YAKIMA -- The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently teamed up with city, county, state, federal, and non-profit cooperators in a unique trade of a former fish hatchery for steelhead trout and elk habitat in Kittitas County.
The deal culminated ten years of effort, starting with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation purchase of 684 acres of wildlife-rich land to protect it from development until it could be conveyed to public ownership.
It also involved the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the city and county of Yakima.
"This is a great trade of a non-functioning fish hatchery for naturally functioning fish and wildlife habitat," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. "The cooperation involved among city, county, state, federal, and non-profit interests makes it a unique deal."
The acreage is winter range for 100-200 elk and steelhead spawning habitat on Taneum Creek seven miles northwest of Ellensburg. It was named "Heart K Ranch" by Loel Knudson who sold the property in 1991 to the Elk Foundation. Rance Block, the Foundation's Eastern Washington regional director, explained that the non-profit organization's intent was to manage the property for elk and cattle until the state could assume ownership and management.
WDFW, however, never had the funds to acquire the property until now, said Del Peterson, WDFW Regional Lands Coordinator of Yakima.
With the help of WDFW lands agent Cindy McMinn, ownership of the former Yakima Fish Hatchery was transferred to the Foundation in exchange for 310 acres of the Heart K Ranch. The Foundation then sold the hatchery to the city and county of Yakima for $378,000.
The hatchery was used to rear mostly catchable-size rainbow trout for stocking in area fishing lakes. Increasing maintenance costs of the 60-some-year-old facility and WDFW funding cuts forced its closure in 1993. Located adjacent to the Yakima Airport, the hatchery grounds were purchased by the city and county for airport expansion.
Reclamation purchased the other 374 acres of the Heart K Ranch for fish enhancement projects under the federal Yakima Basin Enhancement Act.
Reclamation's interest in the project is part of its commitment to fish habitat restoration in the Yakima River Basin, explained Tracey Yerxa, Reclamation's water and land acquisition coordinator in Yakima. Taneum Creek is a tributary of the Yakima River. Reclamation operates a series of reservoirs and diversion dams on the Yakima to supply Federal Yakima Project water users. Taneum provides spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead trout, and is home to rainbow and westslope cutthroat trout.
Ecology partnered with Reclamation by providing $100,000 in cost share funds to help protect the property's water rights.
"This agreement will result in a better environment for nature and a better quality of life for our citizens, and it's great that we could help make it happen," said Tom Fitzsimmons, director of Ecology.
Yerxa explained that increasing instream flows in Taneum Creek through water rights acquisition, and conserving and restoring the floodplain and riparian habitats with proper management, will help both anadromous and resident fish long into the future.
"Through this partnership between Reclamation, WDFW, Ecology, and local interests, " said Jim Esget, Reclamation's manager for the Yakima Enhancement Project, "we can work on how to restore fish in Taneum Creek, stabilize instream flows, and improve habitat."
WDFW's Peterson noted that nothing would have been possible without the Elk Foundation's original acquisition.
"Our volunteers all over the state, especially in the Yakima Valley, should be very proud that they've helped protect this property for ten years," said Block of the Foundation. "Their efforts have assured an elk winter-range legacy in Taneum Canyon, and this sale will now allow the Elk Foundation to pursue other key habitat acquisitions."
Peterson said the Foundation, Reclamation, and WDFW are working on a management and recreation plan for the newly acquired property, with input from local land and water rights owners. A draft will be up for public review later this year.