Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative

Maintaining the Okanogan’s working lands and wildlife heritage

Mule deer
Mule deer

After decades spent protecting and connecting lands within the Cascades Mountains and Kettle River Ranges, in 2014 and beyond we are excited to focus on the vital connection between these two landscapes through the Working for Wildlife Initiative.

In a collaboration facilitated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a coalition of state, federal, tribal and nongovernmental interests—including Conservation Northwest—have joined together to protect wildlife habitat, working lands and natural heritage in the diverse landscape of the Okanogan Valley and Kettle River Mountain Range.

The Okanogan Valley has long been an important home and migration pathway for both people and wildlife. Bordered to the north by Canada, to the west by the Cascade Mountains, to the east by the Okanogan Highlands and beyond that, the Kettle River Range.

This new initiative is only possible because of generous donor and grantee support. Thanks to the Washington Women’s FoundationThe Orvis CompanyNew Belgium Brewing, and our other partners for making it possible!

This broad open valley of sagebrush grassland and Ponderosa pine forest is known for its special qualities: sparkling rivers and lakes, rocky outcrops and highlands rising above the valley floor, productive agricultural lands, and a wide diversity of wildlife and habitat. Generations have cherished the land and sustained themselves on what it offered.

Semi-nomadic First Peoples maintained camps in the valley through the winter, following the seasons, moving from place to place to hunt, fish and harvest food and cultural plants. The descendants of these aboriginal residents remain and continue their traditional and treaty-protected uses of the landscape.

Wildlife Heritage

Wildlife in the region remains abundant. Mule deer migrate annually from the valleys to higher elevations in the warmer seasons. The healthiest lynx population in the continental United States is anchored in the high country of the Okanogan. Cougar, elk and bighorn sheep are stable or increasing in numbers. One of the state’s only populations of sharp-tailed grouse moves within the arid lands of the Tunk Valley to find food, mates and shelter.

An average 350 deer are killed each year by vehicle collisions along the 11.7 mile stretch of Highway 97 between Tonasket and Riverside, with an average societal cost of over $7,000 per collision.

Working Lands

A road killed mule deer along Highway 97.
A road killed mule deer along Highway 97.

This wildlife diversity exists in harmony with the county’s rural agricultural character. Orchards, farms, ranches and sawmills are at the heart of the Okanogan economy and culture. Rivers and other natural obstacles to wildlife movement have always existed, but the additional effects of human development are raising concern. The spread of invasive plant species and a legacy of fire suppression efforts have also caused forest health problems that directly impact habitat function.

Continuing expansion of development into rural areas is fragmenting habitat, reducing agricultural production and diminishing the rural lifestyle of the Okanogan Valley. The resulting increase in traffic along Highway 97 has increased the risk to public safety from vehicle collisions with wildlife while making it more difficult for wildlife to safely move.

An average 350 deer are killed each year by vehicle collisions along the 11.7 mile stretch of Highway 97 between Tonasket and Riverside, with an average societal cost of over $7,000 per collision. Learn about Safe Passage 97, a collaborative effort led by a local Mule Deer Foundation chapter to reduce animal-vehicle collisions along Highway 97 in Okanogan County.

Artist's rendition of Highway 97 underpass.
Artist’s rendition of Highway 97 underpass.

Goals of the Initiative

The Working for Wildlife Initiative brings together partners (including Conservation Northwest) to take advantage of timely opportunities to maintain and restore habitat connectivity between the Cascade Mountains and Kettle River Range for Canada lynx, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, and mule deer.

By 2020 we aim to conserve existing habitat values on tens of thousands of acres of private land, construct three wildlife underpasses on Highway 97 to facilitate safer passage, restore habitat quality and resiliency on 20,000 acres, augment the local population of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, lay the groundwork for recovery of Canada lynx in the Kettle River Mountain Range, and establish programs and relationships to increase the community’s tools and pride in coexisting with wildlife so this work will continue over time.

Strategies within this plan fall into six coordinated and complementary categories:

  • Lands conservation
  • The landscape of the Okanogan region. Photo: Rob Sinclair
    The landscape of the Okanogan region. Photo: Rob Sinclair

    Habitat restoration

  • Safe Passage on Highway 97
  • Capacity, Outreach, Incentives
  • Species-specific management strategies and
  • Planning, Research, Monitoring

All of these strategies are supported by a science-based decision support tool and rigorous monitoring and communication plans to ensure that our actions are strategic and advance us toward our goal to measurably maintain and improve the ability for wildlife to move across this landscape.