McWhorter Ranch tops state's preliminary list of critical habitat purchase priorities

The purchase of the McWhorter Ranch on the south side of Rattlesnake Mountain has ranked at the top of a preliminary list of purchases of critical habitat for the state of Washington.

The proposal, if paid for in full by the state Legislature, would add $4.5 million to the $1.8 million the Legislature approved for the purchase of the land in 2011.

The money would come from the state's capital budget, the stand-alone budget for land purchases and state building projects.

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.

Most of the 14,135-acre 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.

McWhorter had discussed his wish to sell the land to Washington State Fish and Wildlife to preserve it into perpetuity. But at the end of the discussions with the state, he couldn't bear to part with the land, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The state now is in discussions with McWhorter's family about the ranch, said Jeff Tayer, regional director for Fish and Wildlife, on Thursday.

The preliminary ranking of proposed Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program critical habitat purchases was developed by a group of volunteers picked for expertise in different categories.

The volunteers heard presentations, including by Fish and Wildlife, and then scored proposals, said Scott Robinson, deputy director of the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.

Twenty percent of the score for each project was based on ecological and biological characteristics that make them worthy of long-term conservation, such as habitat quality. Fifteen percent was based on manageability and viability of the land proposal; 10 percent was based on species on the land, including threats to them and their rarity; and 5 percent was based on public benefit, such as educational or scientific value.

In October, staff from that office will present the rankings to the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board.

The board approves the list of ranked projects and sends it to the governor to be included as part of the 2013 state budget.

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.

Fish and Wildlife is interested in using the McWhorter Ranch as habitat, possibly establishing nesting for endangered ferruginous hawks that forage on the ranch.

It also would open the land to nonmotorized public access.

That would offer recreation compatible with wildlife habitat and could include hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and some hunting.