WDFW interested in 400 acres for wildlife habitat
Okanogan County is “disappointed” by the $401,000 appraisal from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for approximately 400 acres of wildlife habitat on Hunter Mountain, near the town of Methow. That’s about half of what the county expected for the land, Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson told the county commissioners at their meeting on Jan. 3.
When the county purchased 540 acres near Methow for a gravel pit for $1 million in February 2020, they hoped that a sale could be worked out with WDFW, since the county needed only 149 acres for the gravel pit and the land connects with federal and state public lands and provides habitat for mule deer and other wildlife.
The paperwork, which was sent to the county for review, said a second appraiser concurred with that value for the 401.06 acres, Thomson told the Methow Valley News.
WDFW received a $650,000 Critical Habitat grant for the Hunter Mountain property in 2021 from the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO).
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover suggested asking County Assessor Larry Gilman for his appraisal of the property. Hover, who had expected an offer in the $600,000 to $700,000 range, said “$1,000 bucks an acre” was “ridiculous.” Thomson said he’d also anticipated the property would bring in the amount Hover expected.
Several acres adjacent to the gravel pit sold last winter for $2,000 per acre, Thomson said. According to the assessor’s property-sale records, 400 acres of unimproved land adjacent to the county property sold for $800,000 in January 2022.
Selling the property as surplus, with the chance it could be developed, wouldn’t be desirable, in part because residential traffic would be incompatible with the county’s operations at the gravel pit, Thomson told the commissioners.
“If not purchased by WDFW, the parcels will likely be sold for residential development, which would significantly degrade critical wildlife habitat and fragment existing adjacent public lands. This project will not only protect the target property, it will also provide environmental benefits to the surrounding landscape,” WDFW District Biologist Scott Fitkin said in an environmental benefits statement submitted with the grant application.
Thomson and the commissioners plan to explore the possibility for a county to obtain a conservation easement. They will also approach nonprofits such as the Mule Deer Foundation, since the land contains considerable winter habitat for deer, Hover said.
Grant for wildlife habitat
The RCO, which provided the $650,000 grant to WDFW, said the land would help preserve key habitat. “Conserving this property will protect and enhance critical habitat for wintering mule deer and other sagebrush obligate species, while protecting an important north-south wildlife corridor connecting state and federal lands. The primary benefit of this project is habitat conservation,” according to the grant agreement.
An estimate of the acquisition costs in the project application filed with RCO set the land value at almost $530,000. The remainder of the grant would mainly be used for a cultural resources study, an appraisal and survey, and closing costs.
If the county doesn’t want to sell the land for the appraised amount, WDFW can offer more money, but the agency can’t use the grant for anything above the appraisal, RCO Communications Manager Susan Zemek said. WDFW usually doesn’t like to pay more than the appraised value because it would set a new market rate for land in the area, she said.
If WDFW doesn’t buy the land, the grant generally returns to RCO to be used for another project, since there are projects waiting in line for funding, Zemek said.
WDFW can propose acquisition of a different piece of property, as long as it has the same purpose (that is, it benefits the same species or has the same ecological function) and is adjacent to this land or in the same watershed, Zemek said.
The county is also free to sell to a different buyer, she said.