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2008: Yes, we did, for wildlife and habitat

Wolves, fishers, and Conservation Northwest. 2008 will be remembered as the year when the forest carnivores came home.

Gray wolf in Alberta. Photo: Florian Schulz
Gray wolf in Alberta. Photo: Florian Schulz

Since our beginnings in 1989, Conservation Northwest has made formidable progress towards our mission of protecting and connecting old growth and wild areas from the Coast to the Rockies. But this year stands out as exceptional—which is truly amazing given the challenges we have endured over the last eight years.

2008 will be remembered as the year when the forest carnivores came home. From the successful return of Pacific fishers to the Olympic Peninsula, to the first documented gray wolf pack in the North Cascades since the 1930s, to the unusually numerous wolverine sightings, wildlife are telling us something.

Our regional landscape is getting wilder. It’s not only better protected today, but it is also connected. Conservation Northwest has been here for two decades helping create this new scenery, and the landscape is healthier today because of the work we’ve done together.

Fishers are fast! Photo: Paul Bannick
Fishers are fast! Photo: Paul Bannick

Coast to Cascades

At the start of the year, not far from the emerald green coast of the Pacific Ocean, 18 feisty little forest carnivores, fishers, leapt exuberantly from their BC travel boxes into the forested heart of the Olympic Peninsula. The fisher’s return to Washington was the culmination of a reintroduction plan that Conservation Northwest launched and supported, five years in the making.

We're proud to have been long-time partners with the state in the return of fisher, from bringing in funding for initial habitat assessments to educating the public about this little-known native member of the weasel family. The agencies plan in 2009 to bring releases to a total of eighty animals. Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists note that a healthy survival rate of tracked animals looks good for establishing a self-sustaining population of fishers on the Peninsula. Success there could lead to reintroduction of our own home-grown fishers to the Cascades, and another step toward fisher recovery in the Northwest.

In northwest Washington, local government approved the first steps towards creating a forest preserve in the Lake Whatcom watershed, comprising 25% of forests that filter and clean drinking water for more than 90,000 people. It’s been a long time coming: For nearly a decade Conservation Northwest has worked to reduce the impact of state commercial logging in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

Around the state our national forests, logged of their old growth over the last century, have often grown up into even-aged monocultures. How do we make these second-growth “plantations” both more resilient to climate change and into better habitat for wildlife? Conservation Northwest made good headway for forest collaborative work on the Gifford Pinchot, Olympic, Wenatchee-Okanogan, and Colville national forests, where we helped restore habitat degraded by roads, improve forest sales in young managed stands for wildlife and habitat, fire-proof forests near communities, and restore older stands to old-growth conditions. We still have much more work to do to move the Forest Service toward fully embracing restoration of our public forests.

The old-growth dependent northern spotted owl didn’t fare so well this year. The owl’s populations are declining by 4% a year in the Northwest, yet a recently released recovery plan for spotted owls cuts protection for up to one-half of the endangered bird’s critical habitat—most of it in Oregon where some of the biggest remaining old-growth trees in our country remain. Conservation Northwest was one of several groups who filed a motion in district court in Washington DC to intervene for owls in the ongoing timber industry challenge to critical habitat.

Cascades Connections

To protect habitat and create safer passage for wildlife in the Cascades, Conservation Northwest has spearheaded collaborative efforts including The Cascades Conservation Partnership (2000-2004) and I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition (2005 to present). The Partnership helped consolidate lands ownership to better connect the north to south Cascades. The Bridges Coalition is helping animals of the Cascades cross an otherwise impassable major thoroughfare. The final design and environmental impact statement for the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project was published this fall, leading the way to construction of new wildlife over- and underpasses for the interstate.

Building bridges starts young.
Building bridges starts young.

Wildlife bridges are ultimately good news for grizzly bears in Washington. A concerted public effort inspired Congressman Rick Larsen, whose district includes the Cascades, to support recovery of the rare North Cascades grizzly bear. With possibly fewer than 10 animals left in the Cascades, these grizzlies are highly endangered and jump starting their recovery is fundamental to their future. Our colleagues at the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project also made great headway this year, gaining what Director Chris Morgan calls a “landscape of understanding among the citizens of Washington.” People are starting to understand that what’s good for bears is good for people, and we have high hopes that next year will bring movement toward recovery of the great bear. Meanwhile, grizzly bear reports and sightings continue in the North Cascades.

Throughout the Cascades other wildlife sightings, from wolverines to wolves, were also on the rise, and with the Cascades Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project we continue to document the existence of rare carnivores using strategically placed, motion-sensitive remote cameras and wildlife winter tracking. Citizen monitoring to document Washington’s wildlife has volunteers headed into the field year-round.

