Threatened steelhead and bull trout, Rocky Mountain elk, and a host of other fish and wildlife species will benefit from the recent joint acquisition of 8,500 acres in southeast Washington's Asotin County, made possible with mostly federal funds and a state and private partnership.
Using Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) fish and wildlife mitigation funds, plus grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) of the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) teamed up with the non-profit conservation group Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to purchase the Smoothing Iron and George Creek parcels of the J Bar S Ranch, Inc. owned by the Schlee family for $3.5 million.
About 12 miles southwest of Clarkston, the property is adjacent to the Umatilla National Forest and WDFW's Asotin Creek Wildlife Area, bringing the total acreage of that management area to 22,315 acres. It is a link in a vital watershed for salmonid recovery, and protects key conservation targets in the Blue Mountains ecoregion, including steppe flora and fauna communities, riparian areas, and wetlands.
"This property has been our number one priority for strategic protection of both fish and wildlife for a long time," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
"It helps us address the watershed management problems identified in the 1995 Asotin Creek Model Watershed Plan by connecting state and federal lands so we can manage the mid and upper reaches of this watershed more cohesively."
The property includes 426 acres of riparian habitat and buffers along 5.5 miles of the south fork of Asotin Creek and George Creek, plus 23.5 miles of tributary streams.
Those waters are home to summer steelhead trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; in 2001, 26 steelhead redds, or egg nests, were located on the property. Suitable habitat also exists for threatened bull trout and for endangered spring chinook salmon, which may be reintroduced to the watershed.
The property's 6,594 acres of steppe rangeland has been well-managed and represents some of the best remaining native steppe habitat in the state.
Another 700 acres is in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). With elevations ranging from 1,320 to 4,220 feet, it has steep canyon slopes and level ridge tops that in the winter host 300-400 of the 700 elk that currently reside in the local game management unit.
Bald eagles, federally listed as threatened, also winter on the property. It also provides habitat for mule deer, bighorn sheep, bears, cougars, chukars, hawks, neo-tropical songbirds, and many other species. It is also a potential restoration area for sharptail grouse, a state endangered species.
"From the start this project has been an excellent example of state, federal, local, and private entities working collaboratively to solve a complex natural resource issue," Koenings said.
The acquisition proposal went through the WWRP process, with BPA, WWRP, and USFWS funds covering the bulk of the cost. The Elk Foundation contributed toward the purchase, using money from volunteer-driven fundraising efforts and a contribution from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and agreed to a partnership with WDFW for initial development, operation, and maintenance of the property.
The acquisition proposal was endorsed by all Asotin County commissioners, Congressman George Nethercutt, the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, and Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
"This land purchase will be key to helping WDFW reach its goal of increasing the Asotin elk herd from 700 to 1,000 animals, while at the same time providing ability to control elk-caused damage on neighboring agricultural lands," said Rance Block, the Elk Foundation's northwest regional vice president.
"We at the Elk Foundation worked very closely [with the WDFW] for nearly two years to secure the funding necessary to make this dream a reality. It wouldn't have happened without those two," Block added. "Plus, we'll always be grateful for the patience of the Schlee family during the long negotiations."
According to Dan Schlee, the decision to sell the ranch was difficult, but also one in which the family will take great pride.
"We've worked hard for 30 years to make a living off this land, and it has become part of us," Schlee said.
"Our management has been directed toward production of crops and livestock, and this in turn has created enormous benefit for all types of wildlife," he continued. "It will mean a lot to us for the ranch to continue to provide plentiful wildlife habitat, hunting and recreational opportunities, and economic benefit for our neighbors in Asotin County."
Via the purchase agreement, the land's cultivated areas will remain in production for a period of years and the CRP acreage will continue to be enrolled in that federal program.
Block said that Elk Foundation volunteers are anxious to help, and hands-on habitat improvement projects will be organized in coming months.