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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Agency habitat stewards work under public’s radar

Karin Divens, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist. Divens passed away recently after 22 years with the agency. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife / Courtesy)
Karin Divens, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist. Divens passed away recently after 22 years with the agency. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife / Courtesy)
By Rich Landers Outdoors correspondent

Fish and wildlife without habitat are no more viable than Gonzaga basketball teams without an arena, backboards or hoops.

Habitat is the court for the public’s game, so to speak, and a lot of unsung heroes are looking after it.

Some biologists make headlines by shooting tranquilizer darts and radio collaring elk for research. Habitat biologists are often under the public radar as they make sure the elk have a viable corridor to migrate from winter to summer range.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Department staff in Spokane have been reflecting on the work its small Habitat Division does after recovering from the shock of losing Karin Divens, a mother, wife and biologist who worked with the agency 22 years before her recent sudden unexpected death.

“We embrace a supporting role for fish and wildlife,” said Mark Wachtel, the agency’s habitat program manager for Washington’s 10 easternmost counties. “Protection and restoration of fish and wildlife, both game and nongame, is what we’re all about.”

While government oversight of fish and wildlife dates back to statehood and was upgraded in the early 1900s, the state’s habitat program wasn’t created until 1980.

“There was more and more understanding in the 1970s of how important it is that fish and wildlife have a place to live,” he said.

Early in her career, for example, Divens was identifying and mapping the habitat needs of certain species and the potential impacts of development.

“She would make the information available to local governments and anyone else making land-use decisions, especially in regards to complying with the Growth Management Act,” Wachtel said.

Divens and other staff did the groundwork that allowed the state to bid, purchase and preserve key wildlife and recreation areas such as Rustler’s Gulch, nearly 3,000 acres along the West Branch of the Little Spokane River near the border of Spokane and Pend Oreille counties.

To qualify for the grants to purchase that property, Divens was among a range of scientists in the agency’s fish, wildlife and habitat programs who documented the life histories of deer and other species to identify their migratory needs.

“When you protect corridors for large mammals, a wide range of other wildlife on the web can use them, too,” Wachtel said. “People have a need for these areas, too. Horse riders love Rustlers.”

Counties also can use habitat maps so that important corridors can be protected with buffers to development, he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Department’s Region 1 habitat program based in Spokane has six biologists, two supervisors and an environmental engineer to deal with applications for hydraulic permits that are required for development impacting streams.

“In order for us to be successful in influencing land use decisions, we have to develop relationships with other fish and wildlife experts,other agencies and user groups,” Wachtel said.

“It’s the grind,” he said noting that the department doesn’t have a gigantic pot of cash to go out and buy or protect land.

“When the opportunity came up to secure Rustler’s Gulch, for instance, Karin had to develop the information, write the reports and present it all to funding organizations in a timely manner, complying with state policies, making sure county governments and others were OK with the acquisition – all quickly enough to satisfy the sellers in a real estate transaction,” Wachtel said.

“Working for wildlife means working with other agencies and private landowners,” he added.

A habitat biologist shoulders a lot of responsibility in assuring long-term conservation gains, he said, adding, “You don’t learn all of that in school.”

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