SPEAK OUT FOR NORTH CASCADES GRIZZLY BEARS

Comments are needed to support the active recovery of an endangered Northwest native. Click here to submit a public comment through the National Park Service.

My suggested comment is:

Grizzly bears have been an important part of the North Cascades Ecosystem for thousands of years. They play a vital role for the health of the environment and other wildlife species, figure prominently in regional Native American and First Nations’ cultures, and contribute to the richness of our natural heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Quality habitat still exists for grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE). Thus, we have an ethical and legal obligation to restore a healthy grizzly bear population to the North Cascades.

I want to see the best available science used to identify and implement active strategies to restore a viable population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Therefore, the EIS must include alternatives to add a modest number of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem under the guidance of local communities, a strategy that has been used successfully in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem. Now is the time to restore a healthy grizzly bear population in the North Cascades.

Yellowstone grizzly bear. Photo USFWS

The below is an action alert for Conservation Northwest:

The National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) are conducting a public planning process (Environmental Impact Study or EIS) for restoring a healthy grizzly bear population in Washington’s North Cascades Ecosystem. 

Only a few grizzly bears remain in the transboundary North Cascades. These endangered Northwest natives need your support today if we are going to conserve and restore them for future generations!

Visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=64266 to submit a comment supporting grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades. The current public comment period ends on March 26th, 2015. 

Comments may also be submitted by regular mail or hand delivery at:

Superintendent’s Office
North Cascades National Park Service Complex
810 State Route 20
Sedro Woolley, WA 98284.

Grizzly bears have been an important part of the North Cascades Ecosystem for thousands of years. They play a vital role for the health of the environment and other wildlife species, figure prominently in regional Native American and First Nations’ cultures, and contribute to the richness of our natural heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Now is the time to restore a healthy grizzly bear population in the North Cascades!

Additional talking points to include in your comments:

  • I strongly support the recovery of the North Cascades grizzly bear and commend the NPS, USFWS and WDFW for moving forward with the restoration of this important native species.
  • The recovery coordinating agencies should take into full consideration the ecological, biological, cultural, spiritual and economic importance of grizzly bears to the Pacific Northwest.
  • As the only Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone on the west coast (or outside the greater Rocky Mountains) restoring a healthy North Cascades grizzly bear population is important to the resilience of the species in general, particularly in light of climate change.
  • Quality habitat still exists for grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem. Thus, we have an ethical and legal obligation to restore a healthy grizzly bear population to the North Cascades.
  • There is strong public support for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades that transcends geographic and demographic lines. Washingtonians support healthy wild ecosystems with all the native species present when habitat and ecological conditions allow.
  • I want to see the best available science used to identify and implement active strategies to restore a viable population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. Therefore, the EIS must include alternatives to add a modest number of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem under the guidance of local communities, a strategy that has been used successfully in Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

Public open houses on the Grizzly Bear Restoration EIS will also be held on:

We’ll be hosting special pre-meeting “happy hours” to help brief supporters on the facts about North Cascades grizzly bear restoration. Visit our North Cascades Grizzly Bear Facebook page to learn the locations of these happy hours and join our Facebook events for each open house.

Want to help show your support online? Use the hashtag #SavetheCascadesGrizzly or follow and share our pages on Twitter @CascadesGrizzly or Instagram @CascadesGrizzly

Why do we need Grizzly Bears in the North Cascades?

  • Grizzly bears are culturally and spiritually significant to First Nations throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Grizzlies are seen as teachers, guides and symbols of strength and wisdom to indigenous peoples. They are a regional icon and a key part of our natural heritage.
  • Grizzly bears are considered an “umbrella” species, and they play an important role for healthy ecosystems. Habitat that supports grizzly bears also supports hundreds of other plants and animals and human needs like clean water, healthy forests and quality outdoor opportunities.
  • Grizzly bears have been part of the Pacific Northwest landscape for thousands of years. We have an ethical and legal obligation to restore this native species. Grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades is an important part of national efforts to restore endangered animals where suitable habitat still exists.

More on North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration

  • With nearly 10,000 square miles stretching from I-90 north to the Canadian border and anchored by North Cascades National Park, the designated North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is one of largest blocks of wild federal land remaining in the lower 48 states. But it is isolated from viable grizzly bear populations in other parts of the U.S. and Canada.
  • Research indicates this wilderness landscape has quality habitat capable of supporting a self-sustaining grizzly bear population. A few grizzly bears have recently been sighted in the Canadian part of the ecosystem, but no grizzly bears have been sighted in the United States portion for several years.
  • Given the low number of existing grizzly bears, their very slow reproductive rate and other constraints, the North Cascades grizzly bear population is considered the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the United States today. With so few grizzly bears left in the North Cascades, biologists believe they may soon disappear entirely from the area if recovery actions aren’t taken.

Want even more information? Visit our webpage www.conservationnw.org/northcascadesgrizzly for our full backgrounder on North Cascades grizzly bear recovery, suggested public talking points, links to more information and a Frequently Asked Questions list from the government agencies leading the recovery process.

KEEP WILD STEELHEAD WET

Fishing is not an impact-free endeavor. We as anglers undoubtedly leave our mark upon the fish we catch and the waters we enjoy, for better or worse. And whenever possible, conservation-minded anglers should be taking steps to reduce that impact, particularly when sensitive fish and fisheries are concerned.

Stopping fishing completely may be the only way we can eliminate those impacts, and I’m not ready to take that step. But there are ways we can reduce our harm when catch and release fishing. One of them is keeping wild fish in the water prior to release.

Wet-Wild-24_full

Scientific research shows that removing anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead from the water, particularly their head and gills, can have a negative impact on their reproductive capacity and their likelihood of survival.

Are there questions about that research, it’s methods, sample size and variabilities in the findings? Certainly. It’s a topic that needs considerably more scientific work. But the data we do have, as well as common sense and in the case of wild steelhead, the recreational fishing regulations of the State of Washington, says that removing these fish completely from the water is not OK.

For now, that’s good enough for me.

Though I’d much rather harvest and eat species like salmon and steelhead if abundance allows, that’s not possible or ethical for many of our depressed wild fish populations in the Pacific Northwest. So like many others, I often practice catch and release fishing. And as someone who enjoys both fishing and photography, I understand that the “catch photo” can be a key part of C & R.

It’s a way to document the fish without bonking it, show it off to fellow anglers, and preserve an encounter with a beautiful wild creature in perpetuity. I certainly don’t photograph every fish I catch, but the next time I land a big, beautiful wild steelhead, you bet I’m going to take a picture of it.

As long as it’s done with careful, gentle handling and the fish is kept at least partially in the water at all times, keeping wild fish wet doesn’t mean that photo opportunity has to go away.

Like every angler I know, over the years I have removed many fish fully from the water for a “Grip and Grin” photo. And I ‘m not planning on feeling down on myself for that. What I am planning on doing is doing better. Keeping all wild salmon, trout and steelhead at least partially in the water at all times prior to release.

On camera and off, keeping ‘em wet.

Rainforest Winter Steelhead Camp

PROTECT WILD FISH FROM SUCTION DREDGE MINING

The below is an action alert for the Wild Steelhead Coalition.

Wild steelhead depend on cold, clean, undisturbed gravel in creeks and rivers to spawn. But a growing kind of hobby mining that uses gas-powered vacuums to literally suck up the riverbed is posing a serious threat to habitat that wild steelhead, salmon and trout depend on.

This suction dredge mining produces only small amounts of gold, even the miners admit you can’t make a living on it. But in the process, it obliterates salmon and steelhead redds, kills off important aquatic insects and fish fry, and contributes to harmful sedimentation, erosion, stream channel alteration, and pollution.

Currently, there is almost no regulation on suction dredge mining in Washington’s salmon, trout and steelhead habitat.Even in waters closed to all angling to protect ESA listed runs, suction miners can continue vacuuming up the streambed.

Thankfully, a strong cast of state legislators have proposed House Bill 1162, which would require WDFW to initiate and complete a scientific study that evaluates the effects of motorized mining on native fish species and related habitat.

HB 1162 needs your support, attend a “fish-in” in Olympia Thursday

This Thursday, February 12th, at 1:30 p.m. there will be a public hearing on HB 1162 in front of the House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources in House Hearing Room B, John L. O’Brien Building, Olympia, WA 98504.

In order to best show the support among anglers and fish advocates for this proposal, our partners at Trout Unlimited are organizing a “Fish-In” in Olympia. Bring your waders, vests, lucky hats and get down to the state capitol this Thursday to speak up for wild fish!

While it doesn’t impose regulations on this destructive mining practice, HB 1162 is a vitally important first step. But to get it passed, we need a strong showing at the committee hearing. With word that the mining lobby will be in attendance in full force, it’s all the more important for anglers, conservationists and wild fish advocates to be heard at the state capitol.

Can’t make it to this Thursday’s hearing? Submit a comment online to tell your legislators you support HB 1162!

Or email committee chairman Representative Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) and tell him you want this bill moved forward.

Sensible regulations on suction dredge mining to protect our iconic wild steelhead, salmon and trout is, well, common sense. HB 1162 is a step in that direction. Show your support and speak up for wild fish!

Rainforest chrome

Wild salmon, steelhead and trout are worth more than gold. 

SENATE BILL 5551 TARGETS WILD FISH ADVOCATES

The below is a piece from the Wild Steelhead Coalition that should have NW wild fish advocates, conservationists and citizens furious.

Whether you agree with anti-hatchery lawsuits or not, SB 5551 is blatantly undemocratic, it’s bad policy for our state, and it perpetuates a petty political disagreement at the expense of the recovery of our wild salmon and steelhead.

Tell your legislator to VOTE NO. 

A Senate bill proposed during the current legislative session could have serious repercussions for advocates of wild salmon and steelhead in Washington state, and for the wild fish they’re working to recover.

Senate Bill 5551 Summary: Deny wild fish organizations state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions if they have brought legal action against the state concerning hatchery production within ten calendar years.

