Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at http://www.HabHero.com.

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website, www.HabHero.org, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at www.BrownPaperTickets.org, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

Book review: “Mariposa Road,” by Robert Michael Pyle

Mariposa Road book

Mariposa Road by Robert Michael Pyle

Published April 4, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A year in search of Butterflies: Butterfly “Big Year” captures the heart of one man’s passion.”

2014 Update: The Xerces Society is a good source of butterfly information, http://www.xerces.org, as well as other invertebrates.

By Barb Gorges

Mariposa Road, The First Butterfly Big Year, by Robert Michael Pyle, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 558 pages, $27.

Competitive birders will attempt a Big Year, but in 2008, Bob Pyle was the first to see how many butterfly species can be counted by one person in one year in the U.S. and he reports his results in “Mariposa Road.”

Bob is a writer, naturalist and lepidopterist who has authored several butterfly field guides and who, since the 1960s, has cultivated a shrewd knowledge of butterflies, their favorite plants, and people who know where to find both, and when.

He traveled on a shoestring, often camping along the roadside in his 1982 Honda Civic hatchback, affectionately named Powdermilk.

Bob has affectionate names for his favorite butterfly nets, too, Marsha and Akito, and has an endless supply of affection for every butterfly and butterfly lover he’s ever met.

Every sentence sparkles with optimism like a Florida purplewing bouncing across a swampy hammock. Every foray into the field holds hope for rarities and beauty, even if experience would point out the chiggers and thorns. There is always a refreshing mug of beer on tap afterward, or dinner with friends.

Bob did make it to Wyoming for a couple pages, mostly reminiscing about Karolis Bagdonas and his Flying Circus, a band of students that “careened around the Rockies doing butterfly counts and sampling little-known habitats, subsisting on Hamm’s and trout….” I remember hearing about them over 30 years ago.

Bob’s goal was to see 500 of the 800 known species in the U.S., including Hawaii. He made it to 478 species certified by three experts. He found 30 of the 40 “holy grails,” hard to find species he’d hoped for. And almost as a footnote in his appendix, he mentions 600 donors to his Butterfly-a-thon raised $46,000 for the Xerces Society which protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

At over 500 pages, this could be heavy reading if you aren’t already a butterfly fan. But if you like a good road trip, and have a butterfly field guide handy to supplement the color photos on the end papers, I think you’ll enjoy the read.