Elk Raise Tensions Between Tribes And Farmers In Washington’s Skagit Valley

Elk graze in Skagit Valley, an area north of Seattle, Wash., populated for centuries by Native Americans and, more recently, by farmers.

Megan Farmer/KUOW


Just after sunrise, elk are grazing in a misty field in Washington’s Skagit Valley, an hour and a half north of Seattle.

“It looks like there are roughly 40 animals there,” says Scott Schuyler, a member of northwest Washington’s Upper Skagit Tribe.

These elk are at the center of a conflict that’s unfolding between Native Americans and farmers in northwest Washington. After being nearly wiped out in the late 1800s, the animals are making a comeback in Skagit Valley. Local tribes are thrilled, but the agricultural industry is not.

Schuyler grew up in the suburbs south of Seattle, but, when a court decision reaffirmed his tribe’s right to hunt and fish in the Skagit Valley, his family moved back to their ancestral home.

Schuyler remembers hunting his first elk in 1987, when he was 24 years old.

“I was really proud at the time,” he says. “It’s our tradition, when you get your first animal, you give to your community; you give to your elders. And so I gave most of the animal away.”

But, Schuyler says, some of the Skagit Valley’s farmers and ranchers were not happy that tribal members were moving back, claiming their rights.

Scott Schuyler is a member of the Upper Skagit tribe. He remembers hunting his first elk in 1987, when he was 24 years old.

Megan Farmer/KUOW

“I’ve had a lot of firearms pointed in my direction, a lot of lead being shot in my direction,” he says. “I’ve been peppered with birdshot.”

He says he’s had his tires slashed, his fish stolen. He’s gotten death threats on social media.

Schuyler’s tribe and others are sovereign nations that have treaties with the US government that date back to the mid-1800s. Those treaties guarantee their right to hunt, fish and gather. The treaties also grant them a role in fish and wildlife management.

But Schuyler says some residents and some public officials don’t think the tribe should have those rights.

“And [so] it becomes socially acceptable to attack the tribe, tribal members and tribes’ rights,” he says.

Elk damage farms

Not far from where the elk grazed in a pasture in the early morning, Eileen and Randy Good have worked as dairy farmers and cattle ranchers for more than four decades. The Goods both grew up in Skagit Valley.

Now, Eileen Good says, the elk are “making it impossible for us to survive as a farmer.”

She says the elk knock down fences, eat up pastures and destroy crops.

“I figure we have lost like $36,000 a year due to the elk crossing and wrecking the fences all the time,” Randy Good says.

He points to a Skagit County Assessor’s report that says elk are causing $1.4 million of damage in the valley every year. That number relies on farmers self-reporting the damage, but no one doubts the loss is real and widespread.

Bill Schmidt is president of the Skagit Valley Farm Bureau. He objects to any tribal involvement in elk management.

Randy and Aileen Good have farmed in Skagit Valley for four decades. They say elk have damaged their farm and farm equipment.

Megan Farmer/KUOW

“I mean, it’s like one percent or less of our population is controlling the management of the elk,” he says, “and it doesn’t seem right.”

Historians say Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest have hunted elk for thousands of years. Still, Schmidt maintains white settlers in the early 1900s said there weren’t many Native Americans in Skagit Valley.

And those who were there, he says, “They were not into deer and elk. They were basically fishermen.”

Historians say that claim is incorrect.

But, for Schmidt, this is about something beyond the specifics of deer and elk and fish.

“They’re claiming all these rights because it’s an easy way to have extra rights,” he says. “I think they should be more forthright and try and be — to me — more American.”

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to bridge the divide by keeping elk away from farms, reimbursing farmers for losses and shooting problematic animals.

Wildlife officials will be spending the next three months counting and collaring the Skagit Valley’s elk. Their goal is to minimize conflict while also growing the herd to a more robust population.

Tribal member Scott Schuyler says compromise is difficult because of the pervasive belief that neither elk nor tribes belong in the valley.

“We made this deal with the United States,” Schuyler says. “It was like, ‘OK, well, you’re giving up your land, but, you know what? We’ll let you continue fishing and hunting.'”

“Those same rights are under attack.”

25 horses seized in Enumclaw after allegations of abuse

25 horses seized in Enumclaw after allegations of abuse

Sharon Hunter, operator of the Redmond-based Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue, is accused of animal cruelty after purchasing horses, in an attempt to save them from slaughter. Some of those horses ended up in Enumclaw. Ashley Hiruko/staff photo.
                                The operator of the Redmond-based Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue is accused of animal cruelty after purchasing horses, in an attempt to save them from slaughter. Some of those horses ended up in Enumclaw. (Ashley Hiruko / Sound Publishing)Sharon Hunter, operator of the Redmond-based Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue, is accused of animal cruelty after purchasing horses, in an attempt to save them from slaughter. Some of those horses ended up in Enumclaw. Ashley Hiruko/staff photo. The operator of the Redmond-based Hunters Wind Wild Horse Rescue is accused of animal cruelty after purchasing horses, in an attempt to save them from slaughter. Some of those horses ended up in Enumclaw. (Ashley Hiruko / Sound Publishing)

The woman who reportedly owned the horses faced animal cruelty charges in Snohomish County in 2018.

The King County Sheriff’s Office recently raided a Plateau home and took custody of 25 horses after receiving tips concerning animal abuse.

According to Sgt. Ryan Abbott, deputies went to the home on the 38300 block of 324rd Place SE on Dec. 7, after the homeowner called SAFE —the Save A Forgotten Equine rescue organization — about the two dozen horses on her land.

The horses reportedly belong to a woman named Sharon Hunter, who is the owner of Hunter’s Wind Wild Horse Rescue, a nonprofit based in Redmond. According to Abbott, Hunter asked the homeowner to house some horses for a few weeks while Hunter found a more permanent home for them.

SAFE has taken custody of the horses, which are now up for adoption.

The Redmond Reporter published an article about Hunter and her nonprofit last September. According to the paper, Hunter’s Wind Wild Horse Rescue started out taking in horses scheduled to be killed, but it was unknown if any of the horses were being put up for adoption. The number of horses Hunter owns is unclear, but at one time was estimated to number more than 100.

In February 2018, the Snohomish County Animal Services received a complaint about some horses much in the same situation as the ones seized in Enumclaw — Hunter reportedly approached the homeowners to board the horses on their land, but allegedly failed to care for them.

According to the Reporter, law officers and veterinarians found one horse lying in his own feces and urine, severely malnourished, as well as other horses that were wounded, underweight, and infected.

Hunter was charged with six counts of second-degree animal cruelty in Snohomish County.

Since then, King County has seized horses from an Auburn herd of 80 in August, where there were more allegations of undernourishment and abandonment.

Additionally, there was an issue in Fall City with a herd of 40 after property owners sent a notice to Hunter they wanted her horses off their land. After the deadline to move the horses passed, SAFE attempted to help adopt out some of the horses, but were told to cease and desist by Hunter, who was then allowed to take the 25 horses to move elsewhere.

It’s been speculated those 25 horses were then moved to Enumclaw.

“The truth is that she’s got groups of horses that she’s just shuffling from one place to another. Either she gets thrown off a property, or law enforcement’s getting too close or what have you,” Bonnie Hammond, executive director of SAFE, said. “She’ll tell stories about saving America’s wild horses and all this really romantic stuff. But in truth, she’s just stockpiling them and they sit and they fight with each other and the stallions breed with the mares.

“I would like her to stop acquiring horses,” she continued. “She needs to stop doing this and the scary thing is, there’s still plenty of horses out there. She could get them from the auctions by the truckload.”

A GoFundMe page for Hunter was created in August to raise money for emergency hay for the horses; only about $300 was raised.

Contact information for Hunter could not be found before deadline; it appears the nonprofit’s Facebook page has been disabled.


