DISPATCHES FROM THE WASHINGTON WILDFIRES

Some great fire perspective and analysis is available from my colleagues at Conservation Northwest who are on the front lines of this year’s wildfires in Washington state:

“We still have at least a few weeks of risky fire season in which anything can happen. But I have a couple observations to make about what has thus far burned. The large fires of 2014 and 2015 have primarily been in the frontcountry shrub-steppe, with Wolverine and Stickpin being notable exceptions. Many of our most expensive and damaging fires have started and burned through private and heavily-managed lands including those managed for industrial production. Fires near and in Wenatchee, Chelan, Riverside, Addy all started nearby. What this means is that when conditions are this ripe, with the land dry and the weather hot and occasionally windy, everything can be prone to fire.

We need to plan for more frequent drought and fire conditions like those we are experiencing this year by advancing policies that promote climate adaptation, such as managing for forest and ecosystem resilience, and local community preparedness.” 

Methow Valley, August 2015 Photo Jasmine MinbashianWe’ll be posting regular updates, photos and perspectives from the Methow, Okanogan and other areas of Eastern Washington on the Conservation Northwest blog until the fires go out.

For the latest official fire updates, I recommend: Inciweb, this GIS map (or this one), Okanogan County Emergency Management and Chelan County Emergency Management.

For more quality wildfire coverage, check out these articles:  Washington Post – Five myths about wildfires  The Guardian – ‘It’s unrelenting’: inside the Washington town surrounded by raging wildfires

2015 wildfires: The view from Omak

Strong winds and low humidity are expected through this week, with fire danger remaining high. But thankfully some rain might be in the forecast east of the Cascades this coming weekend.

Conservation Northwest’s Twisp staffers were evacuated last week, another of my coworkers in Omak is safe but surrounded by fires, and now the Wolverine Fire is poised to jump from the Entiat drainage into the Chiwawa Valley, threatening the Plain and Lake Wenatchee area.

More on that in this “It’s Time to Prepare” notice our family and many others in the Plain community received from the Lake Wenatchee Fire District.

While currently minor in the scheme of fire impacts, this last development and precautionary forest closures are canceling some of my fall hunting plans, blocking access to remote camera monitoring sites I manage for North Cascades wolverine research, and causing many in the community where my family has long had a cabin to start packing up valuables and preparing for possible Level 1 evacuation warnings later this week. Hopefully those don’t come.

FISHING THROUGH RECOVERY

The Puget Sound Wild Steelhead Gene Bank public comment period has been extended through August 31st, 2015. However, we have been informed that only comments submitted through the official secure comment form will be accepted.

Unfortunately, at this time this does not include comments emailed to WDFW decision makers, either through action alerts or independently.

WSGB Graphic Final Release-01

For some excellent perspective on why strong, river basin-wide wild steelhead sanctuaries are needed on Puget Sound’s Skagit, Puyallup and Elwha watersheds (at a minimum), and how it is still possible to “fish through recovery” in some of these rivers, check out this Wild Steelhead Coalition Op-Ed in The Drake Magazine.

Excerpt below:

Designation as a WSGB doesn’t necessarily prohibit fishing through recovery. The Sol Duc River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a WSGB and it maintains a thriving and iconic wild steelhead fishery. The same could be true for the Skagit River and, if the health and recovery of wild steelhead runs allow, other Puget Sound watersheds designated as WSGBs.

This effort isn’t about ending all hatcheries or shutting down steelhead fishing opportunity in Washington, Stumpf adds. “It’s about removing one barrier to recovery on a few rivers with the greatest potential for a wild steelhead comeback. This is a pragmatic and sensible step for wild steelhead. And hopefully it allows those WSGBs to be a model for wild fish recovery throughout the Pacific Northwest.”

Groups like the Wild Steelhead Coalition, Native Fish Society, Trout Unlimited, and Wild Fish Conservancy have identified three marquee watersheds, out of a list of several up for consideration. The Skagit system, the Elwha, and Puyallup all possess habitat conditions and current wild steelhead numbers that make recovery possible. Thus, they are the prime candidates for a hatchery-free future.”