Sponsors:

Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe-39th)

Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond-19th)

Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Edmonds-32nd)

Find your legislator here and let them know you oppose SB 5551!

Next action:

SB 5551 will be heard on Thursday, February 5th, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Parks, Senate Hearing Room 1, J.A. Cherberg Building, Olympia, WA

Those wishing to provide testimony against SB 5551 at Thursday’s committee hearing will need to sign-in electronically prior to the hearing, or using the sign-in form at the hearing room entrance. Those attending but not providing testimony should sign-in and note they are attending in opposition to SB 5551.

Those unable to attend but wish to provide comment on this misguided bill can do so online here.

Talking points:

  • State Salmon Recovery Board funding was created to support the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead stocks. There is clear scientific evidence that excessive hatcheries can harm and impede wild fish recovery. If passed, SB 5551 would severely undermine the very purpose of the Salmon Recovery Board funding.
  • State Salmon Recovery Board funding is intended to be awarded on the merits of the projects and the ability of the applicants to fulfill the proposed actions which are completely unrelated to whether the individuals or entities have or have not exercised the right to seek court relief for state activity they believe is negatively impacting wild salmon and steelhead.
  • Individuals and NGO’s have sought redress in the courts for decades to insure compliance with state and federal legislation. This is a well-established component of our American democracy, and an effective tool for the conservation of our shared natural heritage. To jeopardize this effort with the threat of funding ineligibility sets a dangerous precedent for our state.
  • It’s clear SB 5551 is petty politics that puts the recovery of our wild salmon and steelhead at risk. These are icons of our region, vitally important for Washingtonians, Native American tribes and our wild ecosystems. Their recovery is too important to be undermined by this misguided legislation.
  • Recovering wild salmon and steelhead in the Northwest will take all of us working together to address all the issues that prevent these iconic fish from returning in healthy numbers. SB 5551 seeks to unfairly penalize those who’ve used their legal rights to seek compliance from public entities when it comes to protections for ESA listed fish species.

More on SB 5551:

SB 5551, introduced by Senator Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe), would deny state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions for any project or activity if the project sponsor has brought any legal action against the state before a court or administrative tribunal relating to fish hatchery facility operations within ten calendar years.

Sound science has repeatedly demonstrated that excessive hatchery production can have serious negative impacts on the recovery wild salmon and steelhead. Many advocacy organizations in the Northwest are working to recover populations of these iconic wild fish; through habitat restoration, harvest improvements, and hatchery reform.

Individuals and Non-governmental organizations have long sought redress in the courts to insure compliance with state and federal legislation. This is a well-established component of our American democracy, and an effective tool for the conservation of our shared natural heritage. These advocates argue SB 5551 deliberately jeopardizes this legal right with the threat of funding ineligibility, setting a dangerous precedent for our state.

Many of the same organizations who have challenged misguided or excessive hatchery programs in court also apply for and receive state Salmon Recovery Funding Board contributions for habitat restoration or in-stream connectivity work. Funding that would be preemptively denied if the sponsors of SB 5551 are successful.

The Washington state Salmon Recovery Funding Board provides “funding for elements necessary to achieve overall salmon recovery, including habitat projects and other activities that result in sustainable and measurable benefits for salmon and other fish species.”

This funding was created specially to support the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead stocks. There is clear scientific evidence that excessive hatcheries can harm and impede wild fish recovery. Wild fish advocates argue that if passed, SB 5551 would severely undermine the very purpose of the Salmon Recovery Board funding.

Representatives from the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office and other state agencies tasked with salmon recovery have repeatedly said over the years that for “overall salmon recovery” to be successful, it will take a diverse group of citizens, agencies and organizations working together.

Unfortunately, it seems a small group of legislators is not interested in working together to tackle all the problems facing these iconic fish, including hatcheries. They would rather ignore science and play petty politics against organizations whose views on fish hatcheries they disagree with, seeking to deny state funding for projects that benefit wild salmon and steelhead recovery, and the many people who want to see them make a comeback in our region.

Click here to provide comment online. Live streaming of the Senate Natural Resources & Parks committee hearing will be available via TVW

CASCADES WOLVERINE POPULATION GROWING, EXPANDING SOUTH

The below is a piece I authored recently for Conservation Northwest

Last week, we got some news that that made everyone in our Conservation Northwest office smile: Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) biologist Josh Zylstra and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest biologist Aja Woodrow found probable wolverine tracks just eight miles north of I-90.

Not only is this the furthest south that wolverines have been documented in the North Cascades (the area from I-90 in Washington to Canada’s Fraser River Valley) since they were confirmed back in our state, but it is also exactly why we’ve worked so hard to create safe passage for wildlife under and over the busy interstate.

Probable wolverine tracks near I-90. Photo: Josh Zylstra/WSDOT

The wolverine tracks, found in the upper Cle Elum River drainage, come on the heels of wolverine photos captured by Woodrow in December 2014. Those photos came from trail camera locations further up the Cle Elum River watershed and in the nearby Teanaway River drainage, locations northeast of where the wolverine tracks were found last week.

