badgers, porcupines, ground squirrels, owls, eagles and very large summer population of nesting hawks, the ferruginous and Swainson's hawk.
The symbiotic relationship among squirrels, hawks and cattle in the Zumwalt area was made famous by a 1995 "The Prairie Keepers" by biologist Marcy Houle.
Shephard has nothing but praise for the local cattle ranchers who have kept the Zumwalt Prairie pretty much intact during the past 100-plus years, using rotation plans and other conservation methods. There is currently a cattle lease on the property, and cattle grazing is part of the preserve's management plan.
"They (cattle ranchers) have certain goals and we have certain goals - weight gains versus biodiversity - but they're not mutually exclusive," said Shephard, who has worked on four Nature Conservancy preserves, all of which allow cattle grazing. "We're looking at long-range research opportunities." Since the Conservancy, supported by donations and
grants, is not dependent on economic returns from the land, he said "we're
allowed to experiment, take more risks."
As part of being a good neighbor in Wallowa County, Nature Conservancy pays property taxes, though as a nonprofit organization it is not required to do so by law; has an aggressive weed control program and has an advisory board made up of local people.
Shephard said he is very conscious of being a a newcomer on the local scene, he is very interested in county history and listening to residents whose roots here sometimes date back four generations.
As part of its management plan, working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and also as part of being a good neighbor, the Nature Conservancy allows limited deer and elk hunting on its land, by permission only.
"What we did last year was to allow Wallowa County residents from three groups, senior citizens, first time women hunters and first time youth hunters, to hunt on our property," said Shephard. He said that seven people from these groups asked and were given permission to hunt on the preserve. If there had been requests from disabled hunters, permission would also have been granted.
Shephard said that since the Conservancy property is located in the Chesnimnus Unit, hunters must first have first to have a deer or elk tag from that unit to hunt. Shephard said he expected that permission to hunt on the private property will again be given to the same cross-section of local residents.
So does anyone outside these privileged groups, say Joe Hunter from Portland, have any opportunity to hunt on the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve?
Well, there is one way, and it not only offers a chance for some good hunting in a unique ecosystem, but a chance to help out local causes in economically depressed Wallowa County.
Each year the Nature Conservancy receives four landowner preference tags, to hunt two bull elk and two buck deer.
This year the Conservancy gave away three of the tags (the fourth will be unused) to benefit worthy causes, allowing different organizations to auction off the tags. In this way, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has a national membership, sold one bull tag for $6,900; the Enterprise and Joseph FFA chapters auctioned off the other for between
$3,000 and $4,000; and the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce Leadership
Group raised just over $3,000 for a buck hunting privileges to help pay for a commercial kitchen at Cloverleaf Hall on the fairgrounds.
Shephard is now looking for four organizations or civic groups to donate its landowner prefer-ence The requirements is that the causes Continued on would benefit have broad community appeal and that the organizations have effective fundraising methods.
Anyone interested in asking permission to hunt on the Zumwalt preserve, in being considered as a beneficiary of one of the landowner tags or in finding out how to get a chance to bid on one of those take is asked to call the Nature Conservancy's Northeast Oregon office in Enterprise, 426-3458.