Working for Wildlife in the Okanogan Valley

Working for Wildlife in the Okanogan Valley

Conservation Northwest / Nov 02, 2020 / Forest Field Program, Forest Roads, Okanogan Working for Wildlife

Decommissioning unneeded forest roads will open up quality habitat for Canada lynx, sharp-tailed grouse and mule deer in north-central Washington.

By Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest Lead

From virtual school and Zoom meetings to facemasks and social distancing, our world has changed significantly because of Covid-19. The global pandemic has put many aspects of our lives on hold, yet, more than ever, wildlife such as bighorn sheep, sage grouse, wolves, and spotted owl still need their critical habitat protected, stands of old growth forests and native sagelands still need connectivity across the landscape, and unhealthy forests still need restoration.

The Okanogan Valley in north-central Washington state, where sage-steppe grasslands meet pine forests and rugged mountain ranges. A landscape home to diverse wildlife and vibrant local communities. Photo: Chase Gunnell

That’s why we’re still working in the woods—it’s essential. Recently, we partnered with the Tonasket Ranger District to complete much-needed road decommissioning and closure work east of Riverside, in the Crawfish Lake and Mt. Annie areas. We worked with local contractors to decommission 12.5 miles of roadway and close another 14.5 miles to wheeled traffic. This project narrowly beat the fire bell this summer, finishing up the day before forest work was shut down due to high fire danger.

“The decommissioning and closure work was part of planned road work under the Crawfish Restoration project,” said Tonasket Ranger District Wildlife Biologist Matt Marsh. “The contractor did excellent work and we look forward to partnering with CNW in the future to benefit wildlife and their habitats.”

These roads were identified for decommissioning and closure under past forest restoration projects dating back to 2011 because they were considered unnecessary for future management, competing with other roads for limited maintenance dollars, and negatively affecting hydrologic function.

A forest road before (left) and after (right) decomissioning on the Tonasket Ranger District. Photo: Matt Marsh, U.S. Forest Service
A forest road before (left) and after (right) decomissioning on the Tonasket Ranger District. Photo: Matt Marsh, U.S. Forest Service

This project is part of the Working for Wildlife Initiative, a coalition of state, federal, tribal and nongovernmental interests we coordinate to protect wildlife habitat, working lands and natural heritage from the Okanogan Valley to the Kettle River Range, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Volgenau Foundation, and James M. Lea Foundation.

Launched in 2014, this initiative’s priority species include mule deer, lynx and sharp-tailed grouse, and to date we’ve successfully restored habitat, supported sharp-tailed grouse augmentation efforts, created safe passage on Highway 97 by renovating Janis Bridge into a wildlife crossing, and laid the groundwork for Canada lynx recovery in the Kettle Range.

The lynx’s big paws allow them to hunt over deep snow. But a changing climate and decreasing snowpacks is putting them at greater risk of extinction. Photo: USFWS

This project will create larger blocks of habitat to enhance wildlife corridors, open up half a mile of stream to native redband rainbow trout, and includes a new gate to manage winter travel by wheeled vehicles within a snowmobile recreation area.

Now, Canada Lynx and other wide-ranging mammals will have more quality habitat when moving between their core ranges to the east and west, and a larger buffer between open roads and trees will benefit cavity nesting birds and woodpeckers, which rely on snags and down trees. Raptors such as northern goshawks, great gray owls, and Coopers hawks are also common in this forested habitat, and mule and white-tailed deer, elk, moose, black bear, gray wolves, and cougar will benefit from this project as well.

This work, in addition to all of the conservation efforts we’ve accomplished in this landscape, was made through a diverse partnership including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Okanogan Land Trust, Okanogan Conservation District, Mule Deer Foundation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and BNSF Railway.

As our Working for Wildlife Initiative meets its project goals and wraps up in 2022, we’re looking forward to our upcoming projects in the area, including working with the Tonasket Ranger District to repair fencing to protect sensitive riparian areas from cattle, funded by the National Forest Foundation. And stay tuned for information on volunteer opportunities to restore wet meadow habitat in this landscape during 2021!

Tunk Valley, Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative. Photo Justin Haug WDFW