New drone, underwater footage of orcas stuns researchers, gives intimate look at killer whales’ family life

Who knew orcas were so playful, so full of affection, so constantly touching one another?

New footage taken by drone as well as underwater stunned researchers who spent two days with the southern resident orca J pod off the British Columbia coast, including with the newest baby, and more time with northern resident killer whales in B.C.’s Johnstone Strait. The footage taken during three weeks in August and early September was filmed in collaboration with the Hakai Institute, a science research nonprofit.

“It took our breath away,” said Andrew Trites, professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Department of Zoology and director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Trites is co-lead researcher on a study that over five years is taking a close look at resident killer whales and their prey.

Researchers are comparing the hunting of northern resident orcas like these with the behavior of endangered southern residents. Footage of the whales shot by drone and underwater is opening new understanding of orcas’ lives in the wild. (University of British Columbia / Hakai Institute)
Researchers are comparing the hunting of northern resident orcas like these with the behavior of endangered southern residents. Footage of the whales shot by drone and underwater is opening new understanding of orcas’ lives in the wild…. More 

The drone footage was gathered non-invasively, with the camera hundreds of feet above the whales, who did not seem to even know it was there, Trites said. Combined with underwater microphones, tracking devices used to follow adult chinook, and underwater footage, a spectacular new look into orcas and their day-to-day life in the wild is emerging.

The big standout so far is just how much the orcas touch one another, something not as visible from a boat.

“We like to think we are hardened research scientists, but it tugged at our heart strings,” Trites said, “Especially the mum and calf.”

“These drones are opening up avenues of their lives we have never seen before,” Trites said. “The same way we hug our kids and hug our friends, touch furthers those bonds. That’s the power of touch, and here we have killer whales reminding us of that — who would have thought?”

J pod’s newest baby, here swimming with her mother, carried a salmon in her mouth for two days this summer near the Fraser River in British Columbia, even though she is 3 months old and feeding on her mother’s milk. Was she teething? Learning how to be a big killer whale some day? (Andrew Trites / University of British Columbia)
J pod’s newest baby, here swimming with her mother, carried a salmon in her mouth for two days this summer near the Fraser River in British Columbia, even though she is 3 months old and… (Andrew Trites / University of British Columbia) More 

J pod’s new baby whale, J56, also was seen near the mouth of the Fraser River toting a salmon around in her mouth for two days, even though she is only 3 months old and entirely feeding on her mother’s milk. Is she teething? Or learning how to how to act like a grown-up killer whale?

The core question the investigators are exploring is whether southern residents can get enough chinook salmon — their preferred prey — to eat in the Salish Sea. Data could help answer the question of why for the past three years the southern residents have not been coming back as usual to their core foraging areas in San Juan Island and B.C.

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril

ABOUT THIS SERIES “Hostile Waters” exposes the plight of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales, among our region’s most enduring symbols and most endangered animals. The Seattle Times examines the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.

The southern residents also are thinner on average than the northern residents and have been steadily declining in population, to just 73 animals, while northern residents have been slowly growing in population to more than 300. Like the southern residents, the northerns eat only fish, preferable chinook, but their core habitat while far smaller has more abundant fish runs, and cleaner, quieter water.

By observing both populations and their prey, researchers hope to compare their foraging conditions and hunting behaviors and learn whether it is more difficult for the southern residents to capture prey. “One of the conclusions is, yes, there is a food problem,” Trites said. “But we have to be able to answer that with not just an impression or belief, but with data.”

A southern resident killer whale swims past a school of salmon last August at the Fraser River delta in British Columbia. Fraser chinook have been in decline and sightings of the southern residents in their traditional summer foraging grounds near the San Juan Islands also have become scarce. (Keith Holmes / Hakai Institute)
A southern resident killer whale swims past a school of salmon last August at the Fraser River delta in British Columbia. Fraser chinook have been in decline and sightings of the southern residents in… (Keith Holmes / Hakai Institute) More 

To learn more about the presence, abundance and quality of the orcas’ prey, co-lead Scott Hinch, director of the Pacific Salmon Ecology and Conservation Lab at the University of British Columbia, is capturing and tagging chinook, probing where the big fish are, and examining nutritional quality of the fish.

“We are putting all these pieces together to see what is going on,” Trites said.

The $1 million project is part of the federally funded Whale Science for Tomorrow initiative by the Canadian government, with additional funding and support from other sources.

Washington state considers importing B.C. grizzlies to re-establish bears in North Cascades

The translocation of bears is likely years away as Washington state and B.C. officials are in the early stage of talks about how that would work, and the province said First Nations have to be consulted first.

Updated: October 15, 2019

The U.S. has dusted off a plan to repopulate the North Cascades area of Washington state with grizzly bears by translocating dozens of Canadian grizzlies to the U.S.

The U.S. parks and fish and wildlife departments are accepting public comments about its environmental impact statement on a grizzly bear restoration plan that could see dozens of young, mostly female, bears flown into North Cascades National Park.

Conservationists in both countries support the plan to establish a grizzly bear population in the vast park that’s on the other side of the border from Manning Park, and where the last sighting of a grizzly was in 1996.

“It would be great,” said Joe Scott, international program director for Conservation Northwest. “It would be a wonderful conservation success story for both the U.S. and B.C.”

The approval process in the U.S. would take at least another year and it would take several years of gradually introducing the bears stateside, about 25 bears over five to 10 years, before the grizzlies ideally would be self-sustaining, he said.

The bears would likely be imported from B.C. because the bears should be from a similar ecosystem (berry eating as opposed to salmon eating, for instance) and would likely be flown in by copter to ensure that they’re delivered a “fair distance from humans, for obvious reasons,” said Jack Oelfke, chief of natural and cultural resources for North Cascades National Park.

He said conservationists and the public have been supportive of bringing grizzlies back to the North Cascades. But some are opposed, such as the ranching industry.

B.C. government has had a representative on one of the U.S. committees contributing to the recovery plan in the past, and supports efforts to restore grizzlies to Washington state.

The province and the state are in the “early planning stages” to determine if grizzlies can be translocated from B.C., and B.C. First Nations have to be consulted, a spokesperson from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said in an email.

The ministry said, generally, the province’s grizzly bear population is healthy and stable at around 15,000 bruins.

“The province will be collaborating with Indigenous Peoples in the near future to draft a provincial grizzly bear management plan,” it said.

“We do have bears to spare,” said Nicholas Scapillati, executive director of the Grizzly Bear Foundation. But not in Canada’s North Cascades grizzly bear population unit, where it’s estimated fewer than 10 bears live.

Two years ago, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer, in a report on B.C.’s grizzly bear conservation efforts, said one of the goals of the province’s conservation strategy was to lead the way in international recovery efforts, but that the U.S. was leading the way. The report also said, “it may be that recovery actions have been too little, too late” for the North Cascades’ grizzly population in Canada.

Scapillati said the bears would likely have to come from elsewhere in B.C. If the U.S. recovery plan was successful, it could help the North Cascades’ population recover in Canada, conservationists said.

The U.S. grizzly recovery study was first announced in 2014, halted in 2017, and then restarted last year. The Americans have until Oct. 24 to comment on the plan.


As killer whales starve to death, public anger drives a shift in the political winds

The final moments of J54.

Young J54, covered in rake marks from the attempt to keep him alive, is held afloat between his sister, J46 (left) and a cousin in late October 2017. He probably died within hours of this photo.

Third of three parts. See parts 1 and 2.

Everyone in the San Juan Islands who watches the whales remembers the summer of 2016. No one wants to relive it.

That was the summer the Southern Residents lost seven members, including one of the J Pod’s elderly matriarchs, who scientists say are the acknowledged leaders of the pods and repositories of the stored knowledge essential to the whales’ survival. But it was the death of J28 and her calf that stirred people to action.