Take action here: bit.ly/SteelheadGeneBankCommentForm

Rainforest Winter Steelhead Camp
Worth protecting

HELP CREATE WILD STEELHEAD SANCTUARIES

An important message from the Wild Steelhead Coalition – Submit a comment by August 13th!

Help Create Wild Steelhead Sanctuaries in Washington

Make your voice heard and take advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to help Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) establish wild steelhead sanctuaries in Puget Sound rivers. 

WSGB Graphic Final Release-01

WDFW is currently accepting comments on which Puget Rivers to select as “wild steelhead gene banks.” This process is an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate a threat to wild steelhead in rivers across Puget Sound and work toward a multi-faceted recovery process that benefits wild fish, local communities and passionate anglers.

Through years of hard work and extensive collaboration with Native Fish Society, Wild Fish Conservancy, and the Conservation Angler, we have been able to take important, incremental steps to help reduce the negative impacts of steelhead hatcheries. However, in all of our years of work, we have never before had an opportunity like this in Puget Sound to use public input and the best available science to transform rivers into wild steelhead gene banks where the harm of hatchery steelhead will be forever eliminated. Now more than ever before, we need to take action.

While the creation of at least three wild steelhead gene banks is required under Washington’s State Steelhead Management Plan, WDFW has significant latitude over how many rivers and which rivers they designate as gene banks. With hatchery proponents working furiously to limit these designations to three smaller tributaries, it is critical that wild steelhead advocates make their voices heard and establish river basins that have diversity, abundance and will provide refuge through a changing climate.

>>TAKE ACTION FOR WILD STEELHEAD<<

This process is truly an unprecedented opportunity to remove a significant barrier to steelhead recovery in Puget Sound rivers and help these embattled steelhead populations rebound. Please take advantage of this rare chance and tell WDFW they need to create a multitude of strong, effective wild steelhead gene banks.

Please stay tuned as this issue unfolds and look for regular updates via email and on the Wild Steelhead Coalition website and Facebook page.

More…

HUNTING VERSUS POACHING

Highwayman's Hole II (2)

Hunting is strictly regulated by science-based wildlife management and fair-chase ethics to ensure that hunters can pursue healthy, organic and ethical meat, experience important connections to our human and natural heritage, and provide conservation benefits for the health of wildlife populations and wild ecosystems.

Meat is always packed out before hides or antlers, utmost care is taken to achieve a clean kill, and as much of the animal is eaten or used as is possible. Real hunters care for, respect and are deeply thankful for the animals they harvest.

Killing only for “trophies” or on high-fenced land, pursuing a (non-problem causing) animal that has lost it’s fear of humans, using bait to lure it out of a protected national park, shooting it without a required permit and quota authorization; this is not hunting. It’s poaching, plain and simple.

Prosecute and extradite this a-hole poacher and see how he likes a Zimbabwean prison.

PUGET SOUND WILD STEELHEAD GENE BANK REQUESTS

Here are the collective recommendations from the Wild Steelhead Coalition, Wild Fish Conservancy, Native Fish Society, and The Conservation Angler:

WSGB Graphic Final Release-01

(Click for expandable, downloadable PDF version)

Comments can be submitted at: bit.ly/SteelheadGeneBankCommentForm

Additionally, the Wild Steelhead Coalition has compiled a suite of materials, including general talking points, river specific talking points, and a helpful graphic, for those planning to attend.

Wild steelhead are Washington’s iconic state fish. Yet they are struggling at less than five percent of historic abundance.

WDFW is currently holding a public process to designate at least three wild steelhead sanctuaries or “Gene Banks” in the Puget Sound region to promote recovery. The planting of harmful (and crazy expensive) hatchery steelhead would be discontinued, but selective fishing could continue once recovery thresholds are met, just as it currently is on the Olympic Peninsula’s Sol Duc River.

More information available from the Wild Steelhead Coalition. Further talking points and detailed suggested comments forthcoming.

