Connecting and restoring Washington’s Sagelands

Connecting and restoring Washington’s Sagelands

ConservationNWAdmin / Apr 17, 2018 / Connecting Habitat, Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Sagelands

An update on our new Sagelands Heritage Program in Central Washington and southern British Columbia

BY JAY KEHNE, SAGELANDS PROGRAM LEAD

The northernmost extent of a “Sagebrush Sea” that extends from the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains to the Inland Northwest, our region’s arid steppe is often overlooked compared to the rugged splendor of mountain ranges like the Cascades. But spend some time in this country and you’ll find diverse wildlife, vibrant local communities, important agriculture and ranching, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

As someone who’s hiked, hunted, wildlife watched, worked in and otherwise made a life in this part of Washington for decades, I’m thrilled that we at Conservation Northwest are expanding our presence in this important landscape. We’re perfectly suited to use our collaborative approach and conservation expertise to bring value to this special place for both the wildlife and people that call it home!

A mule deer buck in sagebrush. Photo: National Park Service

Conservation Northwest’s new Sagelands Heritage Program 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.

Priority species include sage-grouse, bighorn sheep, badgers, sharp-tailed grouse, mule deer and pygmy rabbits. 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, the Waterville Plateau, Spiva Butte, Moses Coulee, the Colockum, Wenas and other state wildlife areas, and lands on the reservations of the Colville and Yakama nations.

As we began this program in 2017, initial work involved coordinating with conservation minded partners such as the Arid Lands Initiative to create regional conservation and habitat connectivity resources to inform our planning and decisions. This synthesis of existing science and local partner knowledge identifies the contribution and outcomes of ongoing efforts in the region, highlights gaps in conservation actions, and prioritizes the “pinch points” for maintaining and restoring habitat connectivity and landscape-scale conservation measures (many of them listed above) that if lost impact the entire linkage for wildlife and plant species. From this work we have developed program goals and specific projects for the coming year, as well as some longer-term plans.

Key Sagelands Heritage Program priorities include:

The Connected Backbone, a stretch of key north-south and east-west habitat running from the Okanagan Valley south into Oregon. Our program focus extends from Okanagan Mountain in B.C. to Horse Heaven Hills near Yakima. Map: Sonia Hall, SAH Ecological
  • Serving as a catalyst for localized efforts at specific locations for protection and restoration of a range of arid land species by securing linkages between habitat patches and core populations.
  • Coordinating with local communities and landowners to maintain, restore, and protect landscape-scale linkages with attention to promoting climate corridors and managing multiple-ownership lands in a way that benefits habitat, wildlife and people.
  • Adding value to ongoing efforts by partners and landowners in the region leading to broader-scale cooperation in the future, including integrating First Nations and tribal cultural and indigenous food knowledge and priorities with all efforts to maintain, restore, protect, and connect sagelands habitat.

Because the ongoing Working for Wildlife Initiative, led by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and coordinated by Conservation Northwest, already exists within much of the north portion of our focal area, we have projects underway that fit within our main program goals. These include pursuing conservation easements in the Okanogan Valley, improving safe passage for people and wildlife along a 12 mile stretch of Highway 97 north of Riverside where vehicle-wildlife collisions are common, post-fire reseeding and restoration of key mule deer habitat at places including Carter Mountain Wildlife Area, and fence marking or removal in key sharp-tailed grouse habitat in the Tunk Valley.

As state and federal agencies also work to boost sharp-tailed grouse numbers in these areas through augmentations from healthier populations elsewhere, we’ll seek to raise awareness about these efforts and the importance of this little-known bird.

We’re also continuing to support the establishment of a South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve in British Columbia’s Okanogan Valley, just over the U.S.-Canada border. At the top of the Connected Backbone and the very northern extent of the Sagebrush Sea, a new Canadian national park here would have tremendous benefits for wildlife habitat connectivity, outdoor recreation and local economies on both sides of the international border.

