Working with tribes, agencies, ranchers and farmers to restore wetlands in Washington’s shrub-steppe

Working with tribes, agencies, ranchers and farmers to restore wetlands in Washington’s shrub-steppe

Conservation Northwest / Sep 09, 2019 / Habitat Restoration, Sagelands

How 30 people and 30 tons of rock can improve critical habitat for wildlife in north-central Washington.

By keiko betcher, communications and outreach associate

Recently, our Sagelands Program Lead Jay Kehne helped lead a three-day wetlands restoration workshop in north-central Washington’s shrub-steppe. The event brought together multiple state, federal, tribal and local partners for a total of 30 participants.

Big Bend Wildlife Area, near the Columbia River and an important landscape in our Sagelands Heritage Program.                       Photo: Jay Kehne

“We all rolled up our sleeves to move tons and tons of rock by hand,” said Kehne. “In a few days’ time, we potentially saved several meadows along China and School creeks in Douglas County.”

Working in the gorgeous Big Bend Wildlife Area, the team moved 30 tons of rock to build five “Zeedyk structures” and six “Beaver Dam Analogs”. It’s an event that’s still being talked about, said Kehne. These structures will now improve wetlands, wet meadow vegetation and forage for a host of bird, amphibian and wildlife species.

This area near the Columbia River is part of our new Sagelands Heritage Program (SHP), 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 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, the Tunk Valley, Moses Coulee, and lands on the Colville and Yakama nations. Priority species include sage grouse, bighorn sheep, badgers, sharp-tailed grouse, mule deer and pygmy rabbits. Our work will also benefit pronghorn antelope as they are reintroduced to this landscape, as well as raptors, owls, elk and other species.

A crew constructs a Beaver Dam Analog, which mimics the ecological function of natural beaver dams by spreading out water, raising stream beds, and creating more side channels. Photo: Jay Kehne

What are Zeedyk structures and Beaver Dam Analogs?

A headcut before being restored with a Zeedyke structure. The depth and lack of vegetation around headcuts contribute to further erosion and channelization. Photo: Jay Kehne

Zeedyk structures are large rocks built against a headcut (a severely eroded area who’s depth and lack of vegetation contributes to further erosion and channelization, pictured to the left) to reduce erosion and conserve soil moisture.

Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs) mimic the ecological function of natural beaver dams by spreading out water, raising stream beds, and creating more side channels which increase vegetation and habitat quality for fish and wildlife. This includes beavers themselves, who then further advance wetland health.

“We want ‘beaver chaos’. When beavers are present in riparian areas, their dams divert water into a bunch of smaller channels, rather than one large channel,” said Kehne. “That’s how a healthy wetland ecosystem should function.”

A completed Zeedyk structure. Prior to restoration, this headcut created erosion. The new Zeedyk structure will reduce erosion and conserve moisture.                    Photo: Jay Kehne

Though they might just look like a pile of rocks, these structures are built to retain moisture and restore lush, “emerald islands” of meadows and wetlands in sageland habitat. With these low-cost restoration structures in place, plant productivity increases to create a more resilient landscape, threats from drought and wildfire can decrease, and wildlife have more available food and water sources.

Benefits aren’t limited to wildlife or public lands, either. These tactics for restoring wetlands can also improve range conditions and forage availability on private lands and leased grazing allotments, areas that are important for both people and wildlife in Central Washington.

“Increasing riparian or wet meadow vegetation in the arid landscapes associated with shrub-steppe habitat in Washington is a win-win for conservationists, environmentalists and ranchers alike,” said Kehne.

Collaborating for our Sagelands

The wetlands restoration workshop brought together 30 participants representing tribes, agencies, ranchers and farmers to restore wetlands in Washington’s shrub-steppe. Photo: Jay Kehne

We’re glad to see such a successful workshop with participants representing the Colville Confederated Tribes, Yakama Nation, Yakima Training Center, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service, local conservation districts, ranchers and others.

“We’ve heard through the grapevine that participants went away from the workshop and are already building similar structures on lands they own or manage, which was the purpose of the workshop and is very exciting, “ said Kehne.

Special thanks are in order to the instructors, including folks from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Big Bend Wildlife Area Managers, local cattlemen, and staff at the Conservation Districts in Douglas County.

We’d also like to show our appreciation for the Icicle Fund and Charlotte Martin Foundation for supporting these efforts and making this workshop possible. Thank you!

Learn more about our work to maintain, restore and connect the Inland Northwest’s shrub-steppe through our SAGELANDS HERITAGE PROGRAM!
Wetlands and wet meadow habitats are critical for iconic sagelands species including sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, pygmy rabbits and mule deer. Photo: Jay Kehne