HELP CREATE WILD STEELHEAD SANCTUARIES IN WASHINGTON

Public comments are now being accepted on Puget Sound Wild Steelhead Gene Bank Selection. Submit your comment by Aug. 13th at: bit.ly/SteelheadGeneBankCommentForm

From the Wild Steelhead Coalition:

Help protect and recover threatened populations of wild steelhead in once prolific Puget Sound rivers by telling Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to establish strong, effective wild steelhead gene banks.

wsc

One of the most significant and scientifically recognized impediments to the recovery of wild steelhead populations are hatchery steelhead. According to NOAA, planting hatchery steelhead can pose genetic and ecological threats to wild steelhead runs, from competition for suitable habitat and increased predation to loss of genetic fitness.

As part of Washington’s Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, WDFW is establishing a number of rivers in Puget Sound as wild steelhead management zones or “gene banks” to help address the hatchery problem.

These rivers will be managed exclusively as wild steelhead rivers and will not be planted with hatchery steelhead. As a result, they will become wild steelhead sanctuaries, where wild fish populations can recover without the negative impacts of hatchery fish. This gene bank designation program has already seen budding success on the Olympic Peninsula’s Sol Duc River, and gene banks have recently been selected on several lower-Columbia River tributary rivers.

As WDFW works to establish these gene banks, they are seeking public input to help determine which rivers and how many rivers to designate.  Over the next few weeks, WDFW will be hosting several meetings for the public to learn about this issue and submit their comments. The schedule is:

  • Educational Workshop Monday, July 13 from 5:00 – 9:00 PM in Seattle at the Phinney Center: Room 7 (6352 Phinney Ave N)
  • Public Comment Meeting – Tuesday, July 21 from 6:00 – 9:00 PM in Seattle at the Phinney Center: Room 7 (6352 Phinney Ave N)
  • Public Comment Meeting – Monday, July 27 from 6:00 – 9:00 PM in Mount Vernon at Skagit PUD (1415 Freeway Dr.)
  • Public Comment Meeting – Tuesday, July 28 from 6:00 – 9:00 PM in Sequim at Trinity Methodist Church (100 S Blake Ave)

For the benefit of wild steelhead recovery and the natural and angling heritage of future generations, it’s important that significant Puget Sound river systems, not just minor tributary streams, are designated as wild steelhead sanctuaries.

As a supporter of wild steelhead, please attend one or more of the public meetings and voice your opinion. Also, please stay tuned and look for updates and recommendations from us via email and on the Wild Steelhead Coalition website andFacebook page as this issue unfolds.

Thank you for your support and for everything you do to protect and conserve wild steelhead.

STEELHEAD SUMMIT VIDEOS NOW ONLINE

For my angling and conservation friends interested in some steelhead science. Also, big thanks to filmmaker Shane Anderson of North Fork Studios for filming and The Fly Fish Journal for spreading the word!

Groups, anglers and citizens concerned about the restoration and protection of native, wild steelhead of the Skagit River in Washington are welcome to attend this event. You’ll hear presentations by noted scientists who work on fisheries and habitat research, and discuss public policy initiatives with wild steelhead advocates.

More info from the official Wild Steelhead Coalition video announcement, drafted by yours truly:

On April 18th, the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Steelhead Summit Alliance hosted the 10th annual Steelhead Summit at the University of Washington.

On a clear spring day that had many dreaming of once again fishing for wild steelhead on the Skagit River, this informative event brought together conservation groups, anglers and citizens from across the region to share information on the restoration and protection of native, wild steelhead on the mighty Skagit and beyond.

Noted scientists including Bill McMillan, John McMillan and Dave Pflug, presented on the history of wild steelhead returns to the Skagit, and the population’s downfall in the early and mid 1900’s in the face of overharvest, habitat loss and unrelenting hatchery plants.

Conservationists and representatives from the tribal co-managers talked about the latest research and habitat restoration projects that are being done to help these iconic fish in this legendary river rebound. And anglers and retired fish managers shared information gathered from decades of experience working and fishing on the Skagit River and among its wild fish.

