Protecting habitat, working lands and natural heritage in the Okanogan
Conservation Northwest / Oct 03, 2017 / Connecting Habitat, Okanogan Working for Wildlife
An update on the Working for Wildlife Initiative
Initiated in 2013 the Working for Wildlife Initiative brings together an impressive coalition of state, federal, tribal and nongovernmental interests, coordinated by Conservation Northwest and enabled by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to protect wildlife habitat, working lands and natural heritage in the diverse landscape of the Okanogan Valley and Kettle River Mountain Range.
The Okanogan Valley has long been an important home and migration pathway for both people and wildlife in north-central Washington. This broad open valley of sagebrush grassland is known for its special qualities: sparkling rivers and lakes, lush riparian areas, productive agricultural lands, rocky outcrops and highlands, and a wide diversity of wildlife and habitat.
Book-ending the Okanogan region to the west are ridges of Ponderosa pine climbing into the Loomis State Forest, Pasayten Wilderness, and the craggy North Cascade Mountains. To the east rise the Okanogan Highlands, followed by the subalpine crest of the Kettle River Mountain Range dividing the area from the Columbia Highlands of northeast Washington.
Generations have cherished this land and sustained themselves on what it offered.
Progress for wildlife in 2016-17
Wildlife in the region remains abundant. Mule deer migrate annually from the valleys to higher elevations in the warmer seasons. The healthiest lynx population in the continental United States is anchored in the high country of the Okanogan. Cougar, elk and bighorn sheep are stable or increasing in numbers. One of the state’s only populations of sharp-tailed grouse moves within the arid lands of the Tunk Valley to find food, mates and shelter.
Over the last two years, exciting progress was made in community engagement, land conservation, habitat restoration following several years of large fires covering much of the project area, and piloting innovative applied science for our flagship species – Canada lynx.
With leadership from the Okanogan Trails Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF), in 2016 a successful new competitive scholarship was launched for seniors at three local high schools in the project area: Tonasket, Omak, and Okanogan High Schools. Students were asked to utilize photos and essays to explain the rationale and benefits for creating safer passage on Highway 97 in Okanogan County through construction of a series of wildlife underpasses. The contest resulted in seven students being honored.
The Chapter also hosted two summits focused on the latest research relevant to the Okanogan landscape on mule deer, mortality, and safer passage through habitat connectivity and wildlife crossings. Safe Passage 97 is a related effort lead by the MDF Chapter to advocate for creating safer passage on Highway 97 through the Okanogan Valley for both wildlife and motorists.
Continuing expansion of development into rural areas is fragmenting habitat, reducing agricultural production and diminishing the rural lifestyle of the Okanogan Valley. The resulting increase in traffic along Highway 97 has increased the risk to public safety from vehicle collisions with wildlife while making it more difficult for wildlife to safely move.
An average 350 deer are killed each year by vehicle collisions along the 11.7 mile stretch of Highway 97 between Tonasket and Riverside, with an average societal cost of over $7,000 per collision.
To support Safe Passage 97 and the Working for Wildlife Initiative, remote cameras have also been installed by citizen scientists to continue baseline monitoring of wildlife presence in habitat adjacent to Highway 97, and to detect Canada lynx in the Kettle River Range. Project partners are also working on securing conservation easements to protect key open lands on private ranches near proposed wildlife crossing sites.
Habitat conservation and restoration
Through the Working for Wildlife Initiative, the Okanogan Conservation District has been conducting all-lands habitat restoration planning and support including an assessment of priority restoration needs on state, federal, and tribal lands. The Conservation District has also been working with interested private landowners to create wildlife habitat plans.
Various initiative partners have also been planning and holding discussions with willing landowners exploring conservation easements on thousands of valuable acres to ensure these lands continue providing important benefits to human and animal communities for generations to come.
Removing old forest roads and restoring the landscape to its natural condition is also a priority component of the Initiative. In the last two years that has included decommissioning several miles of unnecessary roads that were causing resource damage in the South Summit landscape of the Methow Ranger District, as well as roads in the Annie Restoration Project in the Tonasket Ranger District.
Finally, landscape-scale conservation planning is being implemented project-wide through individual actions on the ground that add up to big change. In these third and fourth years of the Working for Wildlife Initiative, new relationships were formed, communities were empowered with new tools to live with wildlife recovering on this landscape, acres were restored to improve the quality and quantity of habitat available, and plans were laid to ensure that each year of conservation action in this landscape builds on the last in this important habitat linkage.