Wolverines are intrepid travelers, capable of covering many miles through rugged and snowy terrain, so it’s possible these sightings represent the movement of one individual wolverine.

If this wolverine is able to successfully expand its territory south of I-90, it might be the start of a vital link between the growing wolverine population in the North Cascades and individual wolverines documented in the Central Cascades (the area from I-90 south to the Columbia River)This southward expansion could also jump-start the species’ recovery in Mount Rainier National Park and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A number of other wolverine sightings were confirmed across the North Cascades in 2014, evidence that this population is likely growing and expanding it’s range southward.

In August, hiker Jake Gentry captured astonishing photos of a wolverine near the Spider Gap trail north of Lake Wenatchee, delighting outdoor recreationists, conservation organizations and the local media.

A wolverine sighted in August 2014 near Spider Gap. Photo: Jake Gentry

Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project also documented four individual wolverines during our recent Spring-Fall 2014 monitoring season, including at locations north of Stevens Pass and in the Chiwaukum Range west of Leavenworth. Hair samples collected at these monitoring sites are
being tested to determine if they represent a new generation of
wolverines in the North Cascades, or if they are individuals previously
documented.

Cascades wolverines recovering, but threats remain

Researchers have called the wolverine “the superheroes of the animal world.” As biologist Doug Chadwick puts it in his book The Wolverine Way, “If wolverines have a strategy it’s this: Go hard, and high and steep and never back down. Not even from the biggest grizzly and least of all from the mountain.”

Once shot on sight, trapped and poisoned as vermin, wolverines were thought to be extinct in Washington by the 1930s. But in recent years Gulo gulo, a member of the weasel family the size of a small Labrador retriever, has been making a comeback in the North Cascades under state protections from hunting and deliberate trapping. Genetic data from “hair snares” has linked Washington’s resurgent population to wolverines in Canada.

A wolverine north of Stevens Pass in 2014. Photo: CNW/CWMP

Today biologists believe Washington’s North Cascades wolverine population consists of less than three dozen animals, with only around 300 wolverines remaining across the lower 48 states. A lone wolverine was also documented north of Mount Adams and in the Goat Rocks Wilderness area in 2009, but no wolverine population has been confirmed in Washington south of I-90.

Nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed listing the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2013. However, that proposal was withdrawn in 2014 at the request of state officials in the Northern Rockies opposed to the ESA listing.

Conservation groups, including Conservation Northwest, have since filed an intent to sue notice with the USFWS for its refusal to protect the species under the ESA, citing that the agency disregarded well-established scientific evidence, including the recommendations of its own scientists, in refusing to protect wolverines.

Though wolverines are renowned for being bold and ferocious, they are primarily carnivorous scavengers, feasting on a wide variety of foods, including carrion from winter-killed deer, elk and mountain goats. They will also hunt small mammals, including pikas, marmots, ground squirrels, porcupines and snowshoe hares, as well as eat bugs, berries, eggs and roots.

Wolverines are generally extremely wary of people and do not pose a risk to hikers or backcountry travelers.

Though they’re making a comeback in our region, these elusive creatures have slow reproductive rates and are highly dependent on protected mountain habitats, large wild territories, and a deep snowpack that persists well into the spring for their breeding dens. While they occupy an important niche in the mountain ecosystem, wolverine populations are slow to recover from threatened levels, and are notoriously difficult to study.

Wolverine research ongoing in the Cascades

Biologists like Woodrow and Zylstra, as well as researchers
from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Woodland Park Zoo and our own Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project (CWMP), are continuing to add to our knowledge about the resurgence these animals are making in the Cascades.

If this wolverine is able to successfully expand its territory south of I-90, it could be the start of a vital link between the growing wolverine population in the North Cascades and individual wolverines documented in the Central Cascades

Researchers are hoping to better understand the distribution
and abundance of wolverines in the Cascades said Woodrow. They’re also working to answer the question of “Does I-90 currently fracture the flow of wolverine genetics between the North and South Cascades?And if so, once the I-90 wildlife crossing structures are complete, will wolverine genetic connectivity be restored?”

Wolverine in the Cle Elum River drainage. Photo: Aja Woodrow/USFS

The result of years of work by Conservation Northwest, the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, the Cascades Conservation Partnership, state, community and business leaders, and WSDOT, construction is now complete on three wildlife undercrossings at I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. Construction on two overcrossings, or wildlife bridges, is fully funded and scheduled to begin this spring near
Lake Easton. This important connectivity work is part of the state’s I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project.

When the project is complete, wildlife including elk, deer, wolves and wolverines will have access to numerous safe crossings under and over the busy interstate, connecting habitat in the north and central Cascades, promoting genetic interchange between animal populations, and protecting both wildlife and drivers from potentially deadly collisions.

Only time will tell if the wolverine documented last week just north of I-90 will find the new undercrossings at Gold Creek and Rocky Run this winter. If it does, WSDOT motion-activated cameras should be able to photograph the historic crossing.

