Introducing Washington's Wildlife Areas

Methow Wildlife Area
Methow Wildlife Area

The state of Washington is renown for its varied landscape of mountain forests, deep blue lakes, prairies, shrub steppe, grasslands and rivers that flow into coastal estuaries and the Pacific Ocean. These diverse ecosystems support a remarkable variety of fish and wildlife species that contribute to the economic, recreational and cultural life of the state.

Since 1939, state leaders have sought to preserve habitat for fish and wildlife by acquiring key areas for public ownership. Today, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) owns or manages nearly a million acres of land divided into 33 designated Wildlife Areas across the state. In addition to Wildlife Areas, WDFW also owns or manages more than 700 Water Access Sites that provide boating access to lakes, rivers and marine areas.

Wildlife Areas provide habitat for fish and wildlife as well as land for outdoor recreation. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit these areas to camp, hike, fish and enjoy other outdoor activities compatible with fish and wildlife stewardship. These activities, in turn, support local economies and contribute to Washington’s wildlife-related recreation industry.

Methow Wildlife Area - Big Valley Unit
Methow Wildlife Area - Big Valley Unit

Habitat for Fish and Wildlife

Under state law, WDFW is charged with “preserving, protecting and perpetuating” the state’s fish and wildlife species, while also providing sustainable recreational opportunities for all to enjoy. Today, when the loss of natural habitat poses the greatest single threat to Washington’s native fish and wildlife, state Wildlife Areas play a critical role in maintaining the state’s natural heritage.

Although Washington’s Wildlife Areas make up just 1.4 percent of all the land in the state, they provide a disproportionate share of the habitat for many of the fish and wildlife species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). They also provide key ecological functions such as water delivery, groundwater replenishment and migratory passage.

  • Land Acquisition: Under the guidance of Lands 20/20: A Vision for the Future, an evaluation tool developed with public input, WDFW uses a strategic approach in acquiring land for Wildlife Areas. The department purchases lands that provide the highest benefit to fish, wildlife and the public, and only from willing sellers at fair market value.

    When WDFW purchases a property, the affected county can choose to receive payments in lieu of property tax on that land. For 2013, WDFW paid $579,999 to Washington counties plus an additional $405,914.66 in assessments for activities such as weed control, stormwater and lake management and diking and conservation districts.

Wells Wildlife Area - Central Ferry Canyon Unit
Wells Wildlife Area - Central Ferry Canyon Unit

Visiting State Wildlife Areas

Washington’s Wildlife Areas are as diverse as the state’s natural landscape, stretching from the tidelands of Whatcom County to the open meadows of southeast Washington. Recreational opportunities, public amenities and access also vary, depending on the terrain and the constraints posed by wildlife-management goals in each area.

For example, hunting and fishing are allowed in many - but not all - areas at various times of the year. So are dog walking and horseback riding. The search tool at the top of this page is designed to help prospective visitors find the features they are looking for in an outdoor experience in Washington’s Wildlife Areas.

All visitors to state Wildlife Areas are required to obtain and display a current Discover Pass or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass, regardless of how long they stay. Annual and daily Discover Passes will be sold at license vendors across the state. Vehicle Access Passes are free with the purchase of a  big-game or small-game hunting license, western Washington pheasant permit, trapping license, or saltwater or freshwater or combination recreational fishing license.

  • Check the rules: Visitors are encouraged to consult the public conduct rules approved by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to protect public safety and the fish and wildlife species inside state Wildlife Areas. The rules address camping, campfires, dumping and sanitation, firearms and target shooting, fireworks, parking, pets, and other issues.
  • Lend a hand: The Adopt an Access Program enlists volunteers to help WDFW provide safe, clean boating and fishing experiences for Washington’s outdoor recreationists. WDFW provides the necessary tools and training to local individuals and civic organizations on 30 of the 686 Access Areas to maintain their local access sites and provide a positive presence. This, in turn, has greatly minimized destructive behavior and abuse on WDFW Access Areas.
  • Stay informed: WDFW produces a quarterly newsletter, Land Line, to help keep users of Wildlife Areas, neighbors and others informed about activities, events and issues on WDFW Lands.

New and Ongoing Initiatives

WDFW is currently developing a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for lands in Wildlife Areas owned and managed by the department. The HCP will provide assurances that management, operations and recreational activities on Wildlife Areas comply with provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), and thereby contribute to the conservation and recovery of federally listed species and their habitats. In accordance with WDFW’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, the plan will incorporate a landscape-level approach to managing at-risk species.

Sharp-tailed Grouse at Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area
Sharp-tailed Grouse at Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area
Western Pond Turtle at Klickitat Wildlife Area
Western Pond Turtle at Klickitat Wildlife Area

Over the years, WDFW has worked to improve habitat condition and ecosystem function on Wildlife Areas, but has sometimes found it necessary to reintroduce or augment wildlife populations when their numbers drop to critical levels. Examples include:

  • Problem culverts: Since 2003, forty-nine culverts posing problems for fish passage have been corrected, opening up 73 miles of potential spawning and rearing habitat for adult and juvenile salmonids.
  • Spartina control: Spartina is an extremely aggressive non-native estuarine grass that acts as a barrier to foraging shorebirds and raises the intertidal elevation. Since 1995, WDFW has reduced the spartina infestation on department lands by over 90%. In Willapa Bay, one of the worst infestations in the state, WDFW’s partnership with federal, state, county, tribal and local entities has reduced the area infested with spartina from 8,500 acres in 2003 to less than 1,000 acres in 2008.
  • Purple loosestrife control: A similar biological control program funded by WDFW has also proven effective in reducing purple loosestrife, another invasive wetland plant that overwhelms native plants to the detriment of wildlife. In the early 1990s, this effort reduced 20,000 acres of loosestrife to a small population of scattered plants on Winchester Wasteway in the Columbia Basin. Those biological controls remain active today.
  • Sharp-tailed grouse: In the 1990s, the sharp-tailed grouse population on Scotch Creek Wildlife Area plummeted to fewer than 10 birds. To address this decline, 50 acres of riparian winter habitat were restored and 63 birds were introduced from out of state. By 2007, the count increased to 116 birds.
  • Western pond turtles: In 1990, an estimated 80 endangered western pond turtles remained in Klickitat Pond on the Klickitat Wildlife Area, one of the last native habitats for the turtle. Since then, that population has increased to 355 turtles with the introduction of 294 turtles under the “Head Start” program. Partners in that effort include WDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Portland Zoo.