Future of logging, hunting, fishing & ranching region lies with nonlethal wildlife tourism
TWISP, Washington––Vanishing salmon, Washington’s worst wildfire roaring through the Methow River Valley in July 2014, and flash floods that turned roads into rivers even before Finley Canyon stopped reeking of smoke and ash have brought beaver back to the Upper and Lower Beaver Creek Road habitat east of Twisp, a 121-year-old former mining and logging town officially claiming 970 human residents.
Beaver had been trapped out of the Beaver Creek neighborhood since before settlement began in the 1880s.
The question now is whether the beaver will be tolerated or trapped out, in a state where trappers continue to pelt from 1,000 to 2,000 beaver per year, according to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife statistics.
The “Beaver Creek” to which the road names refer is in truth Frazer Creek, a tributary of the actual Beaver Creek. Frazer Creek is now dammed by beavers in several places, at possible risk of the dams contributing to seasonal flooding and soil erosion at vulnerable points along both Upper and Lower Beaver Creek roads and Route 20, the North Cascades Highway.
That, plus the easy visibility of the beaver work from the highway, may bode poorly for beavers who fail to move farther upstream and downstream before trapping season, to locations where they are no longer so easily seen.
But whatever flooding and erosion might be attributed to beavers will be a fraction of the damage that occurred largely because of their absence, detailed in the Frazer Creek Rehabilitation Plan published in March 2017 by the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation.
Beaver ponds could have saved 350 homes
The fire was part of it. Had beaver ponds covered the bottoms of more foothill meadows, instead of dry grass, three separate small fires started by lightning could not have combined into the Carlton Complex Fire
“The Carlton Complex Fire claimed 353 homes, 149 other structures, 700 to 1,000 head of cattle, thousands of acres of rangeland and at least 100 acres of tree fruit orchards,” reported Ann McCreary of the 115-year-old Methow Valley News in September 2014.
Further, McCreary added, the Carlton Complex Fire “charred more than 256,000 acres in the Methow Valley and surrounding areas, including thousands of acres of winter range essential to the survival of mule deer and white tail deer.”
On top of the flood damage, most of the fire damage still had to be reckoned with.
Deer fared better than people
“Range for about one-third of the wintering deer may have been affected by the fire,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin told McCreary.
Offered Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional director Jim Brown, “It’s the largest fire that ever occurred on a mule deer range.”
Of the estimated 25,000 mule deer living west of the Okanogan River before the Carlton Complex Fire, about half had been in the Methow Valley.
Despite the fears of September 2014, the mule deer have fared well on early second growth. Humans in the Methow Valley, many already economically struggling, continued to struggle, especially after the July 2014 loss of trees and shrubbery from steep slopes allowed heavy late summer rainfall to accumulate into torrents that swept some of the few buildings which survived the fire hundreds of yards downstream, or just reduced them to rubble.
Beavers busy, but people out of work
Unemployment in Okanagan County runs about 10% above the U.S. average. Unemployment among members of the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation is as high as 60%, more than ten times the national average.
Okanagan family household income is about 20% below the U.S. average. Family median income is about 25% below the U.S. average.
Forestry, agriculture, hunting, fishing, and mining, the five traditional mainstays of the local economy, together account for 15.3% of employment, significantly less than health care, education, and social services (22.8%).
Logging won’t be back
The loss of standing timber to the 2014 fire dashed hopes that an eventual revival of logging might bring jobs to the Twisp area.
The Twisp Wagner sawmill, built in 1941, employed 400 people by 1963, but closed permanently in 1985 after two changes of ownership in two years. The former sawmill premises have for the past 30 years been a gravel pit.
The last of three local mines that produced gold and zinc from 1897 until after World War II shut down much longer ago than that.
Ranchers & hunters hold political grip
Ranchers and hunters hold a political grip on the region, chiefly through the influence of Joel Kretz, 61, the Republican deputy minority leader of the Washington State House of Representatives.
Kretz appears to have been best known, before he was elected to the statehouse in 2005, for puma hunting and trying to poke loopholes through Washington state law discouraging puma hunting with hounds.
Kretz does not appear to like wolves or grizzly bears, either.
New York Times magazine writer Christopher Solomon on July 5, 2018 profiled Kretz’ notorious antipathy toward predators, and especially toward former Washington State University at Pullman predator ecologist Rob Wielgus, whose studies have spotlighted the ecological roles of pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears.
“The enemies of the wolf”
“Rob Wielgus was one of America’s pre-eminent experts on large carnivores,” summarized Solomon’s headline. “Then he ran afoul of the enemies of the wolf,” especially Kretz, whose influence allegedly forced Wielgus into early retirement.
