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MAKING LIFE WORK ON YOUR TERMS

With Karen Wickre and Tess Vigeland

Sports >  Outdoors

Wildlife takes over 10,500-acre Asotin County ranch from Grande Ronde River into Blue Mountains

The assets of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s latest major land deal were on display last week.

Some guests arriving for the dedication of the 4-O Ranch Wildlife Area at the old Mountain View town site overlooking the Grande Ronde River reported spotting elk, deer, bighorn sheep, black bear, cougar, golden eagles, wild turkeys and more.

Others said they’d been scouting steelhead fishing hot spots.

And that was just driving to the event.

Much more was out of sight among the timber, basalt cliffs and talus slopes, meadows, creeks, thickets and ag fields on the 10,502-acres sweeping up from the river to the Umatilla National Forest.

After a decade of meetings, surveys and grant applications followed by five acquisitions since 2011, the agency has taken ownership of a cattle spread featuring standout wildlife diversity.

The 4-O Ranch was acquired for $19.1 million, with 62 percent covered by state grants and 38 percent covered by federal endangered species programs.

The federal funding owes to the area’s value for nourishing threatened stocks of steelhead, fall chinook and bull trout, along with wildlife including goshawks and eagles.

“Places like this help prevent species being listed and aid recovery of species on the endangered list,” said Russ MacRae of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This is a gem,” said Bob Dice, the state’s Blue Mountains Wildlife Area Complex manager who’s taken over responsibility for most of the ranch. “We don’t get many opportunities like this to secure the future for wildlife and wildlife recreation.”

“I ticked off about 40 bird species in a couple hours this morning,” said Kim Thorburn, state Fish and Wildlife commissioner and avid birder from Spokane. “This is exquisite wildlife habitat.”

Representatives of the Rocky Mountain Elk and Mule Deer foundations were all smiles, too. The ranch includes year-round habitat, including critical winter range, that benefits big game throughout the Mountain View Unit 172 and beyond.

The 4-O includes 75 percent of the core habitat for the Mountain View bighorn sheep herd.

Anyone can hike or hunt grouse on the property, but deer and elk hunting is by permit only. Hunters who drew tags for this year will have a quality experience. Only a handful of permitted big-game hunters at a time will be in the “1040 Area” for the archery, muzzleloader and modern firearm seasons.

“My family has been here since 1954,” said Mike Odom, who sold most of the ranch to the state. “I’ve always appreciated the ranch and growing up with the wildlife.

“The cooperative agreement benefits both the public and my family. I’m glad for everything that occurred.”

The 4-O Cattle Ranch produced livestock and was involved in farming, timber management and private hunting.

“The Odoms took good care of the place,” Dice said. “There’s no guarantee the next landowner would.”

Odom kept some of the 4-O Cattle Ranch land and has agreements to continue grazing and farming in portions of the public wildlife area.

Odom also wrote into the deal a family right to be buried in the old Mountain View Cemetery that’s now part of the wildlife area. “We’re connected to this place,” he said.

Fisheries biologists are just as impressed with the property as the hunters and wildlife biologists.

“Two major tributaries to the Grande Ronde are now protected from development that could have affected their water quality for redband trout, steelhead and salmon,” said Chris Donley, state regional fisheries manager.

He noted the property is dotted with cold-water springs that feed Wenatchee, Cougar, Medicine and Grouse creeks in a river-breaks landscape where the open slopes are green for only a few weeks a year.

The wildlife area includes more than 18 miles of river and creek habitat along the Grande Ronde River and its tributaries.

Agency officials heaped praise on Eastern Region Lands Manager Brian Trickle for developing the relationships and trust to forge the deal.

“Unique properties like this are usually acquired by Ted Turners, not the public,” Donley said.

“This is an absolutely fabulous piece of property,” said Jim Unsworth, department director. “Mike Odom said he never considered himself as the owner of this property, but rather the caretaker.”

Since the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County was purchased in 1939, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s land portfolio has grown to a million acres dedicated to preserving and protecting wildlife ecosystems while allowing public access.

“Washington State is at 7.4 million people and growing fast, and many of them want a place to hunt and fish,” said Kaleen Cottigan, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office. The RCO administered the state funding grants to accomplish the acquisitions.

Paul Wik, Fish and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist, oversaw documentation of the wildlife assets to qualify for the acquisition grants.

“I have about a year of work on the 4-O over the past eight years,” he said. “It’s been a privilege.”

Biologists confirmed many wildlife species other than big game in the area, such as wolf, Townsend’s big-eared bat, pileated and white-headed woodpeckers, loggerhead shrike, neotropical migrants, Rocky Mountain tailed frogs and western toads.

The wildlife area connects with the national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands, providing a large block of public land easier to manage for the goals of state and federal science-based plans, said Steve Pozzanghera, Fish and Wildlife Department Eastern Region director.

The formerly private land has springs and small ponds developed for stock but beneficial for increasing wildlife use of available habitat.

State acquisition of the 4-O Ranch was approved by the Asotin County Commission amid considerable concern from constituents that too much private land was being transferred to public ownership in the area.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife owns 44,200 acres in 410,200-acre county.

“Not everybody was happy we passed that resolution,” said Commissioner Brian Shinn. “Local residents, ranchers and farmers met with each of us county commissioners and lined out their concern about the purchase of lands in Asotin County and the resulting tax burdens these government-owned lands transferred to the rest of the tax payers.”

On the other hand, he said, Asotin County has the highest percentage in the state of people who hunt and fish.

“The wildlife area will attract more people to the area and boost businesses,” he said. “The Asotin Lands Committee worked with the department and assured that the area would continue as a working ranch with grazing, farming and timber harvest.”

Fish and Wildlife has no immediate plans to add staff for managing the property beyond the two biologists, four technicians, two natural resources workers and summer interns, Dice said.

“We’ll be working on signage, fencing, weed control, and the operators will still be dealing with the agricultural land,” he said.

“Some local people will still be earning income off that land,” Commissioner Shinn said. “These local ranchers and farmers are generating local tax dollars and income as well as improved habitat, which helps meet wildlife goals.”

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, addressed the creation of the state wildlife area on a different level.

“We’ve lost touch with the connection to the land in this society,” she said. “Maybe it’s right that the ranchers should be able to retire in comfort and leave something for their families. What he left is a legacy.

“But I think of the million acres of public land the state has acquired. Dividing that by 1,000 acres, that’s 100 families that could have had some place to build their dreams.”

Big ranches and farms in the West often grew by buying out neighboring properties that needed to be sold, often for below-market values.

Government agencies are required to pay fair market value for property from willing sellers, drawing criticism that they are pricing out farmers and ranchers who might otherwise afford the property at bargain rates.

Asotin County commissioners had to be open-minded about state acquisitions “because some landowners want to sell,” Shinn said.

On a tour of the property, Dice, the new 4-O Ranch Wildlife Area manager, drove from the gushing McNeil Spring, through thinned timber, past the decaying log cabin post office along the Mountain View bench. He stopped his pickup at the stunning landscape overlooking the Grande Ronde River.

“That’s a million dollar view,” he said. “This property would have been ripe for selling off as second-home sites in the future … But now the future here is for wildlife.”

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