Keeping the Northwest wild for the next generation

Keeping the Northwest wild for the next generation

Conservation Northwest / Apr 25, 2018 / Connecting Habitat, Protecting Wildlands

Our Executive Director Mitch’s remarks at our 2018 Hope for a Wild Future Auction & Dinner.

If you weren’t able to join us at the auction this year, you can always support our work through an online donation!

By Mitch Friedman, Founder and Executive Director

Every year I look forward to this event, when so many from our community come together.  It means a lot to me to see so many familiar faces and some new ones. It hurts to not see the warm smiles of George Mack or Herb Bridge, who both recently passed away. But I want all here to feel welcome and energized by our great progress keeping the Northwest wild.

Mitch founded Conservation Northwest (then the Greater Ecosystem Alliance) in 1989, and has been at the helm ever since.

I feel immense pride and joy that within the last ten years, Washington has seen the return of wolves, wolverines, and fishers. It’s an unrivaled conservation success story! It’s also a testament to how we can balance a thriving region with stewardship of our natural heritage.

Our primary mission at Conservation Northwest actually is not restoring wildlife, but retaining the capacity of the landscape to sustain them.

If we do well our job of protecting and connecting large blocks of wildlands and habitat, then the opportunity will remain for native species to persist even as our region changes. So tonight I want to look beyond the thrill of the wildlife we’ve helped restore to talk about three critters – mountain caribou, pygmy rabbit, and grizzly bear – that highlight our larger challenge.

Two weeks ago we heard the heartbreaking news that the world’s southernmost caribou herd, in the South Selkirk Mountains of Washington, Idaho and British Columbia, has declined to just three cows, making it functionally extinct. This herd numbered 50 just a decade ago, when we celebrated BC’s adoption of a caribou recovery plan that protected 5.5 million acres. The trends are similarly worrisome for other southern herds. While we are very supportive of efforts to protect and augment these small herds, we’re most attuned to the landscape. If we can protect more of the Inland Temperate Rainforest, restore areas badly harmed by logging, and better manage motorized recreation, the opportunity to recover the mountain caribou population to self-sustaining numbers will remain. Without this work to protect, connect and restore the caribou’s home, that chance will be gone.

Logging of old growth rainforests continue in the interior of British Columbia, home to at-risk mountain caribou. Photo: David Moskowitz

Pygmy rabbits are the smallest on the continent, and the sagelands of Douglas County are their most northern redoubt, where they are battling statewide extinction. Washington’s arid grasslands are heavily fragmented by agriculture. Pygmy rabbits can’t live on the margins of the sage steppe, as they need good deep soils for their borrows, putting them in direct competition with farming. They survive in Washington only through heroic efforts by the state and others, including captive breeding and reintroduction. I’ve been lucky to see these operations, and can tell you that the adults are the size of babies and the babies are the size of buttons, and much cuter! Sadly a wildfire in Moses Coulee last summer had a devastating impact on our best pygmy rabbit community. While we support efforts to sustain bunnies – and in a few minutes you’ll have an opportunity to bid on attending the release of pygmy rabbits into the wild, our Sagelands Heritage Program focuses on conserving and restoring key habitats and linkages needed to sustain a living sage steppe landscape, linked from Eastern Washington’s Columbia Plateau to the arid grasslands of the British Columbia Okanagan.

Eastern Washington’s sagelands are sprawling, but heavily fragmented. Photo; Ferdi Businger

Last but maybe most is the grizzly bear. When I founded this organization almost 30 years ago, foremost in my mind was to assure that the North Cascades had the capacity for a self-sustaining grizzly bear population. This is the only place in the Lower 48 outside the Rockies where that can happen. The goal has been advanced immeasurably by so many wins that we’ve been a part of – from the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 to the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan in 1997 to the Loomis Forest Fund of 1999 to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in 2001 to The Cascades Conservation Partnership of 2005 to our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign.

Presently, our Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative is making great headway in protecting habitat for British Columbia’s most southwest populations, so that they can rebound and be linked up to the North Cascades. We really are making serious progress in keeping the Northwest wild, conserving big interconnected blocks of habitat so that this landscape has the capacity to sustain even grizzly bears. That’s job one.

Interior Secretary Zinke recently endorsed grizzly bear restoration, in part citing his own experiences growing up around grizzlies in Montana. It gave restoration new hope, and served as a reminder that conservation should not be a partisan issue. Photo: Chase Gunnell

What it means is that when, just a month ago, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blew our minds by announcing his support for recovering grizzlies in the North Cascades, directing the completion of the plan we have long pushed for to translocate some bears here from healthier populations in Montana or central BC, we knew the plan would work. The measure of our success is that the condition of our Cascades habitat is such that these mountains can sustain a healthy bear population. The science is clear on that, and our work in this landscape has been a huge contributor.

That is what we’ve done together, and continue to do with your help. We’re working with local communities for a healthier future through restoring our natural forests and our natural heritage. We are keeping the Northwest wild acre by acre, underpass by overpass, from the mountain wildlands to the arid sagelands, from the coastal rainforests to the inland rainforests. That’s that reason that wolves, wolverines and fishers have recently returned, and so soon shall grizzly bears. And we will carry on the fight so that mountain caribou, pygmy rabbits, and every other part of our natural heritage has a future in this, its rightful home. Thank you for being part of this mission.

Looking to learn more about our programs protecting, connecting and restoring wildlands and wildlife? Visit the Our Work page. Information on our annual auction and dinner can be found here.