In May 2017 Wielgus reportedly received $300,000 to settle a lawsuit Wielgus filed against Washington State University with the assistance of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Kretz raises cattle and horses near Wauconda, just west of Twisp. But Kretz comes originally from Mercer Island, a Seattle suburb chiefly known as a bedroom community serving Microsoft workers. And his political career appears to have centered on trying to keep Okanogan County locked into the past.
Among Kretz’s accomplishments in office have been winning appropriations in support of the Omak Stampede rodeo, an event featuring a multi-heat “suicide race” since 1933 in which riders plunge down a 225-foot cliff at a 60-degree angle, cross the Okanogan River, and gallop into the rodeo arena. At least six horses and one rider––who drowned in 1942––have died in connection with the event, which nominally celebrates the importance of ranching to the community.
But ranching, a non-labor-intensive pursuit even in 1933, and less so now, has never employed more locals than apple-picking, and is unlikely to ever employ many more.
The economic future of Twisp, Omak, and indeed of the entire Methow River Valley, winding through northern Okanogan County, would appear to lie almost entirely with attracting more nonlethal wildlife-related tourism via the North Cascades Highway.
$41 million a year that the locals don’t get
A 2015 National Park Service report found that tourism to North Cascades National Park, just to the west, supports 416 jobs within a 60-mile radius of the park, producing a net benefit to the local economy of nearly $41 million per year.
Yet accommodation and food service, the main sources of revenue from nonlethal wildlife tourism, account for only 6.7% of employment in Okanogan County, chiefly because nonlethal wildlife tourism is an almost wholly undeveloped opportunity.
Twisp has historically courted hunters, fishers, and trappers, but there is no longer much money in promoting killing. Okanogan County reputedly still attracts more outside hunters each fall than any other part of Washington, but only 3% of Washington residents hunt now, with hunting license sales declining 11% over the past 10 years.
The Antlers Saloon & Café in Twisp, which catered to the hook-and-bullet crowd for 89 years, closed and was demolished in 2013.
Meanwhile, more than 20% of Washington residents engage in nonlethal wildlife tourism. Hunters may spend more per capita to mount heads on their walls that wildlife watchers spend to see and photograph animals, but hundreds and perhaps thousands more people will spend money to see each animal than will fork out to kill the animal.
Opened in 1972, the North Cascades Highway provides a scenic link from the greater Seattle metropolitan area through Cascades National Park to the National Parks and National Forests of northern Idaho and Montana.
Either Interstate 90 or the also scenic Highway 2 across central Washington offers faster access to Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone et al. And the North Cascades Highway is not even open through Cascades National Park for all of each winter.
Megafauna seen from the road
But only the North Cascades Highway offers motorists––and hardy bicyclists––the chance to see all of the major terrestrial megafauna native to the Pacific Northwest on their way to the popular ecotourism destinations.
Accessible species include beaver, coyote, deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, pumas, wild horses, and now maybe wolves and grizzly bears too, whether or not Kretz appreciates their presence.
Wolves, migrating into Washington from Idaho and British Columbia circa 2011, have now established at least 20 packs east of the Cascades, including 10 breeding pairs and about 115 individuals, according to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife data.
Grizzly return expected
Even more promising, a 2017 population assessment by Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife scientists found that the growing numbers of wolves have not depressed the abundance of deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep.
Grizzly bears have not been confirmed to live in Washington since one was shot in the North Cascades region in 1967. On a March 23, 2018 visit to the North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro Wooley, Washington, however, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on March 23, 2018 endorsed the possible return of grizzlies, should they arrive from Idaho or British Columbia on their own four paws, as is soon expected.
All of the wildlife visible from the North Cascades Highway would be even more easily seen, and more a draw for visitors, if encouraged, rather than hounded and shot at.
The newly returned beaver, including those of the Upper and Lower Beaver Creek road area, may have a part in encouraging the return of wolves and grizzly bears too, along with the transition of the local economy toward nonlethal wildlife watching.
While iconic photos abound of grizzly bears slapping fish out of the water and devouring them, relatively little known is that wolves also preferentially hunt salmon and steelhead, if they can, rather than expending greater energy to chase deer and elk.
This tendency was quantified in 2008 by University of Victoria, British Columbia, and Raincoast Conservation Foundation scientist Chris Darimont.
Ironically, the beaver recovery began with the Methow Salmon Recovery project, led by Colville Tribes’ Fish & Wildlife department, the focal purpose of which is not to feed wolves and grizzly bears, but rather to improve sport fishing.
