Elk NetworkCowiche III – onX Public Access Project

Conservation , onX Public Access | April 4, 2020

Conservation for the Calves of Cowiche

4,400 acres protected and opened to public access

Elk are rarely more vulnerable than in their first wobbly weeks of life, except perhaps when they face a long, harsh winter that entombs their world in white. In both cases, healthy, intact habitat can tip the balance. Take the east slope of the Cascades, home to Washington’s largest elk herd. When snow drapes the peaks, some 2,000 elk descend out of the high country east of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier onto the foothills above Yakima, where they find open ridges of grass trimmed by sage, oaks, ponderosas and fins of lava from ancient volcanos. 

There is enough solitude that cow elk linger to give birth in places like Cowiche Creek. It’s part of a beltline of critical habitat perched above the vineyards, orchards and sprawl of Yakima Valley. This band of wild country extends north past Ellensburg and south to Ahtanum, a swath where RMEF has so far protected more than 125,000 acres. That total grew in 2019 when the RMEF and its partners protected a 4,486-acre chunk along the south fork of Cowiche Creek.

“It’s one of the least roaded places I’ve ever worked on,” says RMEF lands program manager Bill Richardson. “No wonder it’s such a magnet for cows to calve on.” 

Owned by Alan and Joan Van Wyk, this land was assembled by Alan’s grandfather around 1900 as a base for his sheep grazing operation. The Van Wyk family wanted to ensure it would always remain intact. They began talking with RMEF in the early 2000s, and recently decided to move forward with a sale to make it public land. Forterra, a Washington-based nonprofit land conservation organization, stepped up with bridge funding, and will hold a stewardship easement on the property. 

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service habitat grant and a Pacific Power mitigation agreement to complete the purchase, and will manage the property as an addition to the Cowiche Unit of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. It borders a 2,893-acre parcel RMEF helped purchase from neighboring landowners in 2014, and will be open to hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching. 

The property protects key habitat for elk, mule deer, neotropical birds, raptors, bats, more than 70 butterfly species and possibly sage grouse. The sagebrush steppe here is robust enough to merit a potential reintroduction of sage grouse. The acquisition also conserved more than seven miles of Cowiche Creek, vital spawning and rearing habitat for bull trout and coho and chinook salmon.

 “This property is an important link to surrounding state, federal and private conservation lands,” says Mike Livingston, WDFW’s south central regional director. “With the help of our partners RMEF and Forterra, we’re able to permanently protect the area where up to 2,000 elk migrate between their summer and winter ranges, and where elk calves are born each year.”