It was late summer when observers began noticing J28, a 23-year-old female known as Polaris. She had given birth to a male calf that spring, but as the summer wore on, it became clear something was wrong. One day in August was especially telling.

The scene unfolded in the waters directly off Lime Kiln Lighthouse, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands: Polaris’s 6-year-old daughter, J46, nicknamed Star, was swimming about actively in the roiling currents with her mother and her baby brother, who had been designated J54, but had not yet been named.

They were not, as is often the case at this lighthouse, merely frolicking in the nearby seas. They were pursuing the salmon that comprise most of these endangered killer whales’ diets, and there was a deadly serious intent to it.

J46 Star, left, and her mother, J28, playing in 2011, when Star was only eight months old.

A week or so before, researchers at the nearby Center for Whale Research had sounded an alarm of sorts about Polaris, who was in her reproductive prime, and by extension the dire lack of salmon for the Southern Resident killer whale population. Ken Balcomb, the center’s founder, had reported that another J Pod matriarch, J14 (Samish), was missing and presumed dead, and that several whales appeared to be struggling.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Balcomb. “J28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The “peanut head” condition that Balcomb had reported—a severe sunkenness in the flesh directly behind the orca’s skull, an indication of extreme malnutrition and often a harbinger of imminent death—was clearly visible in Polaris the day we observed her, about a week after the warning. However, the listlessness CWR had reported also was ameliorated somewhat: The orca mother appeared at times to be frolicking physically with her calf, and seemed to be fairly active, though at times she also was simply “logging,” laying still on the surface and drifting with the current.

J28 and J54
The last known photo of J28 and J54 together, early October 2016.

The most striking aspect of the scene was Star’s activity. She swam constantly around her two companions, diving deep at length and doing percussive behaviors like tail-lobbing and pectoral-slapping, often pointing in her mother’s direction. At times, the three of them would go down into the deep currents and disappear for minutes at a time, evidently foraging. It appeared to my amateur eye that she was herding the salmon she could find toward her mother, helping her get the food she so desperately needed.

The scene also had a deep emotional resonance for me: Six summers before, when Star had just been a still-callow baby of eight months, I had encountered her with Polaris a little south of the lighthouse, along a cliff wall in my kayak. I had tucked into a cove, well out of their way, and began taking photos.

That too had been a deeply touching scene: The mother and little amber-toned calf had played in the still morning waters, nuzzling and wrestling about, reveling in the kind of contact that human parents and their bonded offspring know well, the joy of touching. Polaris also seemed to be feeding the calf, getting its first nascent tastes of fish as the mother dove and brought at least one healthy Chinook to the surface to show and share, as these orcas have been observed doing for years.

Six years later, the now-grown calf was doing her part, returning that love and care to her mother by helping her find and catch the salmon she clearly has not been getting. The familial bonds of killer whales are now a scientifically established fact, but they are profound things to observe, spine-chilling reminders of the deep connection that exists between humans and orcas, whom the Northwest Native Americans referred to as “the people under the sea.”

The afternoon feeding at the lighthouse was a bit of good news, at least—it appeared that Polaris was more active and feeding well. Orcas have occasionally recovered from “peanut head,” though rarely (in captivity, it has been a virtual death sentence). Still the worry remained, and was compounded by the reality that if Polaris died, it meant nearly certain death for her still-unweaned calf, too.

In some regards, the loss of J14 Samish—a 44-year-old female whose still-mysterious death can’t be attributed to malnutrition or a lack of salmon, since the last sightings of her just days before her disappearance showed her in robust apparent health—may prove even more devastating for the Puget Sound’s endangered orcas. Recent research has revealed that post-menopausal females play an essential role in orcas’ long-term survival, because they actively lead the pods in their foraging and represent long-term memory of prey-seeking routes. Without their immense brains leading the way, orcas have a harder finding the large of amounts of fish they need to eat daily to survive and thrive.

That year also saw the loss of a big, striking male once so large he was nicknamed “Doublestuff,” who died after being struck by some unknown vessel. There was also a mother who died after her developed fetus died and became necrotic. Another big male died after government scientists darted him, and the wound became infected.

The bad news regarding the two well-known orca females cast a pall over a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry in the San Juans that had just endured the worst season (for seeing resident orcas, at least) in its history, and seemed to cast a cloud on the island’s whole community. As September drew to a close, it seemed everyone wanted to know how J28 was doing, as though the fate of the Southern Resident killer whale population seemed to hinge on the news. And in some respects it may have.

J2 Granny, playing in the kelp near Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 2012.

The orcas’ human advocates were not giving up, but the picture was becoming grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” said Deborah Giles. “We’ve gone backwards. There were 88 animals when they were listed in 2005. Now we are down to 82, and maybe fewer very soon.” As she said this, she looked out over the waters where we had all observed Polaris and her offspring a few days before, and a cloud crossed her face.

A month later, on Oct. 28, CWR scientists made it official at a press conference in Seattle: J-28 had disappeared and was now presumed dead. Her baby, J-54, they said, looked even more malnourished and was being supported in the water by his sister, J-46. They gave him only a few more days, if not hours, to live, and at the time of the announcement was also presumed dead.

“It’s a sad day,” said Ken Balcomb. “I’ve been to several funerals and that’s what this feels like.”

Something snapped. The agony of watching a mother orca slowly starve to death, followed by the spectacle of her unweaned baby’s path towards the same death, was like a final straw that kicked the region’s whale advocates into action.

Coordinating among several advocacy groups and the CWR, they organized a press conference at the Seattle waterfront focusing on the deaths of J28 and J54 as a tragic warning sign for the state of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Even the normally reclusive Balcomb was persuaded to participate, and he delivered the message in stark terms.

“We know what we need to do—feed them!” Balcomb told the assembled reporters, and urged government officials to take immediate steps to begin removing the four Lower Snake River dams.

“Restore Chinook habitat, anywhere, anyhow,” he said. “If we don’t, we will lose our whales.”

The surge of publicity created immediate political pressure on the state’s politicians, though it eased off over the following year or so, but local lobbying efforts in Olympia, led by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other advocacy groups, stepped up their intensity during 2017, culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 announcement that he was forming an Orca Recovery Task Force to tackle the problem.

In the meantime, the bad news for the Southern Residents reached a kind of apex when, shortly after New Year’s Day 2017, Balcomb and the CWR announced a momentous death in the population: J2, aka Granny, the J Pod’s grand matriarch who was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

There was only one further death in the population in 2017: J52 Sonic, a 2-year-old male who disappeared in September. But 2017 also saw a significant change in the Residents’ behavior: Their presence in the Salish Sea waters became extremely scarce.

It may have been one of the effects of Granny’s death; matriarchs are known to be the leaders of the pods, calling the shots on where they go and when, and the change in J Pod leadership clearly affected its foraging patterns. However, the far more likely culprit in the change was the disappearance of Fraser River salmon.

The Chinook produced by the Fraser—which flows out of British Columbia just south of Vancouver—have long been the primary reason the Southern Residents have come to the Salish Sea in the summertime: Scientists estimate that 80 percent of their summer diet comprises fish from the Canadian river. And in the summer of 2017, the numbers of Chinook returning to the system, measured at the Albion Point salmon station, simply flatlined.

Canadian officials remain puzzled at how the returns simply fell off the table that year, but the trend has remained similar through 2018 and much of 2019, as well. The return of the J Pod to the San Juans this past week coincided with a marginal rise in salmon return numbers on the Fraser.

So for most of the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Southern Residents have simply been absent from the Salish Sea.

“It still feels very surreal that we’ve just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters,” wrote Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute and the author of Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residentsat her blog. “June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.”

