CNW Fire Dispatch #11 – Impacts to Working for Wildlife

CNW Fire Dispatch #11 – Impacts to Working for Wildlife

Conservation Northwest / Sep 10, 2015 / Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Wildfire

The Tunk Valley, a key area of the Working for Wildlife Initiative, after the 2015 Okanogan Complex Fire. Photo: Jay Kehne

Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh of our fire dispatches from staff and colleagues that live or work in the areas impacted by this year’s fires. 

The Working for Wildlife Initiative, led by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Conservation Northwest staffers Jen Watkins and Jay Kehne, is a seven year partnership to protect wildlife habitat, working lands and natural heritage in the diverse landscapes of the Okanogan Valley and Kettle River Range.

By Jen Watkins and Jay Kehne, Conservation Associates

As the collaborative Working for Wildlife Initiative has picked up steam in the last two years, many different people, organizations and agencies have been hard at work to promote wildlife and working lands conservation in the core project area between Riverside and Tonasket in the central Okanogan Valley.

We provided some updates on this important conservation, restoration and habitat connectivity project in our Spring/Summer 2015 newsletter, but the 2015 fires have added a new challenge to the Initiative. 

Unfortunately, the Okanogan Complex Fires and the North Star Fire burned widely within the Working for Wildlife Initiative project area. And the fires have also had a major impact on local communities, staff from partner organizations and agencies, and wildlife habitat and working lands in the region. Some of the major private ranches and other working landscapes the Initiative aims to conserve were also burned.

Map of WFW project area_NFWF

Still, things might have been worse. A lot of the work in the Highway 97 area escaped the fires, including camera monitoring sites gathering critical data on crossing locations for mule deer, Canada lynx and other species. Areas where wildlife underpasses have been proposed have not burned. The Carter Mountain Wildlife Area trailhead that the Mule Deer Foundation, Backcountry Horsemen and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently improved is untouched.

The August fires and a heightened risk of new fires did cause the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to mandate a shutdown all industrial activities in Eastern Washington forests through a Level 4 Industrial Fire Precaution Level (IFPL) decree. According to the state’s press release this is the first time in over 20 years they have issued a Level 4 shutdown.

This shutdown put a hold on ongoing habitat and forest restoration work under Working for Wildlife on the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville National Forests, including road restoration projects that we were preparing for implementation this field season. One of these projects involves working with the U.S. Forest Service to decommission about two and a half miles of forest road in sensitive riparian areas along Benson and Jack Creek near Loup Loup Ski Bowl between the Methow and Okanogan valleys.

Completion of this project will provide better habitat security for deer, lynx, wolves and other species. And it will help prevent sedimentation into watersheds important for the spawning of salmon and trout populations listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Mule deer in the Okanogan Valley after 2014's Carlton Fire.
Mule deer in the Okanogan Valley after 2014’s Carlton Fire.

Whether these projects are completed this fall or in 2016 will depend on the continued behavior of the fires, the weather in the days and weeks ahead, and the capacity of our local contractors. Regardless, we are bound to see a growing list of restoration needs in Okanogan County and the Working for Wildlife Initiative project area, including many miles of road restoration following this fire season.

For priority wildlife in the Initiative project area the fires’ impact is also likely to be complex. For species like sharp-tail grouse and mule deer, in the long term fire can provide benefits for habitat and food availability. But in the short term, fire can burn grouse leks (breeding sites), decrease important wintering habitat for both species, and cause a shortage of sage, bunchgrass and other food for mule deer when the animals should be feasting in anticipation of the rut (breeding season) and the winter that follows.

As a report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service on fire and sharp-tail grouse puts it, “the impacts of fire on sharp-tails depend on vegetation type, timing, frequency, intensity, and size of burn. Fire can be a threat to sharp-tail populations in a few areas and a necessity in most others.”

Sharp-tail grouse. Photo: NRCS
Sharp-tail grouse. Photo: NRCS
When it comes to fires, the long term impacts for wildlife and wildlands are rarely as black and white as the charred landscapes they initially leave behind might lead one to believe.

We’ll be closely monitoring data on wildlife impacts from the 2015 fires in north-central Washington. And both Conservation Northwest and the Working for Wildlife Initiative will be closely engaged with efforts to support priority species as they weather the impacts of this record-breaking fire season.

This season’s fires have been a setback to the Initiative, but in the scheme of things the impacts to people, property and local communities are far greater. And there are over five years remaining in the Initiative’s business plan.

Our hope is that through this long term collaboration we can restore damaged and fragmented landscapes, improve the resilience of forests and ecosystems, and increase community preparedness and the preservation of working lands. All of which can help ensure that future wildfire seasons are less devastating to “Okanogan Country” than what we saw in 2015.

By 2020, the Working for Wildlife Initiative aims to conserve existing habitat values on tens of thousands of acres of private land in Okanogan County, construct three wildlife underpasses on Highway 97 to facilitate safer passage, restore habitat quality and resiliency on 20,000 acres, augment the local population of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, lay the groundwork for recovery of Canada lynx in the Kettle River Mountain Range, and establish programs and relationships to increase the community’s tools and pride in coexisting with wildlife. Learn more from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation