More protection: Department of Fish and Wildlife receives funds to protect shrubsteppe

·3 min read

Jul. 22—Because of last year's immense fire-scar on land vital to vulnerable and endangered animal populations in the Columbia Basin, state legislators passed a Shrubsteppe Fire Recovery and Preparedness Proviso to protect Department of Fish and Wildlife lands, as well as their partners and stakeholders.

Part of the 2021-2023 state budget, the department first saw funding July 1.

The Pearl Hill Fire of September 2020 seared three years' worth of endangered pygmy rabbit release efforts, two breeding enclosures, four acclimation pens, 100 square miles of habitat and half of the entire population.

In total, fires that Labor Day weekend burned more than 800,000 acres of crucial shrubsteppe, knocking out animals, as well as their food supply, resulting in a 50% cut to the state's endangered greater sage grouse population as well.

Because of the interdependence of an ecosystem, each resource removed is like removing a Jenga block from the stack, said WDFW biologist Jon Gallie. Every time a population is weakened, it threatens the whole system.

Already this year, WDFW lands have been touched by fires. The Lick Creek Fire in Asotin County caused a land closure earlier this month, and the Red Apple Fire in Chelan County covers part of the Swakane Wildlife Area, said Staci Lehman, WDFW spokesperson.

Starting Friday, all WDFW lands east of the Cascades, about 700,000 acres, will be closed at night due to wildfire risk.

The new proviso, which includes a $2.35 million operating budget and a $1.5 million capital budget, has two main components, said Hannah Anderson, WDFW diversity division manager.

The first is to deliver near-term restoration action in the face of wildfire, she said. This means replanting native vegetation in burn areas to support habitat regeneration, rebuilding fences, and offering hay as a mechanism to defer grazing to give the habitat more time to regenerate. It also means species-specific actions, catering directly to the most vulnerable populations, such as the sage grouse and the pygmy rabbit.

The second component of the proviso is to deliver recommendations on how to prepare for wildfires, respond and create resilient conditions, as well as restoration tools.

Some of this work the department was already doing, Anderson said, but they have been historically limited by budget or cooperation by other agencies, landowners or tribal partners. This proviso seeks to build communication and unify goals.

"We were limited by our resources to do more of it at the scale of which the fire impacted us," she said.

This involves coordinating efforts with the Department of Natural Resources and State Conservation Commission and organizing a board of environmental stakeholders, land stakeholders, conservation districts, fire districts, local cities and counties and tribal partners, she said.

Currently, the department is in planning mode, she said, producing native plants, completing ground preparation work, assembling crews and discussing how, when and where to target resources.

However, it doesn't end here, she said. The more people involved and aware of these concerns, the healthier the landscape will be.

"We're not doing this alone, and we recognize and know that we need all the folks on the landscape to be invested, and we know that fire and the threat of fire and the solutions to wildfire are a unifying concept that we are all sort of growing in the same direction," she said.

In total, this is a monumental step forward, she said.

"It's a tremendous benefit, and I'm so grateful to the legislature and our state leaders for recognizing the tremendous need in the shrubsteppe," she said. "Not everybody has recognized the value of the shrubsteppe in the past, and we're really seeing that attention now, and that's great. We're taking a giant leap forward here, and we're really seeing this proviso and these funds as a seed to leverage and grow with our partners on the landscape to create more resilient conditions."

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