Renowned filmmaker Shane Anderson, producer and director of Wild Reverence: The Wild Steelhead’s Last Stand, was on hand to film each of the day’s talks. Today, we are excited to announce that each of the presentations from this year’s Steelhead Summit are now available on our YouTube channel:

2015 Steelhead Summit Alliance: Wild Skagit steelhead on YouTube

Being well informed is the first step to being an effective advocate for wild steelhead and the waters they call home. Groups, anglers and citizens concerned about the restoration and protection of native, wild steelhead of the Skagit River in Washington should watch these videos.

Our hope is that by sharing these presentations, the Wild Steelhead Coalition, the Steelhead Summit Alliance and our networks of members, supporters and wild fish advocates will be contributing to a more informed community working together to recover and conserve a vital icon of the Pacific Northwest: the wild steelhead of the Skagit River Basin.

STATE BREAKS GROUND ON FIRST WILDLIFE BRIDGE OVER I-90

The below is a piece I authored today for Conservation Northwest:

Conservationists celebrate major milestone for habitat connectivity in the Pacific Northwest

From elk and black bears to rare wolves and wolverines, wildlife are on the move in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. But for decades Interstate 90 has been a serious barrier to creatures traveling through some of the state’s richest habitat, impacting wildlife populations and putting both motorists and animals in danger.

A project that broke ground on Tuesday, June 9th plans to change that.

Thanks to advocacy from Conservation Northwest, leadership from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and support from a broad coalition of organizations, businesses and state and federal agencies, wild animals will soon be getting their own bridge, dubbed the Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing, over the busy freeway east of Snoqualmie Pass.

Rendition of the Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing. Photo: WSDOT

“I-90 has a tremendous impact on wildlife because it’s carrying over 28,000 vehicles a day bisecting the Cascades,” said Jen Watkins of Conservation Northwest, coordinator for the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. “If we prevent them from moving, we’re blocking their ability to find food, we’re blocking their ability to find new places to live when conditions change, like the large wildfires we saw last year, and we’re blocking their ability to find new mates and have some genetic diversity in the population.”

Watkins believes the I-90 wildlife overcrossing and recently completed wildlife undercrossings are a monumental step forward for wildlife and habitat in the Pacific Northwest region.

Speaking at Tuesday’s groundbreaking, Jason Kuiken, deputy forest supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said projects like the I-90 overcrossing help reconnect fish and wildlife habitat and exemplify the mission of the Forest Service.

“This is truly an exceptional project that extends well beyond the place we are today, “said Kuiken.

For over a decade, Conservation Northwest has led efforts to protect, connect and restore habitat in the Snoqualmie Pass corridor. After years of advocating for safe wildlife crossings under and over I-90, the regional non-profit organization is thrilled to reach this important milestone. 

Staff from Conservation Northwest, Forterra, Sierra Club, WSDOT and other partners pose in front of the overcrossing rendition. Photo Chase Gunnell

Conservation Northwest also administers the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, a diverse group of endorsing businesses, conservation and civic organizations that advocate for the wildlife crossings project. The Coalition grew out of The Cascades Conservation Partnership, a four-year campaign led by Conservation Northwest that played a key role in acquiring and protecting over 34,000 acres of forest habitat in the Snoqualmie Pass corridor from 2000-2004.

Using trail cameras and the support of enthusiastic volunteers, the organization is monitoring wildlife traveling through the Snoqualmie Pass area, as well restoring habitat and native vegetation near the new crossing structures. Monitoring data helped inform the locations of the wildlife crossings and helps to illustrate the wildlife active in the surrounding area.

Student artists awarded for their illustrations of animals using the I-90 crossings. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Part of Phase 2 of WSDOT’s I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project, the Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing will be the first over a major highway or freeway in Washington state. One of the largest and most ambitious wildlife crossing structures built in the country to date, it will reconnect vital habitat on either side of one of the nation’s busiest mountain passes.

“This project is a shining example of WSDOT’s future direction. It embraces our values, goals and strategies for a safe transportation system that improves mobility and supports economic growth,” said Cam Gilmour, WSDOT deputy secretary of transportation.

Several major wildlife underpasses have already been completed during Phase 1 of the project, and remote cameras show many of them are already in use by creatures big and small.