Why steelhead & salmon need beaver
Begun before the fire and flooding of 2014, the Methow Salmon Recovery project hopes to rebuild spawning habitat for Upper Columbia River steelhead, a threatened species, and three salmon runs deemed endangered: spring chinook and coho, and summer chinook.
The absence of beaver harms steelhead and salmon in three ways.
First, beaver dams create spawning habitat.
Second, beaver dams slow the spring runoff torrents that salmon and steelhead must fight to reach upstream spawning areas.
Third, and most important, slower streams mean less silting, allowing more steelhead and salmon eggs to hatch.
Second chance for “nuisance” beavers
The Methow Salmon Recovery project, explained Colville Tribes’ Fish & Wildlife biologist Paul Wagner in July 2018 to the Tribal Tribune, “entails collecting and trapping beavers, usually nuisance beavers,” who have flooded roads or private property elsewhere in Washington, “and holding them at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. We relocate them in breeding pairs to tributary streams along the Methow River,” Wagner said. “Release sites are inspected for suitable habitat prior to beaver relocation and the sites are monitored post-release to determine if beavers elect to remain at the site and establish dams.”
Of the first 126 beavers who were reintroduced to the Methow tributaries, about half built dams near where they were transplanted, according to earlier reports.
“Others are killed by predators or return to where they were trapped. One beaver swam 40 miles to reunite with his mate,” reported Phuong2 Le of Associated Press.
Beavers against climate change
Already deemed a success, the Methow Salmon Recovery project was emulated as early as 2014 by the Tulalip tribe of western Washington.
Explained Everett Daily Herald writer Chris Winters, “Capturing and releasing beavers is regulated under the 2012 state ‘Beaver Bill,’ but as written it only allows releases east of the
Cascades. In this case, the state recognized the Tulalips’ treaty rights to release them west of the mountains as part of the tribes’ watershed management programs.
“What we’re hoping to show is that the beavers can be used to reduce the effects of climate change,” forest ecologist Ben Dittbrenner told Winters.
The Methow Salmon Recovery project beaver restoration may well be leading the way toward reinvention of the Okanagan County economy to favor––and prosper from––nonlethal wildlife watching.
More than anyone else, members of the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation stand to benefit from the transition.
But there will be points of cultural friction. Since the earliest years of the Omak Suicide Race, for instance, the majority of riders have been Colville tribe members.
In April 2013 the Colville tribe joined with the Yakima tribe of southwestern Washington, the Shoshone of Idaho, and the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes in Oregon to promote a scheme to open a horse slaughterhouse, initially to kill “surplus” reservation horses.
Tribal wolf hunting
In December 2012, meanwhile, the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation opened a wolf hunting season.
“We decided it was much better to manage the population, so we can keep the numbers down a little bit,” Colville Business Council chair John Sirois told Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes. “We would rather do that than what the state Fish & Wildlife did and take a whole pack. We didn’t want a helicopter coming through.”
Explained Mapes, “Sirois was referring to the decision by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in September 2012 to kill an entire pack of wolves in the northeastern part of the state, called the Wedge pack, after a rancher complained of cattle killed by the pack.”
This incident preceded the 2016 incident that triggered the conflict between politician Joel Kretz and predator biologist Rob Wielgus. (See Wolf pack massacre: Profanity Peaks.)
The Curtis Sheep Slaughter
Yet there may be a lesson for all concerned at a monument to “The Curtis Sheep Slaughter,” posted by the Okanogan County Historical Society.
Explains the sign, “Before 1900, cattlemen had the range to themselves, except for wild horses. Then sheep appeared. Tempers flared instantly. Haystacks put up for the sheepmen mysteriously burned.
“The hostility reached its climax one night in the spring of 1903 when several hundred sheep owned by A.A. Curtis were slaughtered with clubs about a half mile behind this sign.
“For years sun-bleached bones lay scattered about. In time, the ill feelings died away. The trouble had been a lot more between cattlemen and sheepmen than cattle and sheep.”
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Esther Mechler says
Can “beaver baffles” be used to reduce negative impact of beaver construction in certain locations where the flooding causes problems?? Please let us know.
Merritt Clifton says
Yes, “beaver bafflers” can be used anywhere, in our observation, that beaver activity might become problematic in the Methow Valley reintroduction area. The question is whether private property owners, in particular, can be persuaded to use them. The role of beaver ponds in limiting the spread of wildfires may now be much more persuasive to many than before the fires of 2014.