Whether that happens this winter or sometime in the future, the recent sightings are evidence that the wolverine population in the North Cascades appears to be growing, and is expanding it’s range southward. 

If this recovery continues, it’s possible Washington’s wolverines could someday link up with wolverines in Oregon, where at least two wolverines exist in the Wallowa Mountains but the species remains unconfirmed in the South Cascades. Or even with wolverines in California, where at least one exists in the northern Sierra Nevada.

Return of a mountain icon

The elusive wolverine is an icon of North American wilderness — an animal that can scale steep, snow-covered mountains, dig dead mountain goats out of avalanche debris for food, fend off much larger predators, and travel hundreds of miles during the middle of winter. When most creatures are hunkered down in hibernation or have fled to the lowlands to wait for spring, the wolverine remains, lord of it’s mountain domain.

It’s easy to be inspired by these amazing creatures. At Conservation Northwest we’ve been rooting for them and working hard to support their recovery since they returned to the Washington Cascades in the mid-2000s. Today, we’re thrilled to see these indomitable Northwest natives reach a new milestone in their epic return to our region.

A North Cascades wolverine captured on remote camera in 2014. Photo: CNW/CWMP

CONSERVING A WILD NORTHWEST ICON

I’m stoked to announce I’ll be joining the Board of Directors for the Wild Steelhead Coalition. I’ve done some volunteer work with this great organization on and off over the years, but I’m looking forward to making a bigger impact in 2015 for my favorite fish.

WSC1wide

Able to migrate thousands of miles, spawn multiple times (unlike their salmon cousins) and reach over 30 lbs, wild steelhead trout are Washington’s State Fish and widely considered the greatest pursuit in freshwater angling.

However, these icons of the Pacific Northwest are on the decline in many river systems, severely threatened by habitat loss, over-harvest, impassable dams, excessive hatcheries (the “four H’s“) as well as many other pressures. Still, if anglers, conservationists, management officials and everyday citizens can come together, it’s not too late to turn the tide for these incredible fish. I’m excited to play a bigger role in helping to make that happen

And as the motto of my full-time employer is “Keeping the Northwest wild”, this new volunteer board position should fit nicely with the work I get to do everyday for Northwest wildlife and wildlands conservation.

Hopefully, I can bring some useful perspective and experience to WSC, an already solid organization dedicated to a great cause. Aside from practical experience working in conservation, I count myself lucky to have grown up fishing with just about every method imaginable; from jigs, plugs and eggs to flies and beads. Don’t get me wrong I love swinging classic spey flies on a two-handed fly rod, but I’ll fish for steelhead all day with a spinning rod and a pink plastic worm under a float and enjoy the hell out of it.

With any luck, maybe this background can help bridge the pointless “Gear vs. Fly” divide that so often plagues fish conservation efforts, steelhead advocacy in particular. Personally, I don’t see any value in deriding one angling method or putting another up on a pedestal. It’s all fishing after-all, which I think is a fairly comical art to begin with.

More than anything though, I hope I can lend a pragmatic voice to wild steelhead recovery, most notably the elephant in the room of most steelhead conservation discussions: fish hatcheries.

December Steel

A fresh December 2014 hatchery steelhead, en route to the BBQ.

Some of my first steelhead were hatchery fish, including my first on the swung fly. I’ve had a great time fishing for them and an even better time catching and eating them. And I recognize that in some places hatcheries are a reasonable and practical (if expensive and inefficient) solution to increase steelhead (and salmon) returns to a watershed.

In some systems, productive habitat is so degraded and wild fish returns are so depressed that it can be highly unlikely wild runs will recover over an acceptable timeline. And in these cases, I believe both fishermen and local economies can benefit from well-managed hatchery production without remorse. I do not want to shutter all fish hatcheries.

But I also recognize that we’ve learned a tremendous amount about both fish hatcheries and wild fish biology since most of our hatchery systems were instituted. Sound science has shown definitively that the introduction of hatchery fish is a significant detriment to wild steelhead populations, as well as a barrier to wild steelhead recovery.

With nearly 150 fish hatcheries in Washington state alone, it’s clear we’ve gone too far off the deep end when it comes to pumping out tank-bred fish, at the expense of wild fish, balanced ecosystems and our tax dollars. And considering the thousand other cuts that are plaguing these fish, from logging, dredging and other habitat loss to human over-harvest and pinniped predation, continuing to purposefully maintain these additional barriers to wild steelhead recovery in watersheds with the potential for a wild fish comeback just doesn’t pass my personal BS test.

Something has to change, and the the progress towards dedicating Wild Steelhead Gene Banks in the Northwest, rivers free from hatchery plants, is a great start. But we need more of these wild fish sanctuaries, in Puget Sound rivers, on the Olympic Peninsula and Grays Harbor watersheds, and in the greater Columbia River basin. That means closing some hatcheries. Even if it comes with the sacrifice of reduced fishing opportunity for the time being.

Grays Harbor Steelhead Float
Wild steelhead: a watery icon of the Pacific Northwest.

