Land for wildlife eyed

Areas in Cowlitz, Klickitat counties on state's list of preferred habitat acquisitions

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says elk habitat north of Merrill Lake and deer habitat in the Simcoe Mountains of Klickitat County are on its list of 13 priority land acquisitions.

The Merrill Lake land includes 1,430 acres in Cowlitz County that includes old-growth fir and cedar, ancient lava flows and Kalama Falls.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is working with the landowners, Merrill Lake LLC , to renew an option on the land. The estimated sale cost is $8 million.

The Klickitat County proposal is 6,000 acres east of U.S. Highway 97 in the headwaters of Rock Creek. The land is a mix of shrub steppe, Oregon white oak, Ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forest.

It contains habitat and migratory corridors of deer and supports populations of western gray squirrels, listed by the state as threatened. It also provides water for Rock Creek, which contains steelhead.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife applied in 2013 for $1 million from the state Recreation Conservation Office to buy 112 acres of Merrill Lake shoreline. The money would have been matched with $1 million from a federal grant.

The proposal did not score high enough in the competitive ranking process to get financed.

The 1,400 acres include 40-foot Kalama Falls near the headwaters of the Kalama River, 50-foot deep tree casts and crystal-clear springs in the lava flows.

“If people knew all the stuff in here, they’d be in here like crazy,’’ said Bill Richardson, Washington-Oregon lands manager for the elk foundation.

About 40 percent of the 1,400 acres have been logged.

Where many visitors see clearcuts, Richardson sees a future grocery store for elk.

Research has shown the limiting factor for elk populations in the Northwest generally is food. Lands recently logged are open to the sun and can be managed to produce grasses and other foods for elk.

“This is also a prime calving round,’’ he said. “The springs we’ve been working in there we’ve seen lots of elk calving.’’

The 6,000 acres in the Simcoe Mountains would be incorporated into the state’s 14,700-acres Klickitat Wildlife Area between Glenwood and Goldendale.

Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager, said the Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with the Washington State Conservation Commission and Eastern Klickitat Conservation District regarding the Simcoes.

“This first proposal is the first phase for the goal of potentially acquiring the larger parcel of approximately 18,000 acres,’’ Jonker said.

Susan Van Leuven, Klickitat Wildlife Area manager, said land in the Simcoes would be a welcome addition to deer hunters.

Boise Cascade once owned much of the Simcoes, then the land sold to Western Pacific Timber, LLC. The private company allows hunting, hiking, horseback riding and other non-motorized recreation west of Highway 97, but not to the east.

“A lot of people remember having access to the Simcoes,’’ Van Leuven said. “But, by about 2006, it was gated….Regaining access for hunting where they used to hunt years ago, that’s pretty huge around here.’’

The Recreation Conservation Office granted the Department of Fish and Wildlife $986,959 in 2013 to buy approximately 1,400 acres in the Rock Creek drainage of eastern Klickitat County.

The 1,400 acres are in an overall area of 13,000 acres that was being considered for acquisition in phases.

Rock Creek drainage is a large landscape, mostly undeveloped, connecting the Columbia River to the crest of the Simcoes.

Van Leuven said it appears the seller farther south in Rock Creek has had a change of mind and intends to hold on to his property.

The agency will seek potential funding for the proposals from grants administered by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund and the North American Wetland Conservation Act.

“Our first responsibility is to safeguard the future of fish and wildlife in this state,” said Clay Sprague, lands division manager. “With suitable habitat for many species in decline, land acquisitions are one tool we have to meet that responsibility.”