OLYMPIA---Thirty years after the first Earth Day celebration, fish and wildlife habitat in Washington state continues to be lost at a rapid rate, posing a serious threat to the health of many species, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife reported today.
A study by a federal agency estimates 70,000 acres of private, undeveloped land throughout the state are annually converted to urban, industrial and other human uses. This conversion either eliminates or seriously degrades the lands' use for fish and wildlife habitat.
Private, undeveloped land includes forests, farms and wetlands.
The reason for alarm the rate of loss has more than doubled in the last decade; in the 1980s, an estimated 30,000 acres annually were converted for human uses.
"As we enter the 21st century, the job of protecting and preserving our state's fish and wildlife habitat will have to be carried out on the local level by willing property owners," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
"Washington has experienced tremendous population and economic growth in recent years," Koenings added. "We can accommodate this growth and provide for our native fish and wildlife populations if we each do our part and as individuals and practice proper land management practices."
"It doesn't have to be an either-or situation. Whether it's bald eagle nest protection or salmon stream restoration or pygmy rabbit protection, our best conservation efforts must come from the voluntary efforts of dedicated people from all walks of life and all parts of the state."
The nationwide study was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and covers the period from 1992 to 1997. Called the National Resources Inventory, the study focused exclusively on the condition of private land, which accounts for 70 percent of the country's land. The 70,000 acre estimate for Washington state is based on the study's preliminary results.
The accelerated conversion of undeveloped land in Washington has occurred as the state's human population has continued to mushroom, growing almost 40 percent in the last 30 years. Washington, the smallest of the western states, now has the second highest population density.
By the middle of this century, Washington's population is expected to double, adding the equivalent of 29 cities the size of Tacoma or Spokane.
Koenings said the loss of fish and wildlife habitat also fragments remaining habitat and diminishes its ability to support fish and wildlife.
"Whether it's the decline of our salmon species or decline of our wildlife species, most of our problems can be traced to the pressures that we, as people, have put on their habitat," Koenings said. "Habitat loss is the common thread in the decline both of wild salmon runs and wildlife species."
Presently, the state and federal governments list 52 Washington fish and wildlife species as endangered or threatened. Three species were added to the list in 1999. Scores of other species are considered candidates for eventual listing by the state.
Biologists say the primary reason for decline of most species is habitat loss or degradation.
For example, a vast majority of salmon mortality occurs in freshwater habitats that have been degraded over the years by unwise water and land use practices. And an estimated 30,000 miles of state streams are blocked for salmon passage by road culverts.
The recovery of the bald eagle, our nation's symbol, is an example of how attention to habitat preservation and better land management practices can contribute to the recovery a troubled species.
Washington's breeding eagle population has increased from fewer than 100 pairs in the 1970s to more than 600 pairs today. The bird is expected to soon be removed from the state and federal threatened lists.
"Bald eagle recovery is due in large part to over 700 Washington landowners who have participated in our cooperative habitat management plans for the birds over the past 13 years," Koenings said. "We need to continue that kind of personal stewardship to sustain not only our eagle population, but other fish and wildlife populations as well."