Scorched landscape threatens many animal species
By Ann McCreary
For a second consecutive year, state wildlife managers are scrambling to assess the damage caused by massive wildfires that scorched four state wildlife areas in north central Washington, including the Methow Valley.
Since mid-August, this year’s record-setting wildfires in Okanogan County have burned more than 505,000 acres, destroyed about 200 residences, and killed three firefighters.
As of early this week the largest fires included the Tunk Block Fire, burning 10 miles northeast of Omak and listed at 167,840 acres and 79 percent contained; the North Star Fire, 25 miles north of Coulee Dam, which had consumed 215,406 acres and was 47 percent contained; and the Okanogan Complex Fire, west of Omak and Okanogan, which was 133,142 acres and 85 percent contained. The Twisp River Fire, fully contained, burned 11,211 acres in August.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimates that wildfires have scorched more than 25,000 acres of wildlife lands maintained by the department for wildlife and outdoor recreation in Okanogan and Chelan counties.
That exceeds the amount of state wildlife land burned by last year’s massive Carlton Complex Fire by about 1,000 acres, said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director for north central Washington.
“Several wildlife areas are completely burned over,” Brown said. “The vegetation that supports deer, sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife is gone. I’d call it déjà vu, except that this year’s fire took a different path and has aggravated the problems we’ve been working to address since last year.”
This year’s damage to WDFW lands was concentrated in the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area, east of Conconully; the Methow Wildlife Area where the Twisp River Fire burned; the Chelan Wildlife Area, primarily around Chelan Butte; and the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area between Loomis and Conconully, Brown said. In some areas, trained department staff worked alongside regular firefighters to control the blaze.
Those four wildlife areas support thousands of deer, many of which will seek food outside the areas scorched by wildfires, said Matt Monda, WDFW regional wildlife manager. Like last year, the department plans to work with landowners to protect their crops from deer displaced by the fire, he said.
“We are looking at the carrying capacity of habitat for wintering deer,” Monda said. “We know we need to take additional steps to align the herds with available habitat. That effort will involve allowing the habitat to recover and minimizing conflicts between deer and agricultural landowners.”
Drought having impact
The statewide drought, one of the most severe on record, is both causing and compounding the wildfire damage, Monda said. “The drought is going to have an effect on vegetation recovery. That’s why we had the big fires and it’s going to make things more difficult for wildlife.”
Hunting seasons for archers are now underway, and WDFW may draw from its existing list of special-hunt applicants to increase the number of modern-firearms permit hunts in October, Monda said.
Brown said WDFW encourages hunters to take advantage of those hunting opportunities, but recommends that they check local access restrictions before they leave home. Key contact numbers are included on the state governor’s website at www.governor.wa.gov/news-media/washington-wildfire-resources.
In the months ahead, the department will consider setting up localized deer-feeding stations and other measures to protect agriculture crops on a case-by-case basis, Brown said.
“There are a lot of good reasons not to feed wildlife, but we’ll assess each situation on its merits once we have a better idea of the environmental conditions in fall and winter,” he said.
In the meantime, the department will continue to update its damage assessment as a first step toward qualifying for federal disaster relief. Besides burning thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, the fire has destroyed 90 miles of WDFW boundary fencing, several outbuildings, and hundreds of informational signs.
“This fencing serves two purposes: to keep livestock where they’re supposed to be — either on or off wildlife areas — and to identify the boundaries of wildlife areas,” Monda said.
It is very important — and expensive — to restore the lost fencing, he said. “A mile of fence costs many thousands of dollars to replace,” he said.
Also damaged were two of the three pastures in Okanogan County that WDFW leased to livestock producers displaced by last year’s fires.
“We want to help our neighbors whenever we can, but I don’t know whether we’ll have any grazing areas available this year,” Brown said.
Looking ahead to the fall rains, Brown recommends that area landowners promptly assess their own properties to determine whether fire damage has clogged culverts, destabilized slopes, or created other dangerous situations. If so, landowners may qualify for an emergency permit — called a Hydraulic Permit Approval (HPA) — to address risks in or around state waters.
Landowners in north central Washington seeking more information on emergency HPAs can contact WDFW at (509) 754-4624.
“These record-breaking fires will have a major impact on both the wildlife and the human residents of north central Washington for years to come,” Brown said. “The vegetation will eventually grow back and the wildlife will return, but we all need a break from these massive fires.”