Record returns of sockeye salmon ran up the Columbia River and into the largest wildfire in Washington history this summer.
Such highs and lows seem to be a theme for the region’s outdoors in 2014, leaving people to search out the sunshine in some cases.
Anglers enjoyed the most prolific returns and catches of salmon into the Columbia River system since dams started restricting fish migrations in the 1930s.
A 65-foot-long crack discovered in Wanapum Dam forced a dramatic drawdown of its reservoir, although the fish were able to make it upstream.
However, the party was hard to see much less enjoy in the upper Columbia. About the time the record sockeye run was stacking up near the mouth of the Okanogan River, the Carlton Complex fire was devastating Pateros, scorching the landscape and engulfing 300 homes in the region.
When the pall of smoke cleared, more than 256,000 acres had been scorched, leaving the Methow River and other fisheries vulnerable to runoff erosion. Survival of the state’s top mule deer herd will depend on what winter weather delivers to the ravaged winter range.
Meanwhile, one of the best huckleberry crops in memory lured berry pickers this summer into a purple haze of wild fruit throughout the mountains of the Inland Northwest. Stained fingers, bear encounters and family traditions inspired an outpouring of reader contributions to the S-R’s call for Huckleberry Haiku.
Rick Price of Sagle captured the 2014 bumper crop fun in a single verse:
Picking with daughter
Cheap, sunny, mountainside joy
Her can never fills
Getting to remote berry patches required a bit more effort in some areas as U.S. Forest Service recreation budgets continued to evaporate.
Popular trails in portions of Spokane County recreation areas, Washington State Parks and the region’s national forests would have had no maintenance this summer without the hundreds of volunteers who stepped up to help.
“Over the last four years, our budget dropped 27 percent in trails and about 25 percent in recreation maintenance and projects,” said Sue Colyer, Idaho Panhandle National Forests recreation program manager – and the recreation program wasn’t flush with funding before that.
The St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene districts had no paid trail crews this season – down from crews of eight to 10 seasonal specialists a decade ago, Colyer said.
On the other hand, federal and state agencies were able to tap dedicated grants to make giant leaps in preserving or restoring wildlands.
An unexpected $1.8 million appropriation helped the Forest Service improve water quality in 34 square miles of the Little North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River watershed.
The work targets eroding, impassible roads and plugged culverts to arrest flow of sediment that clogs creeks and heats up water temperatures. About 82 miles of old logging roads are being obliterated.
Benefactors of the project include native cutthroat trout.
A $6 million effort, funded by operators of the region’s hydropower projects, was launched to check the massive erosion of the 5,600-acre Clark Fork Delta.
Idaho Fish and Game and the Kalispel Tribe are leading the restoration work where about 15 acres of the delta’s islands and shoreline were being lost each year from dam operations affecting Lake Pend Oreille.
The Clark Fork Delta, which ranks among Idaho’s 10 most important wetlands, is critical to the area’s fisheries and waterfowl.
State and federal agencies and conservation groups teamed to make strides in protecting wildlife habitat, open space and public access. Among the region’s most notable land deals:
• The Nature Conservancy paid $49 million for 48,000 acres of forest from Plum Creek Timber on the east slope of Washington’s Cascades for long-term conservation and $85 million for 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot River Valley of Western Montana. The land was in checkerboard ownership that threatened to develop or close access to sections intermingled with public lands.
• Wells Wildlife Area in Douglas County is being expanded by 4,200 acres in the first phase of a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plan to purchase up to 20,500 acres of a ranch – critical to mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife – that borders the Columbia River for 14 miles along Lake Rufus Woods.
• Chief Joseph Wildlife Area in Asotin County was expanded by 2,005 acres in the latest of a six-phase Fish and Wildlife plan to purchase the 12,000-acre 4-O Ranch that stretches up from the Grande Ronde River into habitat of high value to big game as well as steelhead.
• Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Yakima gained 2,893 acres in a $1.55 million private land purchase to increase elk winter range.
Not all changes in land management this year were applauded by outdoors enthusiasts or seen as a benefit to wildlife.
The Mt. Spokane downhill ski area expansion plan, after more than a decade of planning, meetings, environmental analysis, court challenges and compromise, was approved in November by the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission.
Commissioners adopted a land designation for the mountain’s northwest face that will allow alpine skiing. The panel also approved Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park’s request to develop a new chairlift and seven new runs in that area.
Officials from the nonprofit resort said the ski area needs to expand intermediate terrain and gain access to better snow. Opponents, which include the Spokane Tribe and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the expansion would disturb 279 acres of pristine subalpine habitat.
The Lands Council has suggested it may pursue further legal action.
Drones were grounded in most national parks as the increasingly popular aerial method for getting the perfect photo or video grew into an annoying hazard to national resources and other park visitors.
Despite the ban on unmanned aircraft within park boundaries, incidents still occurred.
In Yellowstone, drones were flown close to bison. One crashed in a thermal spring where it can’t be safely removed. At least three visitors were cited this summer.
Gray wolf recovery to the species’ historic range continued to polarize the public in 2014.
The number of packs held at around 14 in Washington, where the wolves are still protected. In Idaho and Montana, regulated hunting and trapping helped check wolf expansion toward levels more balanced with populations of their big-game prey.
Individual wolves from Idaho branched out as far as 850 miles looking for new territory. One showed up in Utah. Another wolf trotted into to the Grand Canyon, becoming the first wolf documented in Arizona in seven decades.
High-profile wolf incidents in Washington included wolf packs preying on livestock in Stevens, Ferry and Whitman counties. Social tensions increased:
• An anti-wolf group named Washington Residents against Wolves formed to launch a Spokane billboard and public relations campaign vilifying wolves and wolf reintroduction.
• Pro-wolf groups offered two rewards of $20,000 or more to generate interest in unsolved wolf poaching cases, one in Stevens County and one in Kittitas County.
A Teanaway Pack wolf was shot in mid-October near Salmon la Sac in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest – the fourth confirmed illegal wolf-killing in the state in 2014. A Smackout Pack wolf had been found dead in Stevens County in February. A Ferry County wolf had been killed in August.
A Whitman County farmer is facing possible prosecution for shooting a wolf in October after chasing it in a vehicle for miles.
Despite the protests to wolf recovery, Washington wildlife managers found significant support for wolves and other predators in a survey of Washington residents. Among the findings:
• 74 percent favor removing wolves from the endangered species list once they’ve recovered to population targets cited in the state wolf management plan.
• 70 percent support maintaining sustainable predator populations; 15 percent don’t.
• 64 percent support wolf recovery, but the number drops to 57 percent if it results in localized declines in elk and deer.
• 10 percent rate the state’s wolf management as poor, but 53 percent said they weren’t tuned in enough to know what rating to give state wildlife managers.
Wild steelhead activists won a court decision that banned the release of hatchery steelhead in Puget Sound streams where wild stocks are hurting.
To avoid wasting about 340,000 steelhead that had already been raised at hatcheries for those streams, state fisheries stocked the fish in 47 state trout lakes.
Sprague Lake is the only Eastern Washington lake to get a boost from surplus steelhead.
Greater sage grouse are rising to the top of the nation’s Endangered Species Act issues for 2015. Stay tuned.