Sagelands habitat restoration in the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area

Sagelands habitat restoration in the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area

Conservation Northwest / Dec 09, 2020 / Habitat Restoration, Sagelands

Fence removal efforts in central Washington near Ellensburg support the seasonal movements of migratory shrub-steppe species.

By Keiko Betcher, Communications and Outreach Associate

For large mammals such as elk and mule deer, and for other sagelands species like burrowing owls and sage-grouse, fences are often a dead end—especially old, unneeded, barbed-wire fences. Some species, like pronghorn antelope, can get tangled and die in these fences. Grouse are also known to fly headlong into fences that lack flagging to make the wires more visible.

Relic barbed wire fence removed to improve habitat connectivity for sagelands species. Photo: Melissa Babik, WDFW

Removing derelict fences and other unneeded structures are some of the most effective ways to improve wildlife connectivity for shrub-steppe wildlife, especially migratory critters that depend on these sprawling landscapes for winter range when the snow piles up in the mountains where they spend the summer. This work is a priority for our Sagelands Heritage Program, which maintains, restores and connects shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. This work is also a great opportunity for collaboration with local partners and volunteers, from hunters and birdwatchers to agency staff.

We’re excited about the completion of a fence-removal project this fall on the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area, just north of I-90 near Ellensburg.

In partnership with Pheasants Forever, the Mule Deer Foundation, the Washington Conservation Corps, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and volunteers, 7.5 miles of derelict barbed wire fence were removed from this important patch of sagelands. More than 200 heavy duty t-posts were also salvaged for future use on the wildlife area.

This work was made possible by the James M. Lea Foundation—who also funded an additional 3.5 miles of fence removal work back in January—and a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, “Conservation and Restoration of Mule Deer Winter Range Habitat in Washington”, as well as the support of partner groups.

“Our State Wildlife Areas in eastern Chelan, Kittitas and Yakima counties including the Colockum, Whiskey Dick, Quilomene, L.T. Murray, Wenas and Oak Creek make up the largest block of shrub-steppe habitat in Washington, especially when considering the nearby Yakima Firing Range,” said Jay Kehne, our Sagelands Program Lead.

T posts salvaged for future use on the wildlife area. Photo: Melissa Babik, WDFW

These areas of mostly public land are the core of Washington’s remaining sagelands, connecting to more fragmented shrub-steppe to the north, east and south and providing critical wildlife values for ungulate winter range, habitat for Washington’s largest bighorn sheep herd, and opportunities for the future recovery of threatened species such as pronghorn and sage grouse.

“Whether it’s derelict fence removal or decommissioning obsolete two-tracks and installing signage indicating open roads, anything we can do to steadily improve the health of this habitat is important for the long-term conservation of shrub-steppe species in central Washington, as well as for the hikers, hunters and others that love these lands,” said Kehne.

A focus area in the “Connected Backbone” of key habitat linkages in our Sagelands Heritage Program, this area serves as critical winter and calving habitat for elk and mule deer while providing excellent connecting habitat for sage-grouse.

We’ve also worked to remove unnecessary fencing nearby on the Quilomene Wildlife Area, as well as across I-90 on the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. And our efforts for pronghorn recovery involve fence removal and establishing more wildlife-friendly fences that allow species to move freely across the landscape on both public and private lands.

While this year’s devastating fire season may have set back some efforts to restore and reconnect sagelands habitat, we know the communities and ecosystems here are resilient. Whether it’s removing derelict fences or even rebuilding burned fences in more wildlife-friendly ways, we’ll continue working with our partners to conserve our remarkable shrub-steppe landscapes and species.

Learn more about our SAGELANDS HERITAGE PROGRAM, or TAKE ACTION for Washington’s imperiled sage-grouse populations!
Washington Conservation Corps crew on Whiskey Dick Ridge. Photo: WDFW