In rivers where science has shown a reasonable possibility for wild steelhead recovery, I’m willing to make this sacrifice because I know that wild fish are simply better. Mother nature makes them bigger, brighter and more aggressive than their test-tube cousins. They’re cheaper too. And as I sometimes think I am, their genes are intrinsically linked to the slate gray skies, towering green trees and deep blue glacial rivers that they call home.

If it means a solid chance at wild steelhead recovery in a quality river, I’m willing to put down my fishing rod and wait for them to return at healthier levels. I’m open to this sacrifice because I want my (metaphorical) children and grandchildren to be able to interact with these wild creatures in waters and rainforests across the Pacific Northwest.

I want them to have wild steelhead out there, as I have, as a pretext to to challenge themselves exploring our region’s incredible wild places. And if they’re lucky, they might even catch some sweet fish in the process.

These wild steelhead, and the places they return to each year, are a wonder of nature worth experiencing. Their journeys are inspiring, their forms are beautiful, and their nature is indomitable.

Early 20th Century naturalist Aldo Leopold famously said “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Though this quote as become a conservation cliché, it still rings true.

When it comes to wild steelhead, I’m not willing to just stand by and let this mighty cog disappear forever from the place I call home.

Rainforest Winter Steelhead Camp

RANGE RIDING AND HOWLING WITH WASHINGTON WOLVES

A major part of my role at Conservation Northwest is to communicate about our different conservation programs, including our work for Cascades grizzly bear recovery, wolverines, Canada lynx, elkmule deer and habitat connectivity. But in the world of conservation, few things are as talked about or as contentious as the recovery of wolves in the American West.

Conservation Northwest takes somewhat of a middle path when it comes to wolf recovery; working with, not against, ranchers, farmers and hunters whenever we can, and supporting the lethal removal of problem wolves when such an act is recommended by sound science and preceded by thorough conflict avoidance efforts. But we are a wildlife conservation group, and we fully support natural wolf recovery.

Highwayman's Hole II (10)
Your’s truly hunting mule deer in an area near the territory of several wolf packs. Photo: Chase Gunnell.

In contrast to many national wildlife organizations, one of Conservation Northwest’s biggest strengths is that we are on-the-ground, with staff working directly in the communities most impacted by Northwest wolf recovery. This local presence in places like Twisp, Omak and Colville provides the advantage of working collaboratively to address the things residents in wolf country are concerned about, from livestock depredations to grazing access to impacts on prey populations to poachingIn our view, to be successful wolf recovery needs to work for people, too.

Whether you support or oppose these keystone predators returning to the Northwest, the fact is they aren’t going away now. They’re returning to Washington naturally from populations in B.C., Idaho and NW Montana, they pose very little threat to humans (certainly less than bears or cougars), they are vital for healthy wild ecosystems, and they have just as much a right to be a part of our landscapes as deer, elk or any other native species.

That being said, wolves are a species that can and does cause problems. And they should be managed accordingly.

Lookout Pack territory WSU study ride-along
Riding along on a livestock survey in the Methow Valley, home to the Lookout Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Wolves aren’t wolverines, bound to alpine wilderness areas. From what I’ve learned from experts in the field, and the tracks I’ve seen first hand, they love to travel on Forest Service roads, ATV tracks and human trails. Most prey species don’t spend their winters in craggy, unpopulated highlands, and neither do wolves. Much like the deer and elk on which they feed, their territory overlaps with developed areas, ranch lands and private property. And though attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, wolves are known to be aggressive towards dogs, and anyone traveling in wolf country should plan to take many of the same precautions they usually would for bears, including carrying bear spray.

In the majority of cases wolves or wolf packs will stick to natural prey, but if livestock grazing in wolf territory aren’t supervised, they can become an easy meal. And though Conservation Northwest directly supports predator conflict avoidance measures such as range riders, fladry and guard dogs that are proven to be effective, we’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t a cure-all for every circumstance.

Teanaway Fladry Project
Hanging fladry to deter wolves from entering a calving pasture within the range of the Teanaway Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Like the dogs they are, wolves can reproduce at impressive rates. Though wolf packs and overall populations do self-regulate based on prey and territory availability (through repressed reproduction and lethal conflict between wolf packs and individuals), an overabundant wolf population does have the potential to cause negative impacts on healthy deer, elk and moose populations. Particularly when a high-density of wolves overlaps with high populations of other predators such as cougars.

But while excess predation is a real concern (though certainly less of a concern for game populations than poaching or habitat loss), there’s been no scientific findings that this has yet occurred in the Northwest. Though some parts of Washington might appear to be packed with wolves when you look at the state’s pack map (sorry, northeast corner. I’d support wolf translocation), with only 52 confirmed wolves and a total population of likely less than 100 statewide, Washington state is far from its recovery goals and nowhere near an overabundant wolf population.

In areas of the Rocky Mountains with significantly higher wolf populations there have been localized population impacts (including some changes in elk numbers towards healthier levels) and more generalized changes in prey behavior and movement, but still overall deer and elk hunter success has not been reduced.

