Sagelands Heritage Program conserves critical wildlands

Sagelands Heritage Program conserves critical wildlands

Conservation Northwest / Dec 07, 2018 / Sagelands

We collaborated with partners this year to make progress for two key areas in the northern half of our program: Spiva Butte in Douglas County and the proposed South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park in southern British Columbia.

By Jay Kehne, Sagelands Program lead

By now I hope you’ve heard about Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program, which works to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for the good of both wildlife and people.

The Connected Backbone, a stretch of key north-south and east-west habitat running from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley south to the Horse Heaven Hills near Yakima and into the wider sage-steppe beyond. Map: Sonia Hall, SAH Ecological for Sagelands Heritage Program

The main focus of our work is a “Connected Backbone” of important habitat linkages that runs north-south east of the Cascade Mountains, including places such as Okanagan Mountain in southern British Columbia, the Tunk Valley, the Waterville Plateau, Moses Coulee, the Colockum, Wenas and other Washington state wildlife areas, and lands on the Colville and Yakama nations.

Learn more about the Connected Backbone of Central Washington’s sage-steppe in this Google Flyover!

As this new effort has gained momentum in 2018, we’ve shared several updates from the central part of our program, including improving public access and habitat in the Quilomene Wildlife Area near Ellensburg and removing fencing in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Yakima.

With partners, we’re also moving forward with two collaborative projects to secure important habitat and protect larger linkages (also known as habitat connectivity) in the northern portion of our Sagelands Heritage Program.

These important “anchor points” are the proposed South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park just over the international border in southern British Columbia, and Spiva Butte in north-central Washington’s Douglas County.

South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve

The northern-most section of the Connected Backbone lies within southern British Columbia, and overlaps with the proposed South Okanagan-Similkameen (SOS) National Park Reserve, with the Similkameen Valley at its center. Some of the only sage-brush steppe found in all of Canada, proposals for a new Canadian national park here have long been debated, and support among local residents, First Nations, provincial leaders and the federal government has been growing.

A new Canadian national park north of Oroville, Washington would have tremendous benefits for wildlife habitat connectivity, outdoor recreation and local economies on both sides of the international border.

British Columbia’s South Okanagan Region. Photo: Parks Canada

Designating this area as the SOS National Park Preserve is critical in connecting the greater landscape because habitat here pinches down into a constricted area containing unique shrub-steppe landscapes, as well as important higher-elevation habitat such as Mount Kobau and Okanagan Mountain. There is an incredible array of wildlife that rely on this habitat, which features the highest breeding bird diversity recorded, and one-third of British Columbia’s red-listed (endangered) species.

It will benefit local communities, too. Studies show small towns near parks get an economic boost from more jobs and increased tourism. The park will also continue to permit existing grazing, allowing ranchers to sustain their way of life. Overall, it will support a healthy ecosystem and communities.

The proposed South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve would benefit local communities and endangered species. Photo: Graham Osborne

Conservation Northwest has long supported the SOS National Park Reserve proposal, working with the Wilderness Committee, the Lower Similkameen Indian Band and other partners to help move things forward. The British Columbia provincial and Canada federal governments and First Nations are negotiating the specifics for the park, and the final proposal is expected to be released in the summer of 2019.

It’s exciting to see this effort among partners nearing fruition, and we’re looking forward to seeing the permanent protection of this vital landscape and the wildlife it inhabits—for both local wildlife and communities and the important role it plays in protecting and connecting Pacific Northwest sagelands.

Spiva Butte

Spiva Butte lies west of the Grand Coulee Dam near the census-designated place of Leahy Junction, and covers more than 1,300 acres of premium shrub-steppe habitat. Private lands that have been identified as important areas that need restoration work and permanent protection, it’s another important “anchor point” in our SHP.

This landscape has wetlands and wet meadows that are vital habitat—natural features that aren’t abundant in other sage-steppe areas. Teeming with wildlife, Spiva Butte supports sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse and their leks, mule deer and migratory birds, to name just a few.

Sagelands landscape at Spiva Butte. Photo: Ferdi Businger

With the help of a contribution from Conservation Northwest, the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust was able to generate the funds needed to apply for a Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program grant to purchase Spiva Butte and permanently protect it by creating a preserve. We’re hopeful this will soon result in permanent protections for this special area.

Securing small sections of land, like Spiva Butte, is critical in connecting the wider landscapes and reducing habitat fragmentation across the Connected Backbone. As a wildlife preserve, Spiva Butte will not only provide high-quality habitat for several key species, but it will also allow responsible public access so people can explore and enjoy the natural heritage of this rich landscape.

Our contribution would not have been possible without our members—each dollar you donate goes a long way, and through your tremendous support, more than 1,300 acres of premium habitat will be preserved for the benefit of wildlife and people!

Looking Ahead

While we have continued to work throughout all areas of the SHP, we’re excited to see progress towards these two major accomplishments in the northern section of the Connected Backbone. Our involvement and partnerships here will be ongoing, but we’re looking ahead (and south) to continue meeting our Sagelands Heritage Program goals.

One future project in the Sagelands Heritage Program is supporting the Colville Confederated Tribes’ efforts to reintroduce pronghorn antelope to the landscape.       Photo: Chase Gunnell

We’re supporting the Colville Confederated Tribes’ efforts to reintroduce antelope to north-central Washington by working with local ranchers and landowners to increase antelope awareness and reduce barriers to their recovery outside the Colville Reservation.

This winter, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we’re applying for grants that will fund efforts to decommission old roads and restore native vegetation in the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area, just east of the Quilomene Wildlife Area in Kittias County.

Throughout these upcoming efforts, we’ll continue working with partners and seeking out further opportunities to strengthen our Sagelands Heritage Program. From restoring habitat at state wildlife areas and helping translocate sharp-tailed grouse from British Columbia, to working with First Nations and ranchers to preserve important grasslands, we’re making progress on maintaining, restoring and connecting Washington’s shrub-steppe landscapes for the good of both wildlife and people.


Grouse in Washington sagelands. Photo: Ferdi Businger