Supporting bighorn sheep and forest restoration on Mt. Hull

Supporting bighorn sheep and forest restoration on Mt. Hull

Conservation Northwest / Jun 20, 2019 / Cascades to Rockies, Forest Field Program, Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Restoring Wildlife, Sagelands, Work Updates

We’re working to help a vulnerable bighorn sheep herd and restore a critical landscape in north-central Washington.

BY George Wooten, okanogan conservation associate
George Wooten supervises a restoration project in the Cascades.                                   Photo: Chase Gunnell

*Editor’s Note: George is retiring next month after more than a decade working as our Conservation Associate and Okanogan Forest Field staffer based in Twisp. Among other roles, he previously worked for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. His enthusiasm, field expertise and community leadership have been tremendous assets for everything from planning restoration projects and objections on risky timber sales, to protecting the Methow Headwaters from industrial mining. THANK YOU, George. The wildlands and wildlife of north-central Washington owe you their gratitude. Enjoy your retirement in the amazing part of our region that you call home!

A new restoration project on the eastern edge of the Okanogan Valley will benefit iconic bighorn sheep, reduce the risk of severe wildfires, and improve habitat connectivity in a landscape important for several of our programs, including the Sagelands Heritage Program and Working for Wildlife Initiative.

The Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) is close to approving the Mt. Hull Restoration Project. Forest and aquatic conditions have been degraded by fire suppression, old-growth logging, unneeded roads and other activities, making this a much-needed project.

Through our Forest Field Program, we’re working with the OWNF to ensure that this project meets its full potential to improve forest health and habitat connectivity for species such as bighorn sheep, while providing for scenic trail opportunities and right-sizing the transportation system.

Bighorn sheep are an icon in the West, but their populations in Washington are vulnerable due to isolated herds and disease from livestock. Photo: phototropic

An important mountain in Central Washington

Mt. Hull is located in north-central Washington, and is an important landscape within several of our programs. Click for a larger version!

Mt. Hull covers more than 20,000 acres of national forest, lying east of the Pasayten Wilderness and just a few miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. It’s the westernmost outcropping of the Okanogan Highlands— rolling country that includes dry forest intermingled with shrub-steppe, connecting habitat between the Okanogan Valley and the Kettle River Mountain Range.

Check out this interactive map of the project!

Designated habitat for the threatened Mt. Hull bighorn sheep herd, this area is a major linkage for wildlife moving north-south or east-west, making it a significant landscape in three of our programs:

  • It’s within the northern extent of our Sagelands Heritage Program (SHP), which works to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes from the transboundary Okanogan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.
  • At an even larger scale, Mt. Hull and the Okanogan Highlands are vital stepping stones in a critical wildlife corridor than runs from the North Cascades in the west to the Columbia Highlands and Northern Rocky Mountains in the east. We’re working to protect habitat and improve connectivity here through the collaborative Working for Wildlife Initiative.
  • Because it’s national forest land, we’re working with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to implement landscape-scale restoration using sound science through our Forest Field Program.

In addition to bighorn sheep, wildlife on Mt. Hull includes mule deer, northern goshawk, great grey owl, white-headed woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, and black-backed woodpecker. Wolf packs also roam this landscape. And Mt. Hull hosts a variety of recreational opportunities, including a portion of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest National and Scenic Trail (PNNST).

Through our Forest Field Program, we recently submitted comments on the project to the national forest, and we worked with forest staff to inform the project scope and objectives. Overall, we’re supportive of the Mt. Hull Restoration Project, as it includes actions that will strengthen forest health and improve recreation opportunities.

The project will thin dense pole stands to restore open stands dominated by large, old ponderosa pines, with grassy understories preferred by bighorn sheep. Thinning includes over 16,000 acres of mechanical treatments and 20,000 acres of prescribed fire. This will create snags and logs for wildlife and will also enhance the sprouting of alder and aspen in the area’s numerous vernal pools. Nearly 40 miles of unneeded roads will be decommissioned and a net of 18 miles of roads will be closed. The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail will be re-routed to prevent user conflicts and Haley Meadows will be fenced to protect bighorn sheep habitat. This is a win-win.

Mt. Hull Restoration Project and Bighorn Sheep

Since 2001, the Mt. Hull bighorn herd, co-managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Colville Confederated Tribes. The herd is one of the preeminent herds in Washington. Yet disease concerns mean this herd and its habitat warrant careful conservation.

Bighorn sheep use habitat adjacent to rocky terrain and cliffs. Photo WDFW

A vulnerable species in our state, bighorn sheep primarily use open habitats adjacent to rocky terrain and cliffs, features common on Mt. Hull where grasslands, shrub-steppe, dry forests and mountains come together. The outcome of this restoration project has big implications for this native species.

We’re also glad to see a specific focus on restoring Haley Meadows, on the eastside of the mountain. By thinning the dense trees and returning the landscape to be primarily meadow habitat, bighorn will have better escapement, quality foraging and lambing areas. Mule deer and other species will also benefit.

However, there were several actions we would’ve liked to see in the final Mt. Hull project plan, particularly on the western cliff-side portion of Mt. Hull, which provides important bighorn sheep habitat.

While the project identifies a need to address this habitat, there’s still more that should be done in order to maximize the benefit to the Mt. hull bighorn herd. In addition to prescribed burning on the west-facing cliffs, the OWNF should increase thinning to remove barriers for bighorn sheep movement. Without this added treatment, fire behavior in this area of the project will also remain a concern.

Our work for bighorn sheep

Majestic yet vulnerable, bighorn sheep are an icon across the West, but they face challenges to survival and recovery due to small, isolated populations and the spread of disease.

While the project identifies a need to enhance this habitat, there’s still more that should be done in order to maximize the benefit to restore and enhance the viability of bighorn sheep in this region and on Mt. Hull. To that end, we will be commenting on an upcoming Environmental Impact Statement by the Forest Service to revise and update bighorn sheep management on the OWNF.

There are many options that could be done to improve bighorn sheep management over the current Forest Plan, including fencing, removing movement barriers and revision of the location of the bighorn sheep management zone. To support their numbers in Washington, we’re enhancing their habitat through several programs.

The Okanogan Valley in north-central Washington, a critical habitat corridor for many native species.                                 Photo: Chase Gunnell

In our Sagelands Heritage Program, we’re reducing barriers to bighorn movement by connecting shrub-steppe landscapes that run north-south through Washington and British Columbia, and opening up the landscape by removing fences and restoring habitat.

Through our Working for Wildlife Initiative, we’re building partnerships with state, federal, tribal and non-governmental stakeholders to strengthen the Cascades to Kettles wildlife corridor, extending east to west. And we’re paying close attention to bighorn management planning in the Naches Ranger District and other portions of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on the south-central slopes of the Cascades.

With meaningful dialogue, support, and collaboration with wildlife and land managers, such as working with the OWNF on the Mt. Hull Restoration Project, we’re doing our part to make Washington a viable home for bighorn sheep for years to come.

Bighorn Ram, Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo: Jeff Goulden