Sinlahekin bull moose
Bull moose in north central Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Once scientifically sound wolf recovery goals are met and Endangered Species delisting has occurred, its possible Northwest wolf populations will need to be managed to prevent overabundance. Just like we manage the populations of many other species. As much as I strongly support wolves returning to our wild Northwest, their recovery should not come at the expense of other wildlife populations. Though surely to be contentious, if guided by science controlling wolf populations does not have to jeopardize their long-term recovery in our region.

What those lethal management steps should be (regulated public hunting seasons vs. government predator control agents) is a debate for another day. But whatever the methods, wildlife managers need to take into account the social nature of these iconic creatures, and the evidence that disrupting pack stability by killing key wolves may actually increase breeding activity and as well as conflicts with livestock.

When it comes down to it, the realities of wolf recovery aren’t nearly as black and white as extremists on either side of the debate might like to believe. These gray wolves are not non-native Canadian killing machines, or the tools of some conspiracy to kick working people off the land and end hunting by decimating game populations. Nor are they a fantastical anthropomorphic “spirit animal” that deserves unlimited reverence and protection.

Wolves are truly neat creatures, deserving of the same respect and stewardship we give other native wildlife species. They are complicated animals in complicated (and often damaged) ecosystems whose preferred range regularly overlaps with our own. And by working together across dividing lines, it is possible to make their recovery work for wolves, other wildlife species and people too.

In that spirit of responsible, collaborative wolf recovery, over the summer I had the chance to lace up my boots, pack up my deer camp kit (sans 30.06) and head out to the range to experience a bit of on-the-ground wolf management. Below is the account (and a video of howling with wolves) that I penned after our range riding trip.

RANGE RIDING AND HOWLING WITH WASHINGTON WOLVES

This past August, Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest Okanogan County outreach associate, got a call from one of our ranching partners whose family grazes over two hundred head of cattle on an allotment in the Colville National Forest, within the territory of one of Washington’s wolf packs.

With funding help from Conservation Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), these ranchers have been using diligent range riding and other non-lethal conflict avoidance methods in this area for several years. The program has been a great success, and since the range rider has been in place the herd has experienced no confirmed depredations from wolves or other predators.

But this year, the wolf pack had chosen a rendezvous site for its adolescent pups very near where the ranchers were moving their herd in preparation for bringing them in for the season. The ranchers and range rider had been supervising the herd around the clock, and no conflicts had yet occurred, but they were rightfully nervous about the wolves’ new location.

As partners in wolf-livestock conflict prevention, the ranchers wondered if Jay and some Conservation Northwest staff could come out for a few days to give the range rider a rest and provide some extra eyes on the situation.

In addition to new knowledge about ranching and wolves, Chase came back from the range riding trip with this neat video of using howls as a tool to locate the wolf pack, and make sure they were separated from the rancher’s livestock. Video: Chase Gunnell

Heading out to lend a hand

Happy to do what we could to help, Jay rallied myself, conservation associate Alison Huyett, and an experienced volunteer to come lend a hand.

We packed our tents, binoculars, boots and bear spray, and headed out to remote northeast Washington to see if we could help keep our partners’ cows and the wolf pack from getting into trouble. For me, it felt like packing and heading off for hunting season two months early, but this time toting a camera and airhorn instead of a deer rifle.

After getting the lay of the land and some training from the rancher on working around cows and calves, we began patrolling the area. Driving rough Forest Service roads and hiking brushy game trails, we were out until dark monitoring for injured, sick or separated livestock.

At the same time, we also provided an extra level of human presence to help deter the wolves from thinking that the valuable cows and calves might be unprotected prey.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
An injured cow we found with her young calf. The ranchers quickly brought this pair down, placing them in a protected corral until the cow’s limp had healed. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Using the range rider’s knowledge, and if they were available, howling, scat and tracks, we also tried to keep tabs on the location of the wolf pack. And when our pre-dawn coffee was interrupted by a chorus of barks and howls that sent the cows running, we split up and headed into the thick timber.

Our goal was to use human presence and noisemakers to push the wolves away from the core of the grazing allotment, and towards a nearby roadless area. Hopefully it was a move that would protect both the cows and the wolf pack from potentially lethal trouble.

While other members of our team began hiking up the valley bottom where the wolves and the main group of cows and calves were located, the rancher dropped Jay and I off at points on the ridge above. With luck, our locations would prevent the pack from doubling back towards another group of cows we had located in a meadow the evening before.

As I moved carefully (and loudly) downslope, the howls and barks coming from in front of me began to move off up the ridge to my right. Sure enough, with a few more howls from the mother wolf telling her “teenage” pups to come along, the pack took off. It wasn’t the exact location we’d been hoping they would go, but it was away from the cows and deeper into the woods.

At least for the time being, the pack had moved on.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
Fresh wolf scat found during our patrols. Range riders regularly check wolf scat to make sure it doesn’t contain cow hair, which might alert them to a depredation. This scat is full of deer hair. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Learning to coexist on the range

We later learned that the wolves did eventually return to their rendezvous site. But as the herds come home for the season, the ranchers are reporting no cows or calves lost to predators. It seems that thorough range riding, smart livestock management, and maybe even the extra boost from our Conservation Northwest team helped keep things free from conflict.