New sagelands initiatives

Male sharp-tailed grouse in a mating display. Photo: USFWS

Through our Sagelands program we’ve recently furnished financial support for the eventual purchase by Chelan-Douglas Land Trust of the Spiva Butte property near Leahy Junction. This beautiful 1,300 acre property contains extremely important woody riparian winter cover for sharp-tailed grouse, supports sage-grouse leks, and provides excellent riparian, wetland and upland shrub-steppe habitat for a multitude of other wildlife species. Permanently conserving this important property will provide an important anchor point in the Connected Backbone in eastern Douglas County.

Another early area of focus has been our support of ranchers’ efforts in the Moxee and Palisades areas to form Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) that could provide landowners the tools, safety equipment and training to allow more of their involvement in helping to preserve habitat and prevent forage damage from fire on both private and public lands. Unlike the fire-adapted pine forests of the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the sage and bitterbrush of the steppe are not particularly resilient to fire, especially when it’s fueled by invasive plants like cheatgrass.

With the support of new contractors in the Wenatchee and Yakima areas, we are also looking at key state and federal lands in central Washington to support habitat connectivity, outdoor recreation, species recovery, and other values, including the Wells, Wenas and Colockum state wildlife areas and the Yakima Firing Center.

Sagelands and Spiva Butte in Douglas County. Photo: Ferdi Businger

Working with tribes and local communities

On top of all this focus on habitat linkages and connectivity, we’ll continue to work with state agencies to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Similar to our work around Interstate 90 near Snoqualmie Pass and efforts for Highway 97 wildlife crossings in the Okanogan Valley, we’re supporting the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Yakama Nation in efforts to implement House Bill 1353, state legislation to reduce human-elk conflict near the Colockum Wildlife area and around I-90 between Ellensburg and Vantage. Under this guidance, the Colockum Elk Herd Pilot Project will explore viability of various wildlife management actions to reduce animal-vehicle collisions and elk damage to private lands.

Supporting another priority sagelands species, Washington’s endangered pygmy rabbits, we will also look at gathering volunteers to help WDFW and The Nature Conservancy with the Beezley Hills Pygmy Rabbit enclosure rebuild after it burned in the Sutherland Fire last year.

Pronghorn antelope in Wyoming. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Finally but of great importance, in all this work we want to coordinate closely with the first peoples of these landscapes, integrating Colville Confederated Tribes, Yakama Nation, and B.C. First Nations indigenous plant, wildlife and habitat connectivity knowledge into the Sagelands Heritage Program. As we seek to build on our existing partnerships and create new connections to support the goals of these tribal nations, we’ll benefit from the guidance of Conservation Northwest boardmembers and Colville tribal members Amelia and Joaquin Marchand.

As our Sagelands Heritage Program gains steam, we’re particularly excited to support both the Colville and Yakama nations in their efforts to reintroduce pronghorn antelope to Washington’s sagelands. This native species was missing for most of the 20th century, but small herds have recently been returned to each nation’s reservation, spreading to surrounding areas. We’ll keep their needs in mind as we focus on habitat linkages, and hope our efforts will someday allow pronghorn restoration programs to expand to state and federal wildlife areas in Washington’s shrub-steppe.

Your support is vital

Along the way, we plan to keep our membership and wider audiences aware of the importance of the work of our new Sagelands Heritage Program through presentations, blogs, short videos, news articles, and Google Flyover mapping products.

Washington’s sagelands are a special place—vital to people and dozens of native bird and wildlife species. Cognizant of the many entities that are already doing great work in these landscapes, we’re employing Conservation Northwest’s three decades of skill, leadership and expertise to complement and leverage current conservation efforts in the region.

These are exciting times for our organization to be involved with such important connectivity work, and with so many great partners to do it with! Join us as we embark on new efforts to protect, connect and restore Washington’s sagelands. Your support is vital for our success.

Read more perspectives on the Sagebrush Sea in this blog from our Communications Director! Or Check out our Sagelands Heritage Program webpage.

Rolling sagebrush steppe at Wells Wildlife Area in Douglas County, near the mouth of the Okanogan River. Photo Chase Gunnell