A look at DU’s work in Washington’s Columbia Basin

by Tina Blewett

Wetlands within the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Columbia Basin Wildlife Area (CBWA) provide critical habitat for waterfowl and other wetland obligate species. CBWA wetlands function primarily as wintering and migration staging areas for a variety of waterfowl species, and were once important breeding areas as well.

Annual surveys in November average 50,000 ducks and geese in just the Desert Unit, one of the CBWA’s multiple units. Some water bodies host one to ten thousand waterfowl each during winter, and many birds, including mallard, wood duck, and teal, use these properties for nesting and brood rearing.

These properties also offer quality hunting opportunities and recreation, while providing protected areas for wildlife. Grant County, where the CBWA resides, has the highest harvest of ducks and geese among all counties in Washington state, owing to the abundance of waterfowl during hunting season. WDFW currently manages three regulated access areas (RAAs) in the Columbia Basin region for waterfowl hunting.

RAAs are limited-use areas, strategically placed near game reserves to provide hunters with a greater chance of success and prevent over-utilization. Each RAA is approximately 140 wetland acres and limited to 5-7 parking spots. Game reserves within Washington provide refuge to migratory waterfowl, as hunting is not allowed, as well as retain birds in the area to provide hunting opportunities throughout the hunting season. Without these areas on the landscape, waterfowl would likely continue migration and not persist as long within Washington.

The vegetation in this mosaic of wetlands and desert uplands is very diverse, however, over time, loss of wetland functionality and productivity has resulted in decreased waterfowl use and recreational opportunity in many wetlands. The 34,920-acre Desert Unit, one of the management units of the CBWA, was wholly desert prior to the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. It is the lowest part of the very large Quincy Basin that once was filled with glacial floodwater.

The natural basin now serves as a collector for irrigation water from upslope farmlands. Most of this water is collected in the Winchester and Frenchman Hills wasteways, which meander southeasterly across several miles of the Desert Unit and eventually empty into the Potholes Reservoir (Figure 1). The wetlands and shallow ponds created by the high groundwater table and wasteways were once occupied by native marsh vegetation, but non-native invaders like Russian olive, purple loosestrife, Phragmites (aka common reed), and Asian carp are now threatening the health of the wetlands.

Ducks Unlimited (DU) and WDFW are partnering to enhance and restore wetlands in the Desert Unit. Given the large expanse of acreage, numerous wetlands, and multiple threats, activities may span a decade within this one unit. Work began in 2016 to evaluate projects at three discrete sites, and thus far, two sites have been completed, one is scheduled for construction in December 2018, and other sites are being identified and investigated as time and funding allow.

One completed project benefits the Frenchman Wasteway RAA, another benefits the Winchester RAA, and the Winchester Ponds project is being proposed as a new hunting area north of the Winchester Reserve. Other areas, such as I-Road and 239 Drain, are open to the public. In 2019, WDFW and DU plan to perform additional feasibility and project investigations at the I-Road and 239 Drain, north of Winchester Lake, and Potholes Reserve and RAA, as well.

Funding is needed for projects within the Desert Unit. Current public funding sources include WDFW’s Migratory Bird Stamp and Artwork Program, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) program. However, secured private funds through DU’s Wings and Wetlands Initiative makes DU more competitive in these programs by providing matching dollars, stretching grant dollars to the maximum, and providing critical start-up funding to investigate new projects, which is typically not provided by other funding sources. Donations made through the DU Wings and Wetlands Initiative can be dedicated to projects at the Desert Unit.