A little more Room to roam

A little more Room to roam

Rich Landers Outdoors editor

A 30-acre green patch on Cook Ridge has been tramped out to bare dirt in some spots, setting the theme for a tale about elk woes in the Blue Mountains.

Meanwhile, a deserted Asotin County ranch house on the adjacent ridge indicates the story could have a happy ending.

A family that has worked hard for decades to make a living in a wildlife-rich area less than 20 miles from the Snake River has resisted the temptation to subdivide their land.

Instead, they cut a $3.5 million deal this summer for 8,500 acres that have been added to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s Asotin Creek Wildlife Area.

“Elk want to be here,” said Bob Dice, the department’s wildlife area manager. “Now they can.”

Critters ranging from steelhead to bighorn sheep are stepping ahead of crops and cattle as the main products on the two chunks of land — the Smoothing Iron and George Creek parcels — of the J Bar S Ranch, Inc., owned by the Schlee family based in Asotin.

Acquisition funding came from the Bonneville Power Administration fish and wildlife mitigation funds, plus grants from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The property, some of which is about 12 miles southwest of Clarkston, borders the Umatilla National Forest and portions of the state’s Asotin Creek Wildlife Area.

The wildlife area now totals 22,315 acres.

The Schlees are among 20 to 30 Washington landowners who have been requesting state assistance in dealing with crop damage caused primarily by Blue Mountains elk.

The help for people making their living off the land has been modest at best.

In 2002, Randy Schlee was paid $642 of a $1,094 claim he made for crop damage, Department of Fish and Wildlife records show. But in 2001, no check was issued for a similar claim because the state won’t pay farmers who don’t allow public hunting.

But for years, from April through harvest in September, the state has been hiring two people to work with landowners to help prevent crop damage and claims along the Blues. Various tactics are employed, including chasing and shooting cracker shells to scare elk off private lands.

“What’s good for one landowner often is not so good for another,” said Mike Whorton, department enforcement chief for far-Eastern Washington. “The elk we chase off one ranch might tear down another guy’s fence. One landowner wants to hunt while another might not want elk anywhere near his place.

“It’s a difficult situation.”

But Dice was optimistic last week when he showed off the property to a herd of members from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“See that patch of clover orchard grass over there on Cook Ridge?” he told the group as they made sandwiches on the tailgate of a pickup. “The department bought me a tractor and I broke it in this spring planting that 30 acres on public land.”

The elk foundation paid $5,000 for the seed and expenses.

The idea was to provide something green for the elk that would lure them away from crops on the Schlee’s land and other farms.

“Within a month, elk and deer were in it,” Dice said. “Green vegetation attracts elk like a magnet,” he added, as if the trampled- out plot hadn’t made it obvious.

The green vegetation also had attracted the first hunters to the new public land. A lone archer could be seen in the distance moving into hunting position where 30 elk had been hanging out in mid- September. Now that the Schlees have sold the adjoining land to the state, Dice hopes to gradually plant more and more food plots to help hold elk in that area.

“Randy Schlee will continue to farm for five years but we don’t have to shoo elk off the land anymore,” he said. “That’s in the agreement.

“The more we can keep elk on public land, the less we have to haze them or issue depredation permits,” he said. “This area has been wintering about 300 elk. Eventually we hope to more than double that.”

The purchased 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. Spring chinook salmon may be reintroduced to the watershed.

Some of the creek bottoms have been heavily used by cattle, but giving the plants a chance to grow back should cool the water and make better habitat for fish. Restricting grazing also should improve the habitat for upland birds such as quail, Dice said.

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, state officials said. Another 700 acres is in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, and Dice already is making plans to reseed those acres with forage more useful to elk and possibly even to upland bird species.

“We’re hoping to eventually release sharp-tailed grouse and mountain quail in this area,” he said. With elevations ranging from 1,320 to 4,220 feet, the additions to the Asotin Wildlife Area have steep canyon slopes and level ridge tops that provide winter range for mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as elk.

“This is gorgeous country,” said Sam Richardson, a RMEF volunteer from Spokane who was on the tour.

“You know they could have sold some of this land for cabins and summer homes if they’d have wanted to,” he added, scanning his binoculars across to Lick Creek.

“Maybe that’s the best part of this whole deal,” said Kevin Brown, RMEF area representative from Coeur d’Alene.

“There’s a cooperative agreement to close the gate on the road leading up to this area from Dec. 1 through March 31. If the Schlees had chosen to subdivide this area, we might never have been able to keep that closure to provide protection for wintering elk.”

Poaching and disturbance to wintering elk has been one of the limiting factors for herd growth in the Blues, Dice said.

Paul Ashley, a Washington Department of Fish and wildlife lands specialist, has worked for 12 years primarily to deal with BPA mitigation funding to boost wildlife.

His efforts have paid off handsomely in big land deals, including the 20,000-acre Swanson Lakes Wildlife area in Lincoln County.

For decades, BPA has been funding projects to compensate for the loss of fish and wildlife habitat caused by the Columbia and Snake River dams.

The projects range from land acquisition to habitat restoration, hatcheries and much more.

“Eventually we’d like to acquire more shrub-steppe and riparian areas in Eastern Washington,” Ashley said.

While roughly $100 million is available for the mitigation programs in the next few years, “there’s a lot of other strings attached and no one knows how much is available for what project from one year to the next,” Ashley said.

“The Schlee property was particularly appealing, though,” he said. “Because it was good for both steelhead and elk, we got a double bang for our buck.”

Actually, the state is getting a triple bang for its buck, since the elk foundation also sees the Schlee project as a boon to wildlife.

The foundation plans to help the state with various wildlife- related projects on the new additions to the Asotin Creek area. Since 1985, RMEF has spent about $11.9 million on land projects in Idaho and $7 million in Washington.

Dice welcomed the offer, noting that the first improvement to the area was a new gate on one of the ranch roads.

“It wasn’t even a week before some people came up on ATVs and flattened it down and went right through,” he said.

Although a management plan has not been approved for the property, hunting will be allowed but vehicle travel will be restricted.

Von Delzer of Spokane said he was tickled to see the land in public hands. He had hunted and killed elk on the property years ago and he knew the land’s potential.

Dice said a lot of hunters might be attracted to the land at first, but he predicted their curiosity would soon wear off.

“Once the elk are pressured, they’ll beat it for those steep dark holes,” he said, pointing into the bowls of a canyon. “Only a few hunters will go down after them.”

Paul Bogar, an RMEF volunteer from Lewiston, told many stories about the great elk hunting in Asotin County when he was a youngster. His decision to move across the Snake River from Clarkston to Idaho had everything to do with the deterioration of elk in the Blues.

Maybe someday the tide will change and the elk will rebound in the Blues.

“I’d like that,” he said. “And all I’ll have to do is move back across the river again.”

Copyright 2003 Cowles Publishing Company

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