Restoring habitat on the Cowiche Unit of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area

Restoring habitat on the Cowiche Unit of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area

Conservation Northwest / Oct 17, 2018 / Habitat Restoration, Sagelands

Last month, our Sagelands Heritage Program team and several volunteers removed miles of old fences and improved habitat for elk and other Central Washington wildlife.

By Rose Piccinini, Sagelands Contractor
Volunteers removing fences in the Cowiche Canyon Oak Creek Wildlife Area to open up habitat for wildlife. Photo: Rose Piccinini

Friday, September 21st was a gorgeous day to be in the field. We had two dedicated volunteers come out and join Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff and myself for a day of fence removal in the Cowiche Unit of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Armed with a four-wheeler, a couple pickups and a side-by-side with a fence-roller in-tow, we headed out to the site to open up the habitat.

The site is located along the east-west ridge, south of Cowiche Creek in Yakima County, and is a part of the Connected Backbone of Eastern Washington’s arid lands. This area is used year-round by elk and is also adjacent to a winter elk-feeding site intended to provide food during the colder months and keep elk out of nearby orchards.

The habitat is dominated by shrub-steppe and covered mostly in rigid sage. Rocky ledges and shallow draws concentrate spring runoff into Cowiche Creek, where endangered steelhead trout go to spawn.

This project is a part of our Sageland Heritage Program (SHP), which aims to connect shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to South-Central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. The SHP identifies the Yakama-to-Wenas linkage as a priority area for improving landscape-scale connectivity. By implementing site-specific habitat improvement projects, we are working toward maintaining and restoring wildlife linkages within the broader landscape.

Folks helping out with habitat restoration in the sagelands stand next to the fence-roller, pulled behind a side-by-side. Photo: Rose Piccinini

Fences in this area not only restrict wildlife movement, but have also been shown to cause death by entanglement. Removing fences that are no longer in use allows wildlife to move freely across the landscape. Many species benefit from fence removal, but the benefits have shown to be greatest for elk, mule deer, raptors, owls and sage grouse—key species we’re focusing on in our SHP.

Creating safe areas on the landscape for wildlife to roam is a critical component of making a resilient landscape for daily and seasonal wildlife movement. As pronghorn antelope are restored to Central Washington, projects like this one will also be vital for their recovery.

I was new to the fence-removal process, and excited to see how it worked. We began by driving the ATV alongside the length of the fence and locating access points for the side-by-side pulling the fence-roller. The amount and type of vegetation and the topography determined the length of wire that could be rolled at one time.

Once the roller was set-up at an access point, two of us would walk along the section of fence to ensure it was clear of rocks, posts, vegetation or any other debris that might get caught on the wire as it was wound in. We all had hand-held radios for a safe and efficient operation.

The work proceeded with little hang-ups, and we slowly but surely began winding up the fences. After a day of navigating the ridges, hiking up and down draws and monitoring the fence-roller, we had managed to remove 1.5 miles of old barbed-wire fence!

Bundles of barbed wire after the fence-removal project. A total of 1.5 miles of fence were removed from the landscape. Photo: Rose Piccinini

As stewards of the land, it is our obligation to ensure humans are not adding negative impacts to a landscape that is already threatened by invasive weeds, fire, development, conversion and other human disturbances. Fencing is a man-made obstruction to wildlife movement and if it is no longer being utilized, then it is our responsibility to remove it from the landscape.

The Cowiche unit we worked in is part of the greater sagelands of our state, where a diversity of birds, wildflowers and wildlife depend on for habitat. By removing obstructions to wildlife movement, we are helping to improve the value of their habitat and the overall connectivity in the landscape. Through this work, we are also building relationships in local communities and creating partners to meet the collaborative goals of our SHP.

Thank you to the WDFW staff and our dedicated volunteers for making this project a huge success! Now—where’s our next site?

Learn more about our efforts to connect, protect and restore shrub-steppe landscapes through our Sagelands Heritage Program.