ASOTIN - Federal, state and local government officials joined landowners, hunters, fishers and other wildlife enthusiasts at a remote vista in southeast Washington's Asotin County today to dedicate an 8,500-acre addition to a state wildlife area.
About 12 miles southwest of Clarkston, the Smoothing Iron and George Creek parcels of the J Bar S Ranch, Inc., were purchased for $3.5 million by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) last year from the Schlee family. The acquisition brings the total acreage of WDFW's adjacent Asotin Wildlife Area to 22,315 acres.
The property is also adjacent to the Umatilla National Forest and creates a link in a vital watershed for threatened steelhead and bull trout and endangered spring chinook salmon. It also includes steppe, riparian and wetland habitats used by other fish and wildlife species.
At the direction of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, $3 million for the acquisition came from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) fish and wildlife mitigation program funds. The balance came from grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) of the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation (IAC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
The non-profit conservation group Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation worked with WDFW to secure the federal funding and provided contributions from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and through fundraising efforts.
"This property has been our number-one priority for strategic protection of fish and wildlife for a long time," said WDFW director Jeff Koenings. "It helps us address locally identified watershed management problems by connecting state and federal lands so we can manage the mid and upper reaches of this watershed for a number of species."
The acquisition was a high priority for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The program is designed to mitigate the impacts of hydropower dams on fish and wildlife with emphasis on acquisition of high-quality habitat to enhance fish and wildlife populations over the long term.
The project is part of USFWS' funding of broad watershed protection for federally threatened and endangered species, said Susan Martin, supervisor for the Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife office. "We expect our grant dollars to continue securing critical habitat for recovery of listed species and supporting cohesive management."
John McGlenn, founding board member of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, said the state funding through IAC's WWRP "ensures that wildlife habitat, like that in the Asotin Creek Wildlife Area, is protected so that citizens will know that chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, bald eagle, elk and mule deer populations will be secure in our state."
Peter J. Dart, Elk Foundation President and CEO said his organization is proud to be a partner in this project.
"This land purchase is key to helping WDFW reach its goal of increasing the Asotin elk herd from 700 to 1,000 animals, while at the same time providing the ability to control elk-caused damage to neighboring agricultural lands," he said.
The property includes 426 acres of riparian habitat and buffers along 5 ½ miles of the south fork of Asotin Creek and George Creek, plus 23 ½ miles of tributary streams. Those waters are home to summer steelhead, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Suitable habitat also exists for threatened bull trout and for threatened spring chinook salmon, which may be reintroduced to the watershed.
The property's steppe rangeland represents some of the best remaining native steppe habitat in the state, Koenings said. Another 700 acres is in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It has steep canyon slopes and level ridge tops that in the winter hosts as many as half of the 700 elk that currently reside in the local game management unit. It is a potential restoration area for sharptail grouse, a state endangered species.
Bald eagles, federally listed as threatened, winter on the property, which also provides habitat for mule deer, bighorn sheep, bears, cougars, chukars, hawks, neo-tropical songbirds, and many other species.
Management plans for the property, including potential recreational uses, fencing, CRP and grazing, will be developed with the help of interested citizens and groups.