Conservation Notes, November 2019

The 3 numbered items immediately below were on the agenda or otherwise addressed at the Skagit Audubon board meeting November 5, 2019.

  1. Washington State Audubon Conservation Committee Resolutions

At its November 5, 2019, board meeting, Skagit Audubon voted to sign two resolutions which were considered at the annual October meeting of the Washington State Audubon Conservation Committee (WSACC). Resolutions to WSACC may be submitted by any of Washington’s 25 Audubon chapters. One of the two resolutions urges the state to fund creation of a map indicating optimal areas for siting large solar power arrays while avoiding prime agricultural land and important wildlife habitat. This resolution originated particularly out of concern for large projects east of the Cascades. The second resolution repeats and slightly updates one of Audubon Washington’s legislative priorities from the last session of the state legislature supporting an increase in the operating budget for Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. This is the state’s lead agency for managing wildlife habitat, carrying out research on both hunted and non-hunted species, and restoring rare, threatened, and endangered species. The Department’s budget declined significantly during the last recession, and its revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, a major source of the department’s funding, has also declined. A third resolution passed at WSACC’s October meeting was tied to a deadline now passed. Skagit Audubon had no one present to cast a vote at the October WSACC meeting, and because the deadline has passed, the Skagit board did not discuss or vote on the third resolution at its November board meeting. This resolution dealt with a U.S. Forest Service proposal to build a road to Spirit Lake in Mt. St. Helens National Monument to facilitate geophysical investigations at the lake.

  1. WA Board of Natural Resources Consideration of the Preferred Alternative for the Marbled Murrelet Long-term Conservation Strategy on State Trust Lands

Skagit Audubon joined other Audubon chapters in signing a letter to the Board of Natural Resources (BNR), which oversees the WA Department of Natural Resources, urging that they delay their decision about a preferred alternative for this plan and that they ultimately not choose Alternative H. That alternative is the one which DNR has tagged as its preferred among the 8 described and analyzed. The best available modeling indicates that the amount of murrelet nesting habitat on state trust lands that would be protected under Alternative H is not enough to stem the rapid decline of this threatened species in Washington let alone to recover the population. On November 5, 2019, the BNR met, and indications are that the Board will probably vote on December 3rd as scheduled. The conservation strategy is long overdue, and there is eagerness to be done with it. However, there are many new members on the BNR and they have not had sufficient time to come up to speed on this very complex issue, which is vastly complicated by the dependence of some counties on revenue from timber harvest on state trust lands and DNR’s interpretation of its fiduciary duty to maximize revenues from this land. This runs up against DNR’s legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act to protect and recover the Marbled Murrelet. The BNR will have a special meeting on November 20th to help the members come up to speed and, hopefully, to review the not-yet-released Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That federal agency oversees implementation of the Endangered Species Act and needs to certify that DNR’s murrelet plan is adequate.

Seattle Audubon has written a letter which individuals can modify or send as is to the Board of Natural Resources. You can find it and background information at http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/About/Conservation/RegionalConservation/ThreatenedEndangeredSpecies/MarbledMurrelet.aspx.

Skagit Audubon has written multiple comment letters to DNR during the 7 years that preparation of the plan and EIS have been underway. DNR manages a significant amount of land in Skagit County suitable for Marbled Murrelet nesting.

  1. Cooke Aquaculture’s Application to Raise Rainbow Trout/Steelhead in its Washington Net Pens

On October 1, 2019, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) issued

 “MDNS 19-056: Raising Sterile All-Female Triploid Rainbow Trout/Steelhead at Existing Marine Net Pen Sites in Puget Sound”.  MDNS means “Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance, meaning that in the opinion of WDFW, Cooke Aquaculture’s raising specially modified Rainbow Trout/steelhead in its net pens will not pose any significant environmental risks as long as the company follows certain mitigation measures. It further means that Cooke Aquaculture will not be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the action it is proposing. This is the company whose Cypress Island #2 net-pen collapsed in 2017 releasing many thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound. The upshot of that event was that the Department of Natural Resources cancelled the aquatic lands lease for Cooke Aquaculture’s 3 Cypress net pen sites and others at Port Angeles. The company has other permitted sites around the