McWhorter Ranch tops list of land that Washington wants to buy

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 18, 2012 

A Washington board voted Wednesday to recommend money to help buy the McWhorter Ranch as the state's top priority for critical habitat land purchases in 2013.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife has been talking with the McWhorter family since June about the possibility of buying almost 14,000 acres of the ranch on the south side of Rattlesnake Mountain. Also negotiating in partnership with the state are The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The land was owned by R.J. McWhorter, a third-generation Mid-Columbia rancher, until his death at age 86 in November 2007. His family put the property up for sale June 1.

The state Recreation and Conservation Funding Board on Wednesday considered and approved a ranking of proposals to purchase critical habitat land, with spending $4.5 million toward buying the McWhorter Ranch the top project among six on the list.

Preliminary rankings were done by a group of volunteers picked for their expertise in different categories.

The proposal now will be forwarded to the governor's office for inclusion in the 2013 state budget. The money would come from the state's capital budget, the stand-alone budget for land purchases and state building projects.

The Legislature then would decide how much money will be available in the capital budget for critical habitat and how far down the list the money would stretch.

In 2011, the Legislature approved $1.8 million for the purchase of the McWhorter Ranch.

Fish and Wildlife is interested in using the McWhorter Ranch as habitat, including possible nesting for endangered ferruginous hawks that forage on the ranch. The hawks live mostly in southeastern Washington, and fewer than 40 breeding pairs remain, said Sarah Thirtyacre, senior grant manager.

Wind turbines, houses and vineyards are being built on the ridges that the hawks need for nesting and foraging, she said.

The McWhorter Ranch also is home to burrowing owls, long-billed curlews, Townsend's ground squirrels, American badgers, black- and white-tailed jackrabbits, sage sparrows, sage thrashers, elk and mule deer.

Fish and Wildlife also would open the land to nonmotorized public access if the state purchases it. That would offer recreation compatible with wildlife habitat such as hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and some hunting.

The project has the support of the Richland Rod and Gun Club and the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.

Most of the ranch is classic shrub steppe habitat with sage and bluebunch wheatgrass. It follows the slope of Rattlesnake Mountain up to its top to the border of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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