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.


Don’t poison your yard to save it

Audubon at Home

Backyards should be places safe for people and wildlife. Graphic from Audubon at Home.

Published July 26, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Don’t poison your yard to save it. Natural defenses against pests are better for wildlife, people and pets.”

2014 Update: So many options and so much advice is available today for avoiding using pesticides. At the National Audubon Society website, look for “Audubon at Home,” http://athome.audubon.org. If you live in Colorado and Wyoming, check out Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program, http://rockies.audubon.org/become-habitat-hero-and-learn-about-how-wildscape. Also check out this directory of pests and pest management: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/Pests/pests.htm

By Barb Gorges

Which is more hazardous, walking New York City streets or hiking Wyoming’s back country? They have muggers; we have bears.

New York got ahead of us last summer, with an outbreak of West Nile Virus, which can be fatal to some jays and crows–and some people.

I was surprised, however, by a news release from the National Audubon Society. According to Ward Stone, chief wildlife pathologist for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, among 4,000 dead birds collected and tested for the virus, synthetic chemical pesticides were a contributing factor or cause of death more often than any other reason, including the virus.


Choice of last resort, this herbicide is not necessary if you get to know your yard and learn how it grows.

Lawn chemicals were among the most common toxins.

About a dozen pesticides approved for backyard use have caused documented die-offs of birds, author Joel Bourne writes in “The Audubon Guide to Home Pesticides.”

Nationally, we use three times more chemical pesticides on our lawns at home, school and the golf course than the total amount used by farmers. That statistic comes from David Pimental, a Cornell University scientist.

More than 100,000 cases of pesticide exposure were documented in 1998 at U.S. regional poison control centers. But the centers do not cover the whole country, and many people do not think to report what just seems like flu symptoms.

What’s a conscientious person to do?

Recently Audubon published a poster, “10 Commandments for a Healthy Yard,” which helps answer that question. Here are the commandments, with my local interpretation.

Go Organic. For a quick introduction to organic yard care methods–which will save you money as well as make your yard safer–pick up an issue of Organic Gardening magazine or visit www.organicgardening.com.

Make Your Turf Tough. Use grass varieties meant for our climate. Use sharp mower blades and cut high. Water well a couple times a week, rather than watering lightly every day.

Go Native! Plants native to our area will be less susceptible to pests–and they require less water. Check at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens for suggestions, or visit their web site, www.botanic.org.

Know Your Enemies. Figure out what bugs you have, whether you have enough to make treatment worthwhile and when in their life cycle is best to strike–and with what. Call the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension horticulturist, Liberty Blain, 633-4383 or bring your bugs and diseases to her (in containers) at the office in the Old Courthouse, 310 W. 19th.

Treat Only When Necessary. Use nontoxic methods first, picking off insects, pruning affected areas, hosing down plants. For more remedies, look for books such as “The Encyclopedia of Natural Insect & Disease Control,” edited by Roger B. Yepsen or “Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” edited by Fern Marshall Bradley.

Pick Your Pesticides. Don’t go for the “shotgun” approach. It will kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Use the least toxic product. The Environmental Protection Agency’s rating system is “caution” (least), “warning” and “danger” (most toxic).

Use Biological Controls or Biopesticides. If you can’t borrow a goat to eat your thistle, biological pesticides decompose more rapidly and are better at targeting the pest than chemical pesticides. Check the EPA’s biopesticides web site, http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides (although I don’t agree that genetically altered plants should be included in EPA’s definition of biopesticides).

Follow Directions and Protect Yourself. And don’t forget to protect other people, pets and wildlife habitat from exposure. Read the label. Less is best.

Respect Your Neighbor’s Right to Know. Ever had your windows open to the light summer breeze–and the chemical drift of whatever your neighbor’s lawn care service is spraying? Thank goodness the City of Cheyenne is using modern methods to control mosquitoes instead of spraying malathion everywhere.

Teach Tolerance and Be Tolerant. As the poster explains, “Create natural yards, with a variety of pests, predators, weeds, wildlife and native plant species.”

My favorite: “Enjoy controlled untidiness, not time-consuming lawn maintenance,” and “show by doing.”

I don’t use pesticides in my yard, so had I been writing these commandments, I would have left out numbers 6, 8 and 9.

But if we were all to subscribe to the organic yard care philosophy, just imagine what the birds would think!