A humpback whale breaches in Haro Strait with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

The absence of the Residents, however, has not been the complete disaster one would expect both for land-based whale watchers and for the whale-watching operations based in the San Juans and Vancouver/Victoria area. That’s because the second population of orcas to use these waters—the mammal-eating population known as transients, or Bigg’s killer whales—have suddenly begun showing up in unusually large numbers.

The two populations—which geneticists have determined haven’t exchanged DNA in more than 300,000 years—are not friendly; when they have been observed in proximity to each other, the Residents have generally chased away the smaller pods of Bigg’s whales. So scientists have hypothesized that the Bigg’s whales may be taking advantage of the absence of the Residents to access the abundant numbers in the Salish Sea of their main prey: namely, seals and sea lions.

Additionally, humpback whales—which were absent from the Salish Sea after being hunted out near the turn of the 20th century—have begun returning as well, feeding on the large schools of herring and the semi-abundant krill that can be found here.

Transient orcas kill a Dall
A pod of mammal-eating Bigg’s orcas catch and kill a Dall’s porpoise on May 25.

Certainly, passengers on the region’s whale-watching tours have had plenty to witness. On one tour I took this spring, we followed a pod of Bigg’s whales as they hunted a Dall’s porpoise at high speed, and then turned the waters around them blood-red when they finally caught and killed it. Even more common have been sightings of Bigg’s whales launching hapless harbor seals 50 feet into the air with their powerful flukes at the climax of a hunt.

A transient calf and mother.
A transient calf with its mother in Juan de Fuca Strait.

“The transients are fascinating animals, and it’s been great to have them here,” says Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and president of the PWWA. “They are amazing to watch, especially when they’re hunting.”

However, the tour operators aren’t content with the new reality. “The fact is that our number one priority is the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” Friedman says. “They are the reason we are here. Even with the transients around, the picture isn’t right without the Residents.”

Friedman, like the scientists and advocates, has been heavily engaged in the Orca Recovery Task Force process. Even though his focus has necessarily been directed to warding off the would-be moratorium on whale watching, he says his primary mission remains getting enough fish in the water to return the Resident population to health.

However, many of the solutions under consideration by the task force—habitat restoration, vessel effects, toxins in the water, and dam removal among them—are all long-term solutions that do relatively little to help the orcas now. Even if the Lower Snake dams were all to be taken down within the year (not at all likely), it would be as long as another decade (though perhaps sooner, depending on which salmon scientists you talk to) before the Snake/Salmon river systems would produce numbers of fish appreciable enough to help the killer whales.

The pressing issue facing scientists is how to get enough fish in the water to feed the orcas right now.

J35 Tahlequah romps in the waters off Lime Kiln Lighthouse on Sunday, Aug. 25.

J35 Tahlequah, the mother whose mourning for her dead calf gripped the world last summer, thus sparking the wave of anger over the loss of the whales that finally drove the state’s politicians into action, was among the J Pod whales who returned to the San Juans last week. She looked plump and healthy, frequently playing with little J56, and tail-slapping and socializing.

“We have seen her foraging successfully a couple of times. She looked really healthy to me,” says Deborah Giles. “It made everyone happy.”

Both the condition and the behavior of J Pod made clear that they have, for now at least, figured out how to sustain themselves without enduring the paucity of salmon that has been their reality in the Salish Sea recently. “It’s so heartening to see these whales, and to see them together, see them playing, lifting each other up out of the water, breaches and tail slaps—it’s really amazing,” says Giles. “And it’s really, really good to see them looking as well as they do.

“But in the back of my head, I am thinking—where is K pod? Where is L pod? Are there more babies? Obviously K27 lost the baby she was pregnant with last September. She didn’t come back with a baby. K pod hasn’t had a new baby since 2011.”

While J Pod appears to have regained its health, there were nonetheless three deaths among the Southern Residents this year, including J17, a 42-year-old matriarch known as Princess Angeline. She was Tahleuqah’s mother, making J35 the matriarch of her clan at age 21.

So while Giles spends her time this month on the water collecting scat samples, she has been directing her political focus on getting more fish in the water sooner. For her, that means fisheries management.

The Northwest’s salmon harvest is carefully regulated by a treaty overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that includes both American and Canadian stakeholders such as commercial and sport fishermen, as well as Native American tribes. That body produces a treaty every 10 years—vigorously negotiated—in which the salmon harvest produced in Pacific waters is divvied up among those various interests.

The Southern Resident killer whales, however, do not have a place at that table. So their needs are left to whatever might be left over from the divided harvest.

“What we’ve all been screaming about is giving the whales a place as a major stakeholder in fisheries management,” says Giles. “We’re asking for an allocation of fish for the whales.”

The solution, as she sees it, is for much tighter regulation, if not an outright moratorium, on fishing for Chinook in the orcas’ home waters, which run the entire length of the Pacific Coast.  “If not full on fisheries closures, we at least need to have targeted regulations for where and how we fish,” Giles says. “It’s past time we’re doing that. And a lot of that has to do with tribal rights, which is where it becomes very political.”

Recently undertaken studies aimed at identifying key orca-foraging “hotspots” in the San Juans could help provide the data needed to make such a plan a reality, Giles says. However, “the thing I am scared that if we don’t get a handle on these fisheries, there won’t be any salmon even in those hotspots.

The PSC itself has been resistant to these overtures, though its most recent news releases have indicated at least a sensitivity to the political pressure that has arisen around orca recovery.

“At the Pacific Salmon Commission, at that highest level, in the rhetoric around the most recent treaty, the dialogue was that ‘the needs of the Southern Residents would be taken into consideration,’ but if you look at the treaty itself, the words ‘whale,’ ‘killer whale,’ ‘orca whale’—none of that show up in the treaty itself,” Giles observes.

“So basically it’s just lip service. Those words ‘allocation’ and ‘Southern Resident’—they don’t want those to pass into reality. No way.”

However, an adjunct body of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Pacific Management Fishery Council, has proven more amenable to whale advocates’ overtures. It is holding public hearings of an ad hoc group in key cities around the Pacific Northwest, examining the impacts of mixed open fishing on Southern Resident killer whales.

“It is a start, and the more people that get involved in those hearings, and make comments leading up to the meetings” the better, Giles says, noting that the deadline for such comments is Tuesday.

Overall, Giles is mostly heartened by how the public has responded to the killer whales’ plight, and how the effort has drawn help from a variety of quarters. “There are a lot of people working in a lot of different arenas to help these whales in different capacities—like the Toxic-Free Future people, who are doing a lot of important work to remove toxins from our system, and to try to push legislation that reduces the use of chemicals as much as possible. I think that’s good, I think we need to keep pushing each other in our own areas of expertise. “

“And we need to be engaging with our political appointees, the people that we elect, and pushing them into continuing to address the issues and continuing to cut to solutions,” she adds.

At times, particularly back in 2016, Giles would confess that she feared she was doomed simply to document the demise of a once-great population of killer whales. These days, she is more hopeful—not to mention determined.

“We may well be witnesses to the complete loss of the Southern Residents,” she says. “But we know what can be done. It may get depressing at times, but none of us will ever stop fighting for them.”

Timber Corporations Can Keep Killing Bears, Judge Rules

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Washington state’s rules allowing corporate timberlands to use traps, bait and dogs to kill bears are legal, a judge ruled Friday, even though voters banned those exact methods decades ago.

In the early spring, black bears emerge from hibernation, ravenous. Most of the plants they eat are still in their own winter sleep. At that time of year, the sap of young trees is one of the most nutritious foods available. They strip the bark and feast.

But those meals cause millions in damage, according to Washington’s commercial tree farmers. So the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lets landowners hire hunters to kill bears on their property. And the permits the department issues specifically allow hunters to use methods voters banned 20 years ago based on their cruelty.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the department over that apparent discrepancy in May 2018, claiming the policy had killed an estimated 2,000 bears and orphaned numerous bear cubs.

Attorney Claire Loebs Davis argued on behalf of the center at a hearing on Friday.

“This case is not about a dispute over wildlife policy,” Loebs Davis said. “It’s about whether state agencies must stay within the law. You may think the indiscriminate killing of bears is cruel. But we are not attempting to legislate through litigation. Here, legislating was done by the voters, the chief sovereigns of the state. The agency believes voters made a mistake and that it can elevate its judgment above theirs. They are allowing trapping, baiting and hunting by private owners just as if the voters had never spoken at all.”

Loebs Davis also said the department ignored its own science and the opinions of the experts it employs and didn’t even consider whether future tree damage would actually be prevented by killing bears randomly caught in traps – arguments the department’s attorney appeared to concede at Friday’s hearing.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy questioned Assistant Attorney General Amy Dona about Loebs Davis’ claim.

“Is there some documentation in the record that shows we considered this, we waived these things, this is a higher priority than this other thing?” Judge Murphy asked.

“Insofar as counsel is saying the agency did not consider the impact of the removal of a certain number of bears, the agency did not think about that,” Dona said. “They were thinking about issuing permits.”

“What about the effectiveness of this rule?” Murphy asked.

“That was not the central consideration,” Dona said. “They were not engaging in substantive review of the program at that stage, they were thinking, ‘what will we need to have in place for people to get permits?’ They said we know there will be issues but we are going to brainstorm and think about those further down the road.”

Loebs Davis said leaving out such critical information rendered the rule “arbitrary and capricious” – basically, that it was made on the basis of a random whim.

“The law does not say that the rule can be arbitrary and capricious as long as you do the real work later,” Loebs Davis said. “It doesn’t say you can ignore the science and review it at a later time and it does not provide an exception when an agency says it would just be too difficult for us to go through the normal rule making process.”

But Judge Murphy ruled that the policy can continue.

“After reviewing the entire record, there may be additional input that would have been helpful, including data and opinions, but that is not the test in this court,” Murphy said in her ruling from the bench. “The court does not determine the best policy or reweigh the interests. The court considered whether the rules complied with and did not go beyond the agency’s statutory authority. They did not.”

Comment period reopened for grizzly restoration proposal

Comment period reopened for grizzly restoration proposal

Draft plan for N. Cascades still under review

If you’ve never commented about the possibility of reintroducing grizzly bears into the North Cascades, or have already commented but have something more to say, now’s the time.

The National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said last week that they are reopening the public comment period on the Draft North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for 90 days, through Oct. 24.

The action revives an on-and-off process that began in 2014 under the Obama administration, to consider if and how grizzlies should be reintroduced to an area that was once their native habitat and which now supports only a few of the animals.

A draft EIS on the restoration plan was released in early 2017, followed by public comment periods and public meetings, including one in Winthrop in February 2017. More than 126,000 comments and correspondence have been received on the draft EIS. The overwhelming majority supported the reintroduction proposal. In late 2017, the process was put on hold.

In August 2018, the Department of the Interior, NPS and USFWS said they intended to further evaluate input about the proposal, which meant that completion of a final EIS was further delayed. At that time, the federal agencies did not provide a timeframe for further evaluation.

Fourth District Congressman Dan Newhouse said last week, in a press release, that “I remain opposed to the transfer of grizzly bears to the North Cascades on behalf of my constituents, who would be directly affected. Introducing an additional apex predator to an area that is populated by families and livestock is extremely concerning, but I am glad the Department of the Interior is seeking real, local public comments on this issue. I encourage the people of Central Washington to make their voices heard loud and clear so the Administration will end this misguided proposal once and for all.”

Long-time habitat

A study by the NPS, released in 2018, turned up a significant body of evidence showing that grizzly bears roamed the North Cascades for thousands of years.

The EIS proposes three alternatives for re-establishing a population of 200 grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE), which includes 9,800 square miles in Washington state and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia. The area includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (including the Methow Valley Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

In addition to the three proposals to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades, the draft EIS includes a required “no action” alternative that would maintain the status quo.

Although the actual number of grizzlies in the NCE is not known, it is “highly unlikely that the area contains a viable grizzly bear population,” the original draft EIS stated. There have been only four confirmed detections of grizzly bears in the greater NCE in the past decade, all of which occurred in British Columbia and may comprise only two bears. There is no confirmed evidence of grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the NCE since 1996, according to the draft EIS.

The alternatives, as summarized in a newsletter from FWS and NPS, are:

• Alternative A – Continuation of Existing Grizzly Bear Management (no action).

• Alternative B –  Ecosystem Evaluation Restoration. NPS and FWS would implement an ecosystem evaluation approach to grizzly bear restoration, providing for release of up to 10 grizzly bears at a single remote site on NPS or U.S. Forest Service lands in the NCE over two consecutive summers. The bears would be monitored for two years to evaluate habitat use and instances of conflicts with humans. In the fourth year a decision would be made regarding how restoration would proceed during subsequent years. That could involve repeating the release of an additional 10 bears, or a decision to transition to Alternative C.

• Alternative C – Incremental Restoration. Five to seven bears would be released into the NCE each year over a period of five to 10 years, with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears. Bears would be released at multiple remote sites on national park and forest lands, After an initial population of 25 grizzly bears has been reached, additional bears would likely be released every few years. This alternative would be expected to achieve the goal of 200 grizzly bears within 60 to 100 years.

• Alternative D – Expedited Restoration. The lead federal agencies would expedite grizzly bear restoration by releasing additional grizzly bears into the NCE over time, until the restoration goal of 200 bears is reached. This alternative would be expected to achieve that goal within about 25 years.

How to comment

Comments previously submitted on the Draft EIS during the public comment period that was open from Jan. 12, 2017, through April 28, 2017, will be considered. You can view the Draft EIS online, and offer comments on it, at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis. You can also mail or hand-deliver comments to: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284.

Comments will not be accepted by fax, email, or any other way. Bulk comments in any format (hard copy or electronic) submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.

Goat sacrifice to begin at Olympic National Park

Goat sacrifice to begin at Olympic National Park

(Beth Clifton collage)

284-page “management plan” garbles history,  all but ignores climate change,  & says nothing about goats as puma prey

            OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK,  Washington––An estimated 625 to 675 mountain goats whose ancestors have peaceably roamed the icy upper reaches of Olympic National Park,  Washington,  for 14 years longer than the 80-year-old park has existed are to become sacrificial scapegoats during the summer of 2018,  and over the next three to five years,  to ecological misconceptions written into the Wilderness Act of 1964,  enshrined as National Park Service policy.

One such misconception is that “introduced” species are inherently harmful to “native” species,  even if the “introduced” species thrive as “native” just 100 miles away,  among essentially  the same suite of other animals and plants.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Untrammeled by man”?

Another misconception is that what is now Olympic National Park,  attracting 3.4 million visitors in 2017,  ever fit the Wilderness Act criteria of being “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,  where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The 3.4 million visitors have approximately the same cumulative ecological impact as a year-round community of 9,000 people.  And the mere existence of more than 200 sites in the park where archaeological artifacts have been found,  mentioned often in the newly published 284-page Mountain Goat Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement, points toward frequent,  if not necessarily continuous use of the habitat by Native Americans for thousands of years.

Native American activities,  as well as logging,  hunting,  and ranching by settlers,  helped to shape the habitat and balance of species into which mountain goats were released in 1925-1929 by forest rangers who hoped to attract trophy hunters.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Move half & shoot the rest”

Co-produced by the National Park Service,  U.S. Forest Service,  USDA Wildlife Services,  and the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Mountain Goat Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement recommends “the relocation of the majority of mountain goats [now present in Olympic National Park] to U.S. Forest Service lands in the North Cascades forests,  and the lethal removal of the remaining mountain goats in the park.”

What that means,  specifically,  is that efforts are to be made during the next several summers to capture 325 to 375 mountain goats by luring them into “clover traps,”  meaning stockades baited with clover,  netting them through the use of net guns,  sedating them,  flying them in helicopter slings to waiting trucks,  and then trucking them overnight to release points in habitat which,  although technically “native” for the goats,  none have ever seen before.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Goats to be moved to “huntable” habitat

The habitat in the North Cascades differs little,  in matters of concern to mountain goats,  from the habitat in Olympic National Park.  But despite the ambitions of the rangers who released the first dozen mountain goats in what is now Olympic National Park,  hunting has not been allowed in the park since it was created by an act of Congress in 1938.

Only those few mountain goats who may have descended into the Olympic National Forest,  surrounding Olympic National Park,  during hunting season,  will have had any prior experience of being hunted other than by pumas,  their main natural predator.

In the North Cascades the mountain goats may be hunted.  Indeed,  the major argument for translocating them in the Mountain Goat Management Plan is that the native mountain goats in the North Cascades have been hunted to scarcity,  and have had difficulty recovering “huntable” abundance.

(Beth Clifton)


Meanwhile back in Olympic National Park,  mountain goats who become wary enough to evade capture during the early phases of the attempt to extirpate them are eventually to be shot.  Some may be gunned down from trails,  others from helicopters.

Says the Mountain Goat Management Plan about when and how the decision to stop capturing goats and start shooting them is to be made,  “The determination about whether it is no longer safe to capture more mountain goats,  from a human and mountain goat safety standpoint, would be made by a consensus of the project leaders,  consulting veterinarians,  and the capture contractor,  and would be based on the rate and type of capture-related mountain goat mortalities and environmental conditions.

“Ceasing operations would also be based on capture efficiency. When it takes approximately three times as long to safely capture a mountain goat, as compared to the hours during the initial capture operation phase during the first year, capture operations would cease.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

No remains to be left where visible

The Mountain Goat Management Planstipulates that the remains of mountain goats are not to be left within 325 feet of trails,  partly to avoid attracting dangerous scavenging wildlife into proximity to humans,  partly to avoid having Olympic National Park visitors see dead mountain goats and began objecting to the “mountain goat management plan.”

Along the way,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan argues that reducing Olympic National Park biodiversity by removing mountain goats is to be done to protect the native biodiversity of plants,  though the major ecological role of mountain goats––like that of other herbivores––is depositing plant seeds in new habitat, along with the fertilizer that the seeds need to grow.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Goats originally persecuted as campground nuisance

“The original need to manage this exotic species,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan inaccurately claims,  “was an ecological concern related to the impacts that mountain goats impose on natural resources at the park,  particularly sensitive vegetation communities (NPS 1995; Houston, Schreiner, and Moorhead 1994).”

NewspaperArchive.com demonstrates that this is fiction.  The first public complaints about the presence of mountain goats in Olympic National Park surfaced in 1969,  and concerned salt-seeking goats licking and chewing clothing that visitors hung out to dry in campgrounds.

Four goats were translocated from Olympic National Park to the nearby Gilbert Pinchot National Forest in 1972,  but the first mention that all of the goats should be removed as a “non-native” species came only after that,  as did the first suggestion that the goats might be harming native plants.

Ranger explains safe behavior around mountain goats in Olympic National Park.

407 goats moved,  1981-1989

More goat translocations followed,  but primarily to rebuild populations elsewhere that had been hunted out.  Acknowledges  the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “The park implemented a series of live capture operations from 1981 to 1989,  translocating 407 mountain goats to other mountain ranges throughout several western states.  An additional 119 mountain goats were legally harvested during sport hunting seasons outside the park,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan notes,  “and three known mountain goats were illegally harvested [poached] in the park between 1983 and 1997.”

Protecting the safety of Olympic National Park visitors continued to be the main argument made for mountain goat removal before the mid-1990s,  though the first and only serious injury attributed to mountain goats before 1999 came in August 1975.

Goats kill one,  injure two,  in 80 years

Then,  according to the Port Angeles News,  “Daniel Hanify,  17,  was watching goats climbing on the rocks above him on Mt. Angeles when one goat apparently started rocks tumbling.  One large rock struck Hanify on the head.”

Hanify suffered a skull fracture,  but was able to walk to the nearest road,  with the help of two friends,  to be driven to meet a helicopter that flew him to Olympic Memorial Hospital.

A visitor suffered a non-fatal goring in 1999.  Then,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan mentions,  “Safety concerns were increased in 2010 when a visitor,”  63-year-old Robert H. Boardman,  “was fatally gored by a mountain goat while hiking on a park trail.”

Thus,  in 80 years,  fewer visitors have been killed or badly injured by mountain goats in Olympic National Park than typically die and are injured in the worst several vehicular accidents in the park and on park access roads each and every tourist season.

(Ashley Rawhouser/National Park Service photo)

Goats blamed,  not global warming

Discussion of the possible mountain goat impact on rare native plants began to be raised with increasing frequency after 1977.

Says the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “Through herbivory and wallowing behaviors, mountain goats have directly and indirectly affected the vegetation in the Olympic Mountains.  Changes in the relative abundance of plant species have been observed as a result of mountain goat herbivory; this has altered competitive interactions among plant species.  As the mountain goat population on the Olympic Peninsula increased prior to live capture operations in the 1980s, changes in vegetation were substantial, and the status of rare plant populations became a concern.”

Not even mentioned,  however,  are the major climatic effects on park vegetation caused by global warming,  beginning to become visible during the same years,  and having an accelerating impact today,  as the year-round icepack retreats to higher elevations,  less precipitation falls,  stream temperatures warm,  and the risk of wildfires increases.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Population fluctuations

After nine years of more-or-less continuous translocations of mountain goats,  the Olympic National Park population had been reduced from a peak estimate of more than 1,000 to 389,  according to a July 1990 survey.

“Live capture operations were halted in 1990 for several reasons,  including employee safety,  animal safety,  and changing Department of the Interior rules concerning helicopter landing techniques,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan says.  “Subsequent surveys were conducted in 1994, 1997, and 2004.  A survey conducted in 2011 revealed that the population started increasing between 2004 and 2011.  Most recently,  a 2016 survey revealed that the population has continued to increase to an estimated 625 mountain goats,  with an 8% average annual rate of increase from 2004 to 2016.  At this growth rate,  there could be approximately 725 mountain goats on the Olympic Peninsula by 2018.”

Puma at Big Cat Rescue.  (Beth Clifton photo)


Significantly,  though discussing the population of a prey species without mentioning the species’ major predators would appear to be nonsense,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan includes no statement of the relative abundance of pumas in Olympic National Park,  and there appears to be no recent puma population assessment for the park in any other context.

To what extent pumas might suffer from no longer having mountain goats to hunt is also not discussed.

(National Park Service photo)

Contraceptive use rejected

The Mountain Goat Management Planrejects any use of contraceptives to reduce and suppress Olympic National Park goat numbers.

“Although fertility control has been demonstrated to be effective in controlling individual animal fertility,”  the plan states,   chiefly because “Where fertility control has been successful, it has limited population growth,  but has not eliminated wild ungulate populations.”

