Hidden beneath the Newport Highway just north of Spokane lies a small but important piece of the growing work to save wildlife.
There on Peone Creek is a new tunnel-like passageway installed as part of the North Spokane Corridor project.
A wildlife camera placed at the opening has captured pictures of moose, deer, coyotes and other animals using it.
“It works quite well,” said Tammie Williams, environmental manager for the Washington state Department of Transportation in Spokane.
The new passage helping animals move safely across the highway is part of growing momentum for large-scale preservation of wildlife habitat and the corridors that connect them.
The local work is significant because northeast Washington and North Idaho are on the western edge of what eco-biologists consider possibly the most important interconnected habitat in North America.
The so-called “western wildway” along the spine of the Rockies, Alaska and northern Mexico is the focus of large and small efforts to preserve places where native plants and animals can thrive.
Two weeks ago, the World Wildlife Fund released discouraging news in its “Living Planet Report” – the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent between 1970 and 2010.
Loss of habitat accounts for just under half of the decline. Exploitation, pollution, climate change and invasive species are other major causes, the report said.
Leading thinkers in the field of ecobiology say half of the planet’s land surface needs to be set aside for nature to ensure survival, according to a September article in Smithsonian magazine.
In North America, environmental scientists increasingly believe that the continent’s ability to sustain its wildlife hinges on the ability of species to intermingle over long distances.
This is vital for keeping gene pools strong and healthy, but also for providing migration routes as global warming forces animals to relocate to cooler locales, they say.
Spokane County voters helping in conservation
Spokane County voters have been willing participants since they approved the Conservation Futures property tax in 1994. Since then, about 7,000 acres of primarily conservation land has been preserved across the county.
John Bottelli, assistant Spokane County parks director, calls that land the “last special places.”
“In simplest terms, once they are gone they are gone,” he said.
Habitat quality and its ability to provide connections for the movement of wildlife are among the top considerations in identifying properties for purchase through the program from willing sellers.
The largest acquisition to date is Antoine Peak, which stands above the Spokane Valley and is at the end of a wildlife corridor running the length of the Selkirk Mountains across Mount Spokane.
Conservation Futures purchased the 1,076 acres with matching grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program for a total of $10.5 million.
Bottelli said the peak is “kind of a convergence of three distinct ecosystems. It’s a very special place.”
Across Spokane Valley to the south, a 1,000-acre piece of Mica Peak was purchased last year for $1.66 million. It’s part of an east-west migratory route for an indigenous elk herd that ranges from the hills above Lake Coeur d’Alene to Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.
The Inland Northwest Land Trust has worked privately to preserve 3,000 acres across this corridor, one of its designated “wild lifelines.”
A major focus for the trust has been the Cougar Bay project southwest of Coeur d’Alene, where 700 acres have been protected so far through the land trust, Nature Conservancy, Kootenai County and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Through the land trust, property owners can preserve their pieces of nature in perpetuity through conservation easements or other arrangements. Since 1993, the organization has protected 10,000 acres this way.
“We are focusing specifically on lands along rivers, lakes and streams because those are the wildlife corridors,” said Chris DeForest, land trust conservation director.
The problem is those are the places where people want to build homes.
While scattered development on larger tracts is not seen as an impediment to wildlife, larger and denser developments can be.
Conservationists say part of preservation involves educating property owners and the public on good environmental practices. Washington’s shorelines law, for example, calls for preserving ecological function.
Just last week, the state Department of Ecology announced that it issued a restoration order to a property owner along the Spokane River in northwest Spokane after a swath of trees was illegally logged. The order may be followed by fines.
Solutions need human connectivity
All of the talk about natural connectivity has led conservationists to realize that connectivity extends to human communities, too.
Environmental activists aren’t alone in trying to preserve the landscape; ranchers and recreationists also can be powerful forces in preservation.
In Okanogan County, a sensitive ecosystem in the Tunk Valley running from the Kettle Range on the east to the Okanogan River on the west holds one of the remaining ecosystems for the Columbian subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse. The state has listed the species as threatened. The area also provides habitat for mule deer and is used as a migration corridor for the Canada lynx, which is listed as a threatened species in the U.S.
There, a collaborative effort is underway to preserve the native habitat.
The Working for Wildlife program in Okanogan County has more than 20 partners, including the Okanogan Land Trust, Colville Confederated Tribes, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Trust for Public Land, Conservation Northwest, Mule Deer Foundation and government agencies.
Garry Schalla, executive director of the Inland Northwest Land Trust, said the project is under fire from Okanogan County commissioners but it’s proceeding despite the criticism.
He said the wildlife corridors should be viewed not only as places for large mammals or threatened species, but also migratory birds, insects and the whole range of plant and animal interactions. For example, an area on the north side of the Tunk Valley is a known summering habitat for ladybugs.
A wildlife passage structure on U.S. Highway 97 at the west end of the valley is a priority.
Schalla said that in the last six years he has seen a change in the way conservationists, landowners, nonprofits and government agencies are working together to leverage resources.
The conservation movement also is finding increasing favor among large landholders who want to preserve their way of life in ranching and timbering.
A project in the Blackfoot River Valley of Western Montana has become a national model for cooperation among numerous interests. Other initiatives involve cross-border collaboration with Canada.
Looking ahead, Inland Northwest conservationists would like to see wildlife corridors and highway passages built across the Spokane Valley from north to south.
A wildlife passage is needed on U.S. Highway 195 south of Spokane to allow for migration and to reduce road kills, said Jeff Lambert, president of the Dishman Hills Natural Area Association.
“Most everyone wants to have a sustainable wild ecosystem,” he said.
Paraphrasing a local slogan, DeForest of the land trust said, “That’s part of the near-nature, near-perfect reason we moved here.”