And despite their close proximity to cattle much of the summer, the wolf pack has so far been content to leave livestock alone. If their scat is any indication, they’ve been feeding on the healthy populations of elk, white-tailed deer, moose and wild turkeys found in the area. Many of which we saw during our trip, not to mention a big black bear!

For our team, it was a hands-on experience of just how range riding actually works. We talk about this program regularly and support the work of these modern-day cowboys and cowgirls through funding, expert training and other resources. But for me, it was my first experience actually stepping into the boots of a range rider in wolf country.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
Ranchers and their herding dog rounding up the cattle. If grazing is rotated and managed responsibly, open areas like this meadow can provide defensible space for the cows and calves. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Beyond seeing firsthand the real challenges that ranchers in wolf country face, and how having a good cowboy can help prevent conflicts between predators and livestock before they even begin, I came away with renewed admiration for both wolves and cattlemen.

This was a hardworking family making a living in a wild place, and they don’t want to lose their livestock or their way of life. But they also have a sincere desire to use responsible grazing strategies and predator conflict avoidance methods to leave that wild place better than they found it. They held high respect for the land and for their new toothy neighbors, understanding that wolves are a natural part of where they’ve chosen to live and work. And that just killing them was neither an ethical or effective option for stopping potential problems.

More than just memories and pride from helping our ranching partners, our team also brought back practical experience and first-hand knowledge that will help guide our range riding program, and my communications, well into the future. 

Despite the wolf-livestock conflicts publicized so much in the Northwest media recently, and the supercharged opinions on both sides of the wolf debate, after our trip this summer I’m as confident as ever that hardworking people collaborating with respect can make wolf recovery a success. And that Washington can still be a state where native predators returning to the landscape works in the long run for wolves, wildlife and people, too. 

On-the-ground collaborations with our ranching partners in Eastern Washington are proving that this goal is achievable.

Colville National Forest Range Riding

Wolves are a native part of the Northwest ecosystem and they are recovering in Washington naturally. Conservation Northwest wants wolf recovery to work in  the long run for people, wolves and all our wildlife.

NEW JOB, NEW DOG AND SUMMER WRITING

If you happen to follow this site you may have noticed it’s been a few months since I’ve added any writing, photography, trip reports or other content.

After taking a new job as Communications Manager at Conservation Northwest this spring and having a new puppy around the house that needs near constant attention, all while trying to get out and enjoy this awesome summer with friends and family, personal writing projects have been put on a serious backburner.

SRC Beach Trip

I’ll still be posting writing, photos, video and other projects to this site on occasion, but if you’re interested in a more regular stream of content I’m working on, head over to the Conservation NW website, Scat! blog or my monthly Conservation Connection E-newsletters.

And while you’re at it, why not join us in keeping the Northwest wild.

Here’s a few pieces of recent work:

Recovery Planning Proposed for North Cascades Grizzly Bears | August 21st, 2014

Tips for Hiking in Wolf Country | August 1st, 2014

Summer News from the Range | July 27th, 2014

I-90 Wildlife Crossings Animal GIFs | July 11th, 2014

USFWS: Don’t Downlist Woodland Caribou | July 10th, 2014

ATVs, motorized recreation and Conservation Northwest | June 23rd, 2014

Fladry Protects Wolves and Livestock in the Teanaway | May 16th, 2014

And a fun video I created of a wolverine attacking one of our trail cameras:

Oh, and all that new work doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten out hiking, camping, rafting and fishing. In fact, despite less days on the water than any summer in recent memory, it’s been a pretty fishy season.

Eastern Oregon Brown

JUNE SPLITBOARDING ON MOUNT RAINIER

There are literally hundreds of spring and summer tour routes on all sides of Mount Rainier.

And if you’re willing to put in the time and effort (and navigate crevasse and avy danger) , it isn’t hard to find yourself at the top of a perfect several-thousand-foot descent that hasn’t seen human tracks in days. Or even weeks or months.

June 1st Touring on Rainier

But like so many other northwest backcountry skiers and snowboarders this time of year, I keep going back to the Muir Snowfield.

Sure it’s literally the beaten path. And the conga-line of crowds on a summer weekend can stretch for miles. But the views are typically stellar, the conditions are reliably carve-able corn until mid-July, and with the exception of finicky alpine weather, and loose-wet slides in the area around the Nisqually Chutes, the technical hazards are minimal.

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

There are miles and miles of the mountain I’d still like to explore. But I just don’t think I’ve ever had a bad day touring or hiking up the mountain’s mellow south flank to Camp Muir at 10,080′.

And June 1st was certainly no exception; great weather, crowds but more than enough untracked lines for all, and buttery smooth snow to rip all the way down to the car.

June 1st Touring on Rainier

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

June 1st Touring on Rainier

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Even though I’ve been there well over a dozen times, I still can’t wait to go back.