Finding a habitat in his backyard

"War could delay Bob Smalser’s love for habitat biology, but it could not kill it.The Pennsylvania-born Mennonite studied habitat biology as an undergraduate 30 years ago, but left to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War. Since then, he has been on the front lines of other American armed conflicts, including recent tussles with Iraq.While in and out of the country, Smalser managed to get stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, in the early 1980s. Later, he purchased acreage in the hinterlands between Camp Union and Seabeck: a 32-acre wetland dream, complete with natural lake, salmon stream and pond.Since leaving the armed forces last November, Smalser returned to his academic ambitions, devoting his time to revitalizing the 1920s logging site. “This is a perfect site for everything that I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “The prime habitat is right around the 5-acre lake.”One of the first things Smalser did was register the property with the National Wildlife Federation, an organization he’s “known about forever.” The Smalser’s Sprague Pond acreage is the eighth and most recent Central Kitsap property registered as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. The NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program is its individual-focused effort at habitat preservation. More than 23,000 North American property owners take part by stewarding their land as natural habitat. The NWF also advocates for environmental interests through public education and litigation.Though pleased with the chance to get back to stewarding land, Smalser is quick to point to difficulties the property’s history presents. “The problem is, the pond does not have a permanent native fish population. It was homesteaded in the 1930s by the Sprague family, and they built a footbridge (over a creek feeding the lake) by filling it with building debris. It blocked the cutthroat and coho salmon coming into the lake,” Smalser said.The Sprague pond is actually a natural tributary of Big Beef Creek, which bears salmon. However, the footbridge blocked salmon from entering or leaving the pond and it was quickly fished out. “To compensate, they (former residents) put in non-native perch, which eat everything. As a consequence, we don’t have ospreys or otter,” Smalser said.Smalser would like to see salmon and cutthroat back in the pond, as well as more berry-bearing native shrubs for deer and other creatures to eat through the winter months. He’s drafted a four-year habitat management plan. He also plans to build a home by the pond where two old cabins once stood, and to eventually finish his graduate studies.By the time he’s done with the habitat management plan, Smalser hopes to open the wildlife habitat up for limited public use: he maintains a public access road for the neighbors and plans a trail encircling the creek for students to use when studying the pond."

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