An update on fish and wildlife issues during a Washington state Senate hearing sparked some unexpected debate over wildlife habitat.
As he nears the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Olympia, WDFW Director Jim Unsworth went before Sen. Kirk Pearson’s Natural Resources and Parks Committee Wednesday afternoon to talk about his Washington’s Wild Future initiative, a series of listening sessions that grew out of conversations he had with steelheaders on local streams.
Unsworth began with a preface about the biggest challenges facing the state’s fish and wildlife and the management thereof: increasing human population — coming at a clip of a million new Amazonians and Walgamottlings a decade — meeting Endangered Species Act requirements, rising agency operating costs, recurring wildfires and drought, and habitat loss.
But before he could move on from those bullet points to the rest of his presentation, he was challenged by Sen. Brian Dansel (R-Republic) to define what exactly he meant by the last item — habitat loss.
Unsworth initially pointed to the spread of more people over the landscape, but Dansel countered with the growth management act, which attempts to concentrate development within designated zones and rural subdivisions at larger acreages.
The 1990s’ act is a subject that fired Dansel’s interest in politics. His struggles to develop his grandfather’s land led him to run for county commissioner.
“The regulations imposed by GMA proved invasive and restrictive to the people of Ferry County and their private property rights,” his legislative website contends.
Dansel told Unsworth that he’d wager “everything I’m worth” that today “there’s more habitat than there’s ever been been.”
The director responded that he’d have to disagree, and he said WDFW could show lots of acres that have been paved over, streams and riparian areas that have been altered, and habitat that is no longer “functioning in the same way it was 40 years ago.”
Dansel shot back that more land is being protected these days and called the term habitat loss disingenuous because in the years he’s been in the senate — he was elected in November 2013 — he’s seen land acquisitions and conservation easements.
That would include big chunks of the 4-O Ranch in Asotin County and the Columbia River Ranch in Douglas County, both being acquired from willing sellers, as well as smaller parcels in Grays Harbor and Skamania Counties, among others.
Though Unsworth’s presentation at that point wasn’t geared to it, what Dansel wanted from the director were specifics about what he meant by habitat loss.
By chance, fellow Republican Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee was in attendance to speak on a bill of hers before the committee (SB 6296, extending the expiration date of a habitat and recreation group), and she took the opportunity to talk about the Stemilt Basin and elk.
We covered that issue last year in Northwest Sportsman magazine. It involved a bid by a local family to grow valuable late-season cherries at higher elevation, their clearing of draws that serve as migratory corridors for deer and elk, and state land that had been targeted for more orchards but was sold to WDFW in the end.
“As an orchardist, when we plant orchards on private land or even state land at higher elevation, it displaces all the elk and other habitat, and they go into our orchard,” Evans Parlette told Dansel. “Over the Christmas holiday, throughout the Stemilt Basin those of us with orchards really suffered because of the habitat lost where more orchards are planted in the wildlife corridors.”
More specifics can be found gleaning WDFW press releases. A decade and a half ago, the agency estimated that 70,000 acres is annually converted to uses that “(eliminate) or seriously (degrade) the lands’ use for fish and wildlife habitat.”
Sen. Dansel’s journeys between Republic and Olympia would pass through examples of lost critter habitat:
- Orchards along Highways 97 and 97A and 2 in prime mule deer winter range;
- Hay and other ag operations along I-90 in Kittitas County that require feedlots to keep elk in the foothills;
- The Suncadia development outside Cle Elum;
- The wholesale conversion of the Green River valley along Highway 18 in Auburn;
- The filling of the Puyallup River estuary at Tacoma alongside I-5.
And were he to take the scenic route south from Republic, he would come to Grand Coulee Dam, the creation of which cut off hundreds of miles of salmon habitat stretching clear into Canada, and also provided the fuel to turn much of the western Columbia Basin into an agricultural powerhouse, just as the Yakima Valley has become a vast fruit stand thanks to irrigation.
Indeed, this is not to say that all that was wrong or evil. It’s provided immense good and wealth to the people of the state.
I’m here to declare that Washington apples and cherries are the best around — I’ll be enjoying a Pacific rose, perhaps grown around Brewster, this afternoon.
And like Sen. Dansel brought up, hell yeah I like I-5 for how quickly it gets me to the Columbia River and Oregon.
At the same time, the conversion and slicing of land into fruit and nut orchards, hay and corn circles, potato fields — not to mention mile upon mile upon mile of 206er, 253er and 425er habitat — needs to be mitigated if we are to enjoy hunting and fishing in the future.
At a clip of 70,000 acres a year, there is simply no way that WDFW’s scattered buys can keep pace with lost room for critters to roam and clean waters to swim in.
But a scattershot approach is also helpful. Just as important as those irrigation ditches are for bringing the water to the orchards and fields, so too is habitat connectivity linking parcels for critters like muleys and prairie grouse to move safely across.
As Unsworth continued with his Washington’s Wild Future initiative briefing, he said one of the top concerns his agency heard was that folks want more access. He said that hunters and anglers can’t get enough public land, though he also noted that some counties had concerns.
Pointing to another contentious issue, he said he thought that managing elk for Idaho Fish & Game had been tough, “but it doesn’t hold a candle to salmon allocation issues.”
And speaking of fishing, Unsworth said that he had a crew working on simplifying the fishing regulations and that a smartphone app for detailing rules for specific waters was being noodled.
And now I must actually do some work, so we’ll end this rambler of a blog here.