Cascades to the Rockies

Midway through the year came the star performance: the documented return of wild wolves to the Okanogan and the first wolf pack to establish in Washington since the 1930s. Our remote cameras affirmed the return of wolves—on their own four legs, thank you very much—and said hello to the first wolf pups and reproducing pack to Washington. Eradicated from our state for close to a century, the “Cascades wolf” is back. DNA testing of the alpha male and female verified that the wolves are 100% wolf, animals who likely made their way down from the BC Rockies, showing how imperative it is to maintain the connections between the Cascades and Rockies ecosystems for wide-ranging animals like wolves.

Conservation Northwest supporter Irene Peters remembers back to that earlier time when wolves still howled in northeastern Washington; like many of you, she’s thrilled they are back. None too soon: With a year’s work under our belts as part of the governor-appointed wolf working group, Conservation Northwest helped produce a final working draft of a state-wide conservation plan for wolves returning to Washington. Increasingly frequent recent sightings of lone wolves indicated that the wolf was on its way, and oh, were they!

This year we sponsored “Wild Links,” our second annual wildlife briefing for scientists, nonprofits, funders, and interested citizens. This year’s theme focused on sharing ideas and information to encourage working landscapes and safe wildlife passage from the Cascades to the Rockies. Conservation Northwest’s organizer for the event, Jen Watkins, reflected, “Wild Links is a truly remarkable chance to link the many efforts affecting our landscapes, from the local to the regional.”

Also this summer, our “totem” animal, Canada lynx, got some relief from the pressures of climate change with a relatively tame fire season. That’s breathing space for this wild cat, after the Tripod fire complex of 2007 burned large swaths of Okanogan and Loomis spruce-pine forests. Lynx need fire, since the regeneration that follows feeds snowshoe hares, their favorite prey. But if too much of the forest is lost at once, and particularly where lynx habitat is already greatly reduced as it is in Washington, they suffer. In the aftermath of Tripod, Conservation Northwest was successful in getting the Department of Fish and Wildlife to drop old growth and lynx critical habitat from its salvage logging project for the Tripod fire.

This year the US Fish and Wildlife Service once again omitted highly suitable habitat in the Columbia Highlands from a critical habitat plan for lynx recovery. Though likely half of the estimated 300 lynx remaining in Washington live near the Loomis, adequate habitat exists throughout northeastern Washington. Conservation Northwest supporters sternly reminded the government of their responsibility not just to “protect” but to “recover” lynx across their range and to protect lands in the Highlands.

As for wolverine, concerned by what is seen as government corruption of science and failure to acknowledge the serious threat of climate change, Conservation Northwest and a coalition of ten other conservation groups this year filed suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service for its failure to protect wolverines under the Endangered Species Act. Washington State is one of the last strongholds for this gritty animal, but the wolverine, known for its ability to cross mountain ranges and cover large distances, is at grave risk from global climate disruption.

Animals such as wolverine will benefit greatly from growing local support for wilderness and of our work to protect wilderness in northeastern Washington. The Forest Service took comments on their wilderness evaluation for the Colville National Forest this year and thousands of members and supporters wrote to the agency to support wilderness protection for many areas in the Columbia Highlands. Hundreds attended often contentious local forest workshops. We continue to work with the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition on a balanced plan for the Colville National Forest.

Election Day brought more than a new day and hope in the White House. There were also big changes in the Columbia Highlands, where residents voted down county commissioners who opposed wilderness and collaboration.

Caribou in Canada. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk
Caribou in Canada. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk

Into the Wild: BC Rockies

In the past year, the BC government worked with stakeholders including the Mountain Caribou Project (Conservation Northwest, Wildsight, ForestEthics, and grassroots groups) to refine and finalize a recovery plan for the globally unique, enigmatic mountain caribou. The plan is based on commitments made by government to recover the animals to pre-1995 levels by protecting 95% of their high suitability habitat from logging and road building, managing motorized recreation and mining, and instituting adaptive management. Habitat protections will total 2.2 million hectares (that’s 5 million acres), including more than 1 million acres of new protected areas and large tracts of old-growth forests.

Mountain caribou constitute the southernmost occurrence of caribou in the world and are inextricably connected to old forests and roadless areas for food and security from predators. Our international programs director, Joe Scott, and BC outreach director, Lawrence Redfern, have been there every step of the way to make sure that the government lives up to its agreement. Final legislation is expected before year’s end.

We can’t end the year without mentioning regional old-growth legislation. This year Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon released a draft proposal to permanently protect the last remaining old-growth forests on federal lands, and we’re excited to see possible resolution of the controversy surrounding the logging of our region’s oldest and biggest trees. Building off our long history on this issue, we recently teamed up with our conservation allies to offer some important changes needed to the Senator’s plan. These oldest trees are life givers: the best refuge for carbon and most resistant to wildfire. Permanent protection has been a long time coming. We look forward to 2009 and all it brings.

Thank you for being our partners in keeping the Northwest wild. Yes, we can protect and connect old growth and wildlands from the Washington Coast to the BC Rockies to benefit wildlife and people. Happy New Year, here's to 2009!

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