By Nick Hershenow
The Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is proposing to close about 80% of the state wildlife lands between Carlton and Winthrop to human entry from Dec. 15-April 15. These lands were purchased primarily as wildlife sanctuaries, with a particular focus on winter range for deer. Public use is a secondary benefit. Deer numbers are down, human numbers are up. That, in a nutshell, is the justification for the closure.
The people that this closure would exclude are skiers, walkers and snowshoers. We go out in very small numbers, mostly following the same user-built trails which the deer also often preferentially follow. We are mainly people who live and work here, who go to the wildlife areas for physical, mental and emotional sustenance and grounding. Many of us don’t have the money for a ski pass, aren’t backcountry skiers with snowmobiles, or want to avoid driving long distances to recreate. This is by far the most benign and socially equitable outdoor winter recreation available.
We recognize that these areas are first and foremost a refuge for wildlife. If our presence and activities are compromising wildlife then we need to make the necessary adjustments. However, WDFW has not made a convincing argument that this is happening. It’s hard to imagine that it’s happening to an extent that justifies wholesale closures whose effectiveness will be impossible to determine.
Apparently WDFW has been mulling this over this closure for many years — so why did so many of us who use and love these areas feel totally blindsided when it was presented to us in this manner, more or less as a done deal? Sure, public use is not the leading agency priority — but wouldn’t management objectives be better served with engagement, understanding, and input from users and surrounding communities?
In many hundreds of visits to the wildlife areas, I have never seen a WDFW employee. Yet these areas do not appear neglected or abused. Why? At least partly because we the users have a sense of stewardship and engagement. This should be nurtured.
Human presence can negatively affect deer in some places. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that all human activity over such a large area should be so abruptly and absolutely prohibited, at least without trying some other strategies first. For example:
• Public education. More informative signage and posting of regulations. A WDFW presence and engagement with the public would be a very good thing. Going from no formal or posted guidelines about access and use to prohibiting it entirely seems rash and unfair.
• Dog control. Arguably it is the dogs that accompany humans — especially the occasional dog running loose and wild — rather than the humans themselves that negatively affect the deer.
• Baseline data. There isn’t any. We know deer numbers are down. Some of the obvious reasons: fire, climate stress, increased traffic and speeds on the highway. What we don’t know — there’s no data, no comparisons — is whether a few humans skiing or snowshoeing around is also a major factor. Given the very light recreational use over most of this area, it’s hard to believe this is happening to an extent that would justify these large-scale closures.
• Designated travel routes in some areas. We are told that Methow Trails network of groomed trails, despite the nightly passage of heavy machinery and daily passage of hundreds of skiers, is not disruptive to deer, because these routes are predictable and consistent. In fact, most people in wildlife areas also follow consistent and predictable routes. These could be formalized. Rather than blanket area exclusions, travel corridors could be designated in certain areas.
• A more scientific project design, with controls, comparisons and some way to determine effectiveness. Closures could be better targeted and could shift over space and time to allow for comparisons.
This proposal creates an exaggerated perception of the conflict between recreation and wildlife values. The truth is people on both sides of this issue share many values, but the way this proposal was developed and presented to us highlights and exacerbates whatever differences do exist, rather than resolving them.
I am hopeful that WDWF can take a step back and go about this in a more deliberative, scientific and inclusive way.
Nick Hershenow has lived in Twisp for the past eight years. He is a preschool teacher at Little Star School. Previously he worked many years as a field technician for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho and Washington, as a land steward for the San Juan County Land Bank on Orcas Island.