When finished, the section of I-90 from Snoqualmie Pass to Easton will include more than 20 underpasses and overpasses for wildlife, fish and amphibians, including endangered or threatened species such as bull trout and wolverines. Dozens of small culverts and creek crossings will also be rebuilt or expanded.

“We think this is going to make a lot of difference for wildlife,” said WSDOT project manager Brian White in a Seattle Times interview.

As if to underscore the importance of the wildlife crossings project, an elk was killed by a vehicle on I-90 early Tuesday morning at Price Creek. The collision happened just yards from where the new overcrossing is now under construction.

Motorists, truckers and businesses across the region will benefit from the project as well. The Snoqualmie Pass East Project includes adding two new lanes to the interstate, stabilizing rock slopes, constructing new avalanche bridges and straightening hazardous curves.

The entire project is expected to cost close to $1 billion, funded primarily through a gas tax imposed by the state legislature in 2005. The Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing is budgeted at $6.2 million. Construction is scheduled to be complete in 2019.

This success connecting habitat over and under I-90 is only possible through collaboration. A huge THANK YOU to WSDOT, Forterra, the Sierra Club, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, and all the other partners, organizations, agencies and businesses that have supported this project.

Location where an elk was killed on I-90 by a vehicle early Tuesday morning, June 9th. Blood is still visible on the freeway in the lower left, far lane. Photo: Chase Gunnell

PHOTOS FROM ANOTHER WINTER STEELHEAD SEASON

I had a tough winter on Washington’s hallowed wild steelhead waters. Time after time, just when I’d finally schedule a weekend trip to a favorite OP or Grays Harbor river between work and family obligations, mother nature would throw a curveball in the form of bad weather and blown out water. At least the fall and early-winter hatchery steelhead season on the local waters put a few fish in the boat and on the BBQ.

Still, I got out to the coast a few times and had my chances at big, bright wild fish. Unfortunately both those chances, one fish hooked on the swung fly and one on a float and jig, ended up in the fish’s favor.

But when angling for wild winter steelhead, the journey is truly the reward. And from camping trips and long hikes through the rainforest in search of empty glacial water, to sunny days fishing the boat ramp run with a case of beer and good buddies, some great adventures were had during this season’s pursuit of a wild Northwest icon.

Sky Rainbow

December Steel

North Cascades Bulls

North Cascades Bulls

Coastal Steelheading

Winter steelheading

Winter steelheading

Rainforest steelheading

Rainforest steelhead

Rainforest steelhead

Winter steelheading

Winter steelheading

Rainforest steelhead

Winter steelheading

PROPOSAL TO REMOVE PROTECTIONS FOR CASCADES WOLVES

As a hunter and someone who has spent time in Northwest wolf country with ranchers, cowboys, wolf biologists and predator conflict specialists, I understand the need to use the best available science to responsibly manage gray wolf populations once they’ve reached sustainable recovery levels.

At the same time, I also want to hunt and recreate in healthy wild landscapes, places where I’m not the only predator out in the woods.

Hunters, anglers and other recreationists head into the outdoors because it connects us with a vital piece of our human and natural heritage. I believe those connections and that heritage are diminished when native carnivores are absent from the wild places we visit.

Gray wolf on road in Washington. Photo: WDFW
Gray wolf on a forest road in Washington state. Photo: WDFW

Wolves can certainly have localized impacts on deer, elk and other prey species including changes to behavior, range and even threats to healthy population levels if predator densities become over-saturated. At a local level this can impact hunter success and ungulate population health. Once wolf populations have recovered to sustainable levels, this impact, as well as possible impacts to domestic livestock, necessitates informed and thoughtful predator management. Just like we manage so many other wildlife species in the modern era.

But other than the uniquely threatened South Selkirks mountain caribou herd, there has been no evidence that with likely less than 100 wolves in Washington today, they have yet caused any serious impacts to ungulate populations or other prey species in our state. 

And there is scant evidence that wolves are actually “decimating” game herds in the Northern Rockies region as some claim. Albeit this limited impact is likely in part due to the active wolf hunting and management that began there after gray wolf populations officially “recovered” around 2010-11.

For example even with over 550 wolves and nearly 150 wolf packs in Montana in 2014, elk populations in nearly all of that state’s Hunting Districts continue to be at or over objective. Elk numbers have dropped in some areas of Montana, Idaho (the Lolo, Sawtooth and Salmon River zones in particular) and Wyoming, but many of those Northern Rockies elk populations were at an unhealthy high level prior to wolf recovery. And there is also significant habitat loss and other factors at work in the Northern Rockies in addition the the return of the gray wolf. 

However, wolves can and do cause problems for livestock operators if thorough conflict avoidance measures aren’t employed. Even with tactics like range riding, fladry, guard dogs and carcass composting, some wolf packs (some experts argue one in seven packs) will still occasionally prey on domestic animals such as cows and sheep if opportunities exist. If herd supervision, carcass removal, wolf hazing and other management actions aren’t taken swiftly in response, wolf packs can become habituated to feeding on livestock in these instances.

What’s more, new research has shown that killing wolves may even increase the likelihood of such conflict with domestic animals.

Despite their tendency to occasionally depredate on livestock, as a keystone species wolves also provide vital ecosystem benefits, they can improve the health of game herds and in my mind they deserve careful conservation on our western landscapes. And they hold an important place in our shared natural heritage.

Love ’em or hate ’em, gray wolves are icons of the West.

Still, Endangered Species Act protections are not meant to be infinite. Conservation Northwest supports delisting wolves and other endangered species when the best available science shows the population has reached a level where local recovery can be sustained without federal ESA protections. But with only a dozen confirmed wolves in Washington’s Cascades and seven in the Oregon Cascades, we’re simply not there yet.

Methow and Sinlahekin Road Trip

On the range with USFS and University of Washington wolf researchers. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Wolves in the Cascades and other areas of western Washington and Oregon are just beginning to gain a foothold for recovery. And that recovery has already been seriously hampered by illegal poaching. These iconic animals are part of the rich natural heritage of the Pacific Northwest, and there is strong public support for wolf recovery in the region.

Wolves remain listed as a state endangered species by both Washington and Oregon. But on the federal level, Washington is split into two separate wolf populations.

In the eastern third of the state, roughly east of a line consisting of Highway 97 and the north-south section of the Columbia River, wolves are considered part of the Northern Rocky Mountain Population (56 confirmed animals in WA at the end of 2014), which was taken off the federal endangered species list in 2011. In the western two-thirds of the state, wolves are considered part of the Pacific Northwest Population, which is much smaller (12 confirmed animals at the end of 2014) and still federally listed as endangered.

At the end of 2014, state wildlife officials in Washington and Oregon confirmed only 19 total wolves in the Pacific Northwest Population (*Another Oregon wolf, OR25, was confirmed in that state’s Cascades in April 2015).

Genetic analysis of wolves recolonizing the Washington Cascades has also shown the Lookout, Wenatchee and Teanaway Packs to be descendants of coastal wolves from southwestern British Columbia. Wolves from the coastal areas of B.C. and southeast Alaska tend to be smaller and have more reddish coloring than their interior cousins. And they’re known to feed on salmon and shellfish. These unique genetic traits are another factor that distinguishes Washington’s Pacific Northwest wolves from the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.

Unfortunately even with these very low confirmed wolf numbers in the Pacific Northwest Population, a freshmen U.S. Representative from central Washington this week proposed to remove all federal protections from wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah.

The bill would also prevent these states from providing wolf protections that are stronger than those in place at the federal level.

The time will come to delist the Northwest’s gray wolves at both the state and federal levels. But in my opinion with so few wolves in the Cascades, now is not the time to hamstring natural wolf recovery in the Pacific Northwest by completely removing federal protections.

These Federal ESA protections, including the greater recovery management resources and the strong poaching deterrents they provide, should remain in place for Washington and Oregon’s Pacific Northwest wolf population until our region’s wolf numbers are much closer to scientifically-sound recovery benchmarks.

Read more about this proposal in the links below:

Want to learn more about Washington’s wolves?

Visit Conservation Northwest’s webpages on Washington wolf recovery and wolf talking points. Or sign up for our action alerts and E-news.