New research underscores the critical habitat value of an area Conservation Northwest successfully protected in 1999
By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director
We have good reason to take another little victory lap for our work in the late 1990s to protect the wildlands of the Loomis Forest in Washington’s Okanogan Highlands.
From 1998-1999, we lead a home-grown campaign called the Loomis Forest Fund that succeeded in doing what few thought possible. In a mere 15 months, our coalition effort grew to 70 organizations and businesses. Marshalled by Conservation Northwest, this partnership raised from private individuals and foundations more than the $16.5 million needed to protect 25,000 acres of the Loomis State Forest from logging, saving critical habitat for Canada lynx.
The bulk of the forest acres protected were state trust lands, and the money was paid into the trust fund for the public school construction. This both fulfilled trust obligations while permanently preserving this unique and critical forest as two Loomis Natural Resources Conservation Areas, ensuring they will continue to provide vital lynx habitat and excellent outdoor recreation opportunities for future generations.
Fast forward 18 years and important new research has been published in 2017 on lynx habitat use in the North Cascades, underscoring the importance of the Loomis Forest for these iconic felines.
The study by researchers Vanbianchi, Murphy and Hodges found that radio collared lynx were using areas that had been burned by wildfire much sooner than had been expected, including in just a year or two after the habitat burned (as opposed to the 10-20 years later previously believed). This really matters, as fires have moved through so much of the North Cascades lynx habitat has burned during the past quarter century.
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Those recent burns, which flourish with grass and other new growth, are great habitat for snowshoe hare, a favored lynx food. Lynx don’t like venturing far out into the open, however, as they much prefer the cover of mature trees. So as they forage, they use as cover the patches of unburned forest that occur within the natural mosaic that most wildfires create, venturing out small distances into the open to hunt. Lynx core habitat is still known to be larger areas of old-growth, boreal forest.
So here’s the key thing: When we sought to protect the Loomis wildlands from logging, many people argued we were misguided, alleging the unlogged forest would burn up anyway. But this graphic from the lynx study (at right) shows that while so much has burned during these past decades, the exceptions are the Loomis Natural Resource Conservation Areas we created!
The unburned areas of the Loomis NRCA’s have provided core habitat that has allowed lynx to survive in this period of heavy fire disturbance. Now they’re benefitting from the great foraging habitat the burned areas created nearby, setting the lynx population up for a nice rebound if favorable conditions persist.
How habitable would those areas be for lynx had we failed, and they had instead been logged? Not very much. This from the study, “The heterogeneous habitats created by wildfires are in contrast to disturbed habitats created by timber harvest which, even when designed to emulate a fire disturbance, create more uniform patterns of disturbance with less edge area and fewer standing live trees left after harvest…”
This isn’t a matter for gloating, however. With so much of the North Cascades lynx habitat having burned so recently, the population could suffer if much more core habitat were subject to another large fire in the near future. This is anything but unlikely, as while lodgepole pine forest normally burns every century or two, climate change is shortening the intervals. Lodgepole pine is different from the dry forest types in which Conservation Northwest promotes forest restoration projects and vigorously prescribed fire, such as efforts that have worked very well in the nearby Sinlahekin Wildlife Area. What sort of active restoration efforts could help in high lodgepole pine is still a matter of scientific debate.
Let’s be proud that we not only beat the odds in accomplishing our Loomis Forest protection goals all those years ago, we also beat the dire predictions by those wildlands remaining healthy lynx core habitat almost two decades later. Indeed, had we not prevailed, such that those areas would now be logged, it’s unlikely that there would now be much of a lynx population in the North Cascades.
As of early 2017, the latest estimates from state and federal biologists indicate there are between 50 and 100 lynx in our state, concentrated mostly in the Pasayten Wilderness Area and Loomis State Forest. In late 2016, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife listed lynx as Endangered in our state in part due to our urging. Learn more on our website here.