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Weathering ‘97 Big Storms Created A Big Impact - Good And Bad - On Wildlife And Recreationduring The Year

Sun., Dec. 28, 1997

Deer became beasts of burden in portions of the Inland Northwest during the seemingly endless winter of 1997.

Struggling to conserve dwindling fat reserves in a crust of snow that didn’t retreat until March, they resigned themselves to a few trails that became troughs two or three-feet deep in the the hard-packed snow.

The combination of wicked weather and winter range lost to orchards and other development doomed a high percentage of the deer, especially in central Washington. In response, deer hunting seasons were drastically curtailed along the east slope of the Cascades.

Elk also took a beating in many areas, notably in the Idaho Panhandle.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department had planned to spend about $400,000 to feed wildlife last winter. But with deer still in dire snowbound conditions well into February, the estimate for feeding soared to $1.4 million.

The public reaction was curious. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in from the metropolitan areas of Puget Sound to help feed the elk piling in to feeding stations in the Yakima area.

Sportsmen in the Priest Lake area rallied with a daily volunteer effort to feed deer.

But it wasn’t until fall, when the elk hunting season wasn’t so good in the Coeur d’Alene River drainage, that citizens in that area became concerned.

About 500 people signed a petition blaming the government for not spending more money to feed game.

The record snowfall had ramifications throughout the Northwest.

About 1,100 bison roaming outside the borders of Yellowstone National Park were killed to prevent the spread of brucellosis to cattle. Another 900 succumbed to the rigors of winter, leaving about 1,500 bison alive in the park.

Ice storms and heavy snowfall broke trees that clogged ski trails. The extent of the mess in the high country wasn’t revealed until the snow melted in early summer.

Trail systems were impenetrable in some areas. Mormon church groups volunteered hundreds of hours to clear the relatively small number of trails at Mount Spokane. But many national forest trails remained tangled with downfall through the hiking season.

Landslides closed access roads to several major Selkirk Mountains trailheads. The roads for Trout, Myrtle and Ball creeks weren’t even open by the end of the huckleberry picking season.

Of course, some groups benefited from the whitest winter in years.

Silver Mountain ski area kept its lifts open until May 17.

Rafting and kayaking companies saw dollar signs in the region’s thick snowpack. A huge runoff made early season river running dangerous, but streams maintained good flows throughout the summer.

The Spokane River Canoe Classic was a notable casualty of the heavy spring flows. The annual recreation race had to be moved to Liberty Lake to avoid dangerously high water on the river.

Among the other casualties were the cottonwoods on levees near St. Maries. A lot of daylight opened on the “Shadowy St. Joe River” as the Corps of Engineers slaughtered the trees, apparently to protect the levees. The logging wasn’t stopped until someone pointed out the trees were critical to bald eagles and other wildlife.

The second consecutive year of flooding caused temporary grief for fish and wildlife throughout the Northwest.

Salmon anglers at Lake Coeur d’Alene felt the pain, as the number of chinook salmon declined substantially.

Lake Roosevelt was drawn down to the lowest spring levels since 1981 to accommodate the runoff. The drawdown rendered all of the boat ramps virtually unusable and flushed hundreds of thousands of trout and kokanee over Grand Coulee Dam. Fishing was awful for most of the season.

Floods ravaged clam beds along the Oregon and Washington coasts and wiped out more than 50 percent of the endangered Columbian white-tailed deer on a refuge along the lower Columbia River.

Waterfowl - and waterfowl hunters - found Hog Heaven in the wetness. Ducks and geese had a terrific year of nesting to the point that biologists are worried there are too many birds in some areas.

A special weeklong early goose hunt was authorized in Washington, partly to break up bunches of Canada geese.

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt described the continental snow goose population as “totally out of control.” He said it could lead to catastrophe for the geese and for other wildlife that depend on the arctic habitat where snow geese nest.

The number of snow geese has nearly tripled since the 1960s.

A wet spring put a damper on upland bird nesting, although the hatch was decent in many areas with good habitat.

Seeming to miss the point about the need for habitat, state Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, bird-dogged a bill through the legislature reestablishing a controversial program to release pen-raised pheasants in Eastern Washington.

Pheasant releases had been abandoned in the early 1980s because it was too costly for the minimal returns.

This year, however, pheasant hunters were required to buy an additional $10 stamp regardless of whether they wanted to hunt the handful of release sites. Thousands of rooster pheasants costing about $15 apiece were turned loose.

Hunters were expected to beat the coyotes and hawks to only a small percentage of the pen-raised birds.

Youth hunters got a head start on native game birds and pen-raised pheasants with special early hunts for waterfowl and upland birds.

Several national forests participated in a pilot program to charge access fees at popular trailheads. The program will expand to other forests in 1998.

Even though hikers headed for the high country had to wallow in snow well into July, Vice President Al Gore visited Glacier National Park to put a spotlight on how global warming might be causing the retreat of glaciers. In the 1930s, scientists tallied 150 active glaciers in the park. Nowadays, fewer than 30 exist.

Nature wasn’t the only factor affecting wildlife this year.

A noxious weed called yellow starthistle, encouraged by livestock grazing, was taking over hillsides along the Snake and Grande Ronde Rivers, displacing wildlife ranging from chukars to deer.

Discovery of deformed frogs in the Dishman Hills has linked Spokane to the web of worldwide concern for the declining amphibian species.

Fish continue to suffer the ramifications of cheap power humans get from dams.

The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Snake River steelhead as an endangered species this year.

In the statement justifying the action, the agency blamed the demise of the fish on fish hatcheries, fishing harvest and habitat problems.

No mention was made of dams, which by all other scientific accounts consume about 90 percent of every annual downstream migration of young salmon and steelhead.

Washington state reacted by closing fishing for the species in the upper Columbia.

The revival of some formerly endangered species appears to be trouble to some other creatures. The resurgence of bald eagles in Western Washington, for instance, is causing declines in nesting of great blue herons.

The unusually warm ocean currents sweeping into Northwest waters, known as El Nino, changed weather patterns and created strange fishing patterns.

El Nino was credited for the first-ever sport catch of marlin in Washington waters.

Land conservation gained ground in the region this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management exchanged scattered parcels in northeastern Washington to consolidate more large blocks of public land in Lincoln County. Acquisitions this year included 930 acres along Coffee Pot Lake, and 960 acres near Twin Lakes.

The Forest Service traded 2,305 acres of timber land worth $8.7 million in a swap with Riley Creek Lumber Co. to preserve 520 acres of ancient cedars near Upper Priest Lake.

A Spokane Valley family enrolled 1,135 acres along the Lower Coeur d’Alene River into the federal wetland reserve program, assuring that the wetlands will remain permanent wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, conservationists were lobbying locally and in Washington, D.C., to protect national forest watersheds and remaining habitat for rare species such as grizzlies. Bills were introduced in Congress in attempts to end commercial logging on national forests and to end construction of new forest roads.

Whirling disease continued to spread to trout streams throughout the region. The Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers of western Montana were added to the list of great fishing streams that are infected. The disease affects primarily rainbow trout.

On the other hand, Spokane area fly fishers seeded the lower Spokane River with thousands of rainbows to jump-start a fishery. In another project, fly fishers stocked sterile triploid rainbows in Amber Lake in a project that could yield trophy-sized fish in a few years.

That’s a prospect the current generation of anglers can expect to enjoy.

But it will be another 4,000 years before campers will get the thrill of sleeping under the stars and watching the Hale-Bopp comet, which dazzled the spring skies this year.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (4 Color)

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