Continues the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “Chemical agents, such as immunocontraceptive vaccines (e.g., native PZP or GnRH vaccines),  require repeated doses to the same animal,  to be highly effective at suppressing fertility.  Due to the remote, rugged, and extreme terrain where the mountain goats reside,  helicopter darting during the summer months would be necessary to either capture or vaccinate the goats.  This would require several months of flying each year.  In the Olympic Mountains, such a program would be costly, impactful, and not effective for eliminating goats or their impacts because it would be impossible to treat a sufficient number to significantly impact population dynamics. In addition,  over time,  goats would learn to avoid helicopters.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Wilderness values”

Finally,  says the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  echoing the language used in lawsuits against U.S. government agencies by opponents of using immunocontraceptives to stabilize wild horse populations,  “The use of fertility control adversely affects wilderness values because it is not a natural process.  Fertility control as an authorized management action would have a negative effect on the untrammeled and natural qualities of wilderness character because it would be an intentional manipulation of the biophysical environment.”

Beth & Merritt Clifton
Animals 24-7

In particular,  “If all goats were to be indiscriminately darted from the air,  this would be an adverse effect on the undeveloped quality of wilderness character.  Noise from helicopters would disrupt the natural soundscape and area closures to visitors may need to be in effect during darting operations. Most concerning is that these actions would need to take place on a regular basis to be effective until all exotic goats are eliminated.”

All of which will also be true of helicoptering mountain goats to trucks and then using gunners aboard helicopters to shoot the 300-plus who are expected to evade capture.

Mountain goat eradication is a high-flying balancing act in Olympic National Park

In an effort to protect visitors and rare plants, the park is relocating the hoofed invaders.

Derrick Halsey, clutches a mountain goat kid as they land at the staging area for goat relocation. Halsey is one of the helicopter team members known as a “mugger” who is dropped off as close as possible to animals who are netted or sedated from the air, and prepares them for flight.

In early July, the loud whirring of a helicopter punctured the quiet of Washington’s Olympic National Park as wildlife specialists scoured meadows, forests, ridgelines and mountaintops for flashes of white fuzz: mountain goats. The cherry-red aircraft kicked up dirt and debris as it lowered two goats, dangling in slings, toward a waiting truck, their feet bound and their vision obscured by blue blindfolds. During a brief landing, one of the specialists — commonly known as “muggers” — stepped out, with a kid no more than 6 weeks old calmly cradled in his arms.

It sounds like a dramatic scene from a wilderness reality show, but it’s not: It was just another day in an extensive effort to eliminate mountain goats from the Olympics — where they are not native, damage endemic plants and even killed a person — and hand some over to Washington state to boost populations in the North Cascades Range, where mountain goats have declined after decades of overhunting. The project — which cost more than half a million dollars just this year — illustrates the lengths to which national and state agencies are willing to go to restore a single strand in the complex web of these human-altered ecosystems.

Outdoor recreationists are generally excited to see mountain goats in the Olympics. They’re more majestic than marmots and pikas and other alpine creatures, and less terrifying than bears. A few days before the start of this year’s relocation effort, a man posted on a Facebook group for hikers, saying he wanted to see the mountain goats before they got moved. When I asked why, he replied, “The goats represent the wild in Mother Nature.”

But mountain goats are not native to Olympic National Park: Hunters from Alaska introduced about a dozen of them in the 1920s. At one point, the population ballooned to over 1,000, causing “ecological mayhem,” as they grazed on rare alpine plants and eroded the landscape, said Patti Happe, the wildlife branch chief for the park. Before the translocations began, there were about 725 goats on the Olympic Peninsula.

Not only have they destroyed native plants, but mountain goats have also become aggressive after growing too accustomed to humans: In 2010, a male goat mauled and killed a 63-year-old man hiking near Hurricane Ridge. The goats have become habituated to people and are drawn to them partly because humans provide something the animals need — salt. Olympic National Park lacks the natural salt deposits that would otherwise sustain the goats, leaving them dependent on the makeshift saltlicks that hikers produce when they pee on the trails.

To keep humans safe and restore balance in mountain goat populations, wildlife biologists decided to physically relocate the Olympic Peninsula goats, starting with 115 translocations last year. The animals were all radio-collared and ear-tagged so they can be identified and tracked in their new environs. Approximately 70% of adults and half the children survived the first year — which is within the natural range of survival, said Jace Taylor, a wildlife biologist not involved in the Olympic project who has overseen mountain goat translocations in Utah.

It’s still too early to say whether the project is achieving wildlife managers’ larger goals, in part because scientists don’t yet know if the relocated goats are breeding in their new home. Happe said the project will be a success if those moved to the North Cascades help boost populations there, and if goats in the Olympics are completely eradicated. Unfortunately, many mountain goats evade capture; one woman involved in the project described them as “escape artists.” That means the majority of the Olympic goats will be killed after the translocations are over. In addition, some animals have died during capture or in transit.

And some of the relocated goats may already be accustomed to humans, which could endanger hikers in the North Cascades. I recently saw a sign there warning people of the dangers of salt-craving mountain goats. It’s not easy to reverse habituated behaviors, says Richard Harris, a wildlife manager at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife overseeing the translocations. Perhaps over time, if human visitors leave them alone and urinate in locations the goats can’t reach, their degree of habituation might decay, ultimately benefiting both species. Still, “all wild animals are potentially dangerous to people,” Harris said. “People need to use their heads.”

But despite the expense — and the trauma for the goats — “rectifying the balance is something we should be doing when we have an opportunity to improve upon mistakes made by our predecessors,” says Harris. “To the degree that we can capture an animal and move it to a place where it’s native, give it a home, and allow it to return to its natural state within the North Cascades — I think that is worth spending money on.”

Wudan Yan is an independent journalist based in Seattle. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

The Climate Crisis Has Made Breathing Smoke Normal in Pacific Northwest

You can’t accuse Grace Stahre of not working to turn climate change around. She’s fought the fossil fuel industry in court, on the streets, in kayaks and on social media. She has rallied to stop new coal terminals and helped pass a moratorium on new gas pipeline infrastructure. And she has lobbied for investment in renewable energy in Seattle, Washington, the city she calls home.

Stahre knew an increase in wildfires for the Pacific Northwest was predicted as a major consequence of climate change 20 years ago. What she didn’t know is how quickly wildfires would bring catastrophic climate change to her doorstep.

Summers used to be what drew people to live in this pocket of North America, with its alpine wilderness, high country trails with hidden lakes, rugged coastlines and beaches full of high-tide treasures.

In 2018, summer wildfires blanketed the state and region again, getting an early start from fires in eastern Washington, British Columbia, Oregon and California. A total of 1,874 fires were reported in Washington State, according to Janet Pearce, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. For several days, Seattle’s air quality was worse than Beijing’s. A third of August had unhealthy air quality, and half the month was thick with smoky haze. Only five days were reported “good” by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Smoke contains particulate matter — toxic chemicals from burning homes and structures. Fine particulates can remain in the atmosphere for up to two weeks depending on the weather. Large particulate matter can be coughed up. But particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter goes deep into the lungs. People are impacted differently depending on their immune system and sensitivity. For children with developing lungs, people who exercise hard outdoors, and those with respiratory illness, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a single exposure can be lethal.

For the last two summers, Stahre kept her children indoors when air quality was unhealthy. “Being able to breathe,” she says, “is one of the most precious aspects of life, and I want my children to be able to breathe their entire lives and take a full breath and not have to think that their parents were irresponsible for keeping them around wildfire smoke year after year.”

The Stahre family originally considered turning their home into a fortress against wildfire smoke, unhealthy air and extreme heat. But fully adapting one’s home for a changing climate comes at a steep price. Quotes for an air filtration system and heat pump ranged between $30,000 and $40,000. Instead the family is going to “wait and watch” and install a filter on the ducted part of their home, while researching standalone filtration options for other rooms.

What they’re doing is called “climate adaptation,” says Nate Matthews-Trigg, a health researcher with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Climate adaptation in the climate change and health field,” he says, “are ways people can change their behavior or their local environment to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Climate Adaptation and Climate (In)Equity

Research shows creating clean air spaces is an adaptation people should take if they can, says Matthews-Trigg. It can be as simple as setting up a room in the house with an air purifier to reduce airborne particulate pollution, as the Stahre family is doing.

The majority of advice being promoted by health departments does not come with subsidies or financial aid and the measures proposed by local authorities — such as the 300 fans with filters that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency plans to distribute to “highly impacted communities” who face chronic or economic barriers to mitigating the effects of unhealthy air quality on their lives — come nowhere close to protecting the most vulnerable residents from the chronic effects of unhealthy air.

Kurtis Robinson, a wild land firefighter and president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in Eastern Washington, says if you look at “air quality dynamics,” the lack of access to resources is front and center for communities of color, impoverished and underserved communities: “They’re already dealing with a lack of affordable housing, the long-term effects of redlining and racial covenants.”

To address the disparity, the state needs to enact what Robinson calls “distinct action” to ensure resources are “readily available” for all. “Number 1 is moving the resources to make air conditioning, air filtration and retrofitting affordable across the board,” Robinson told Truthout. Climate adaptation with retrofits and clean air spaces for all becomes a “human right not a right of privilege,” he added.

At the same time, it’s a heavy lift to get the conversation to a point where legislatures and government embrace the reality of climate change and the need for equitable climate action. Inertia is baked into the system, says Robinson. In the case of catastrophic climate change, it will take an elevated sense of urgency to address the swiftly moving train of wildfires, drought, sea level rise and hurricanes.

Environmental and forest sciences professor at the University of Washington, Phillip S. Levin, told Truthout that Black, Latino and Native American communities nationwide face 60 percent greater vulnerability during wildfires compared to other communities. Levin says metal roofs are often recommended for those that live in areas prone to wildfires, because they can withstand fire. However, he acknowledges that these aren’t an option for many homeowners or those who rent, because “if we don’t consider the social, economic and political context in which fires occur, then we won’t necessarily allocate our resources to the most vulnerable.”

How Quickly Will Washington Adapt to the Wildfire Climate Crisis?

Most of the messaging about wildfire smoke from Washington’s Department of Health and local health partners urge individual behavior changes. “Get inside, close windows, make sure indoor air is clean, reduce physical activity.” Fliers show who is most sensitive: babies and children; people over age 65; people with health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema; and pregnant people. Pamphlets advise going somewhere with clean air or air conditioning if your own home can’t provide it: a library, mall, community center or neighbor’s house. The Washington Smoke Blog, a collaboration between county and federal agencies and local tribes, shares information for Washington communities affected by wildfire smoke.

Julie Fox, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, admits “this puts a lot of burden on the public to think about how to change their daily activity and living space to reduce smoke exposure.” Asked if the department thinks summer wildfires are the new norm, Fox says, “What I’m hearing is we might not have reached the new norm yet. Things could get worse.”

As for masks, they don’t work for everyone, especially children and people with health conditions, say health professionals. The public has shown a lot of interest in specialized masks like N95 and N100, which are common in hospitals and certain workplace settings, says Meredith Li-Vollmer, a risk communication specialist with Public Health Seattle and King County. But there’s limited research on whether they work outside occupational settings. In fact, there’s some evidence that for certain health conditions, “masks can actually make it worse for people to breathe because you have to breathe through a filter,” says Li-Vollmer.

Family physician Kristen Knox, who has barricaded herself inside during the last two summer wildfire seasons because of her own asthma, says that what she hears from her patients is they’re fearful.

While children and those with respiratory illness are most at risk from smoke, Knox warns, “We’re all at risk.” Even “driving isn’t a safe thing to do unless you can recycle the air in the car and it’s air conditioned and filtered,” she adds. She recommends HEPA filters that can be attached to the dashboard or in the space between the seats.

Clean Air Facilities in City-Owned Buildings and Community Centers

The City of Seattle, for its part, recognizes wildfires as an emerging threat of climate change, and plans to retrofit all city buildings over time. Two community centers in the city’s international district and Rainier Beach neighborhoods, both home to low-income communities and communities of color, will be open as “cleaner air facilities” beginning in July. The city is also upgrading filtration in three buildings at the Seattle Center. Each building will have an air filtration system to reduce pollutants. Around 12 percent of Seattle’s residents have income below the poverty level. This means the three Seattle Center and community center buildings have the capacity to hold between 7.3 percent and 10.6 percent of the below-poverty population and 0.8 percent to 1.2 percent of the entire Seattle population. Of course, such stopgap measures are not enough when air becomes so unhealthy it becomes impossible to breathe for sensitive populations and challenging for everyone else. Julia Reed, a senior policy adviser in the mayor’s office, says if the smoke situation intensifies, the city will respond as it does to any other natural disaster, and may open city buildings as 24-hour shelters.

A Drought Emergency and Record-Breaking Heat

A drought emergency was declared for much of Washington in May by the governor. Low snowpack left many areas of the state with lower-than-normal water reserves. A hot, dry spring absorbed much of the snow that did accumulate. Seattle broke heat records in May with three days of 83-degree temperatures in a row, and again in June with several days of 90 degrees or more. The state capital, Olympia, reached 87 degrees, one degree higher than its previous 1989 record. Much of Eastern Washington saw temperatures in the mid-90s for several weeks in June.

Due to the efforts of Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, the legislature allocated $50 million for fire suppression and prevention. Pearce said the amount would have been “unheard of in the past.” The money will be used to hire 30 more wild land firefighters in addition to 44 the state already has, and to combat forest health issues.

Climate models indicate wildfire smoke could increase 200 percent to 600 percent by mid-century in the West.

Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, remarked in 2018 that “climate change loads the diceagainst us by taking naturally occurring weather events and amplifying them.” In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “Wildfires in the western U.S. now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change.”

Youth Climate Strikers at City Hall Underscore Urgency of Crisis

On Friday, June 21, youth climate strikers stood outside Seattle City Hall, chanting, “When the air we breathe is under attack, what we do? Stand up. Fight back!” They held signs that read, “Our Planet Is on Fire. Smoke Knows No Borders.”

Lydia Ringer, a youth organizer with the #FridaysforFuture climate change campaign, says the ongoing Friday strikes are necessary because “we need to act now. It’s our futures that are on the line.” Ringer wants the state to wean itself from fossil fuels within 10 years. Her mother, a first responder, was in Paradise, California, last summer helping the community cope after devastating wildfires. “She flies all over the country dealing with fires,” says Ringer, “and she’s only going to be dealing with them more and more as climate change intensifies.”

Large wildfires burn more than twice the area in the United States as they did in 1970, with the average wildfire season 78 days longer, according to a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent nonprofit focused on solutions to climate change. Projections show “an average 1 degree Celsius temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year as much as 600 per cent in some types of forests,” the report concludes.

Climate change has been the focus of Governor Inslee’s presidential campaign. His request for a climate debate during the 2020 presidential campaign season was rejected by the Democratic National Committee. He recently released the fourth piece of his climate change policy, Freedom from Fossil Fuels. In it he outlined plans to transition the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, hold polluters accountable, and end corporate welfare.

Meanwhile, Stahre says she’ll continue to press the state and city for more rapid climate action. She believes Washington should declare a climate emergency, not just a drought emergency, and invest whatever it takes to get off of fossil fuels and reverse the decades of warming baked into the system. She knows another summer season of wildfires is not only likely for 2019, but for 2020 and beyond. By July 10, the state had already responded to 900 fires, according to Pearce with the state department of natural resources.

“This is life on the West Coast because we failed to act,” Stahre says, “and this will be our life for the foreseeable future unless we come up with some incredible technology that allows us to pinpoint those wildfires and nip ’em in the bud like we’ve never been able to before. But that’s not something I see on the horizon right now.”