Outdoors

Landers: Saving wildlife habitats critical

Washington sportsmen should stand their ground against opposition to preserving lands critical to fish and wildlife.

A group in Asotin County is complaining that state efforts to expand wildlife areas are hurting local governments financially. A recent story in the Lewiston Tribune sets the tone:

“The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has gobbled up more than 10 percent of the 410,240 acres in Asotin County and that’s ruffled some feathers.”

They say the agency isn’t paying its share of property taxes on the Blue Mountains Wildlife Areas, but it’s not clear whether they’ve considered the indirect benefits?

Dan Budd, the agency’s real estate manager, said the department owns 42,151 acres in Asotin County and agreed that the annual payment in lieu of taxes is frozen at $36,123, which is lower than private property owners would pay.

In 2011, the Washington Legislature dealing with a budget crisis rolled back the state reimbursements to counties to 2009 levels. Some lawmakers are discussing an increase in the payments, but others are building steam from the protest to suggest hobbling the wildlife agency’s ability to preserve habitat.

The small uprising in Asotin County is rallied by several more proposed wildlife-area land acquisitions. Most significant are the final phases of purchasing the 4-0 Ranch. To date, the state has acquired 6,434 acres of a six-phase project to buy the 12,000-acre ranch north of the Oregon-Washington border.

It’s a rare full-meal deal for critters. Any attempts to derail the project would be – I’ll be gentle – short-sighted and selfish.

Asotin County commissioners are wary of losses to the county tax base as well as sympathetic to the concerns of their constituents. But credit them with this: when presented with the long-term values of securing the 4-0 Ranch, the commission endorsed the plan.

That’s a clear indication that they recognize the value of hunting, fishing and other public recreation to the local economy.

“The 4-0 Ranch can influence fish and wildlife on a landscape level,” said Steve Pozzanghera, state Fish and Wildlife director for the 10 easternmost counties.

“The property runs from low elevation at the Grande Ronde River to the national forest, both winter range and summer range. You’re representing an entire year in the life of an elk with this place.

“If that property were to be developed, we’d be losing that habitat and possibly be reducing the number of animals we’d be able to sustain without landowner damage and nuisance activity that come with loss of habitat, especially winter range.”

The 4-0 Ranch deal will eventually provide public access to more than seven miles of the Grande Ronde River as well as areas for parking and public access.

That’s huge for anglers, hunters, paddlers and wildlife lovers.

There’s no shortage of people who would love to have a house in this stretch of the Grande Ronde River with a small lot, a fence and the domestic pets that go with rural living.

But such development is death to access and to wildlife, literally in the case of bighorn sheep, which are highly susceptible to diseases transmitted by some domestic livestock.

The 4-0 project, along with other recent acquisitions, is the fisheries equivalent of securing infrastructure such as highways and bridges essential to interstate commerce. When fish and wildlife are priorities, management emphasis can restore and maintain brush and trees over river tributaries to help keep water vitally cool and clear for steelhead and salmon.

By preserving habitat for endangered species such as bull trout, public wildlife lands take the heat off private landowners who’d face restrictions if species recovery were thwarted.

The 4-O Ranch alone protects significant habitat in Grouse, Wenatchee, Cougar and Cottonwood creeks.

Elk are another big draw for southeastern Washington. Last year, the Washington side of the Blue Mountains was home to a peak population of 5,000-5,500 elk with virtually no room for expanding the herd.

Washington Fish and Wildlife staff is planting lure crops to keep elk out of garbanzo bean fields that are becoming more common in the foothills fields.

An elk-resistant fence stretches 23 miles from the Tucannon River near the Wooten Wildlife Area headquarters to Tam Tam ridge above Charley Creek to keep elk off farm fields during winter.

But if there’s ever going to be room for more elk in the Blues, quality winter range must be secured just for game rather than managing defensively with ways of diverting elk from where they need to be to survive.

The other key component to boosting local economies through hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation is access.

Think of it this way: Safeco Field won’t make any money for Seattle if the gates are locked and no-trespassing signs are posted at every entrance to keep fans from the Mariners.

Access and adequate numbers of fish and game are the ticket to bringing in anglers who need boats and hunters gearing up for elk season.

Statewide the Fish and Wildlife Department owns 621,683 acres of which 605,156 acres are in wildlife areas. The balance is in hatcheries, game farms and public fishing access sites.

The agency also manages another 378,184 acres through leases, easements and agreements for wildlife habitat and public access. More power to them.

In the case of Asotin County, the shortfall from the freeze on payments in lieu of taxes is a pittance compared with the financial fuel hunting and fishing pumps into the region’s economy.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email richl@spokesman.com.


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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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