OLYMPIA - Forty years after the first Earth Day celebration, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is working in new ways to conserve the state’s land and water, and the species that rely on them for survival.
Fragmentation of natural habitat, climate change and new risks raised by invasive species are all demanding greater attention from a department perhaps best known for enforcing fishing and hunting regulations.
"Our first priority is to conserve our state’s fish and wildlife," said WDFW Director Phil Anderson. "As new challenges to those resources emerge, we have a responsibility to address them. At WDFW, every day is Earth Day."
Many of the department’s latest conservation initiatives are described in Conserving Washington’s Fish and Wildlife, which outlines the department’s evolving role as a steward of the state’s living resources. The information is available on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildlife/management/.
Reflecting on the changes that have taken place since the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, Anderson noted that the number of people living in Washington state has doubled - from 3.4 million to 6.8 million. State demographers expect the population to double again in another 40 years.
That presents a real challenge to the future of the state’s fish and wildlife populations, Anderson said.
"Rapid growth of the human population has greatly accelerated the loss of natural habitat available for native fish and wildlife," Anderson said. "Conserving natural habitat is unquestionably the greatest single challenge we face as resource managers."
Washington’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, which provides a foundation for WDFW’s strategic planning, finds that a major portion of Washington’s natural habitat has been lost since statehood. Losses include:
- 90 percent of the state’s old-growth forests
- 70 percent of its arid grasslands and estuarine wetlands
- 50 percent of eastside prairie habitat
- 50 percent to 90 percent of the land around rivers and streams
To help compensate for these losses, WDFW owns or manages nearly 850,000 acres of land throughout the state, acquired to provide natural habitat for fish and wildlife. While most of the department’s 32 wildlife areas are open for public recreation, all are managed primarily for fish and wildlife conservation.
Other initiatives to protect and maintain natural habitat range from purchasing wildlife easements from farmers and ranchers to a broad-based effort to restore the nearshore area of Puget Sound.
"By necessity, projects that benefit multiple species have top priority," Anderson said. "This approach - known as `landscape’ or ‘ecosystem’ planning - recognizes that we can’t afford to manage just one species at a time. We need to plan for the greater good."
That is especially true given global climate predictions, Anderson said. Faced with evidence of rising water temperatures and melting glaciers, WDFW is considering new management strategies to respond to climate change in future years.
"A long-term rise in temperatures would cause major disruptions to many fish and wildlife populations and the habitat they rely on," Anderson said. "People can debate the causes of climate change and what it all means, but we have a responsibility to plan for the future so we can manage these species as conditions change."
Another concern is invasive species, whether they arrive in the ballast water of international cargo ships or on smaller boats towed from other states, Anderson said. Tiny invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels can take a heavy toll on native species and cause million of dollars in damage to public infrastructure.
"So far, we’ve removed invasive mussels from more than 17 vessels stopped at check stations around the state," Anderson said. "These species haven’t established themselves in Washington’s waters yet, but that continues to be a major concern."
As Anderson sees it, Earth Day is a timely reminder that all Washingtonians - not just natural resource agencies and full-time conservationists - have a stake in the environmental health of their state.
"Washingtonians volunteered more than a hundred thousand hours of their time to important conservation projects managed by WDFW last year," Anderson said. "We really appreciate that, especially at a time when public resources are so limited. I hope that Earth Day inspires more people to make that kind of a commitment to the Earth, and the many species that inhabit it."