Thousands of migrating elk and butterflies now have a protected place to roam near Naches thanks to new vineyards being planted on Red Mountain.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife's purchase of the 2,900-acre North Fork Cowiche project is part of a shrub-steppe conservation project to offset turning natural land on Red Mountain into vineyards.
Red Mountain landowners and the Department of Ecology contributed $1 million to balance the loss of about 1,000 acres of shrub-steppe habitat on the mountain. Each paid half.
The North Fork Cowiche project cost $1.6 million. The state covered the balance.
The 1,000 acres on Red Mountain are among the 1,785 acres that will receive Yakima River water next year thanks to an $18.5 million project by the Kennewick Irrigation District.
Property owners who benefit from the water will pay for the project through a local improvement district.
About 400 of the privately owned acres in the improvement district include vineyards being irrigated with groundwater. They will switch to river water once it becomes available.
Shrub-steppe land on Red Mountain wasn't pristine because of recent fires and invasive plants that had encroached on the habitat, Mike Livingston, regional director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told KID's board recently.
However, the land supported burrowing owls, black-tailed jackrabbits and side-blotched lizards, Livingston said.
Shrub-steppe once covered about 10 million acres in Eastern Washington, he said.
About 60 percent has been lost because the land was converted for other uses, and officials are trying to preserve habitat for shrub-steppe-dependent species.
The North Fork Cowiche purchase helps protect a migration route for about 2,800 elk and 50,000 butterflies.
The land offers a transition from the central Cascade Mountains to shrub-steppe habitat west of Yakima, Livingston said.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and local land trust Cowiche Canyon Conservancy helped bring the project together. The conservancy will monitor the grazing that will continue as part of the purchase agreement with the landowners, he said.
Conservation efforts spawned from the Red Mountain project aren't over.
KID will receive the repayments from half of the $10 million, no-interest loan Ecology provided for the Red Mountain project.
The irrigation district must save the $5 million in a special conservation account for future projects, said Colleen Storms, KID treasurer. Ecology must approve those projects before the money can be spent.
The account will grow as property owners repay the 25-year loans for the Red Mountain project, Storms said.
KID board members unanimously approved creating the new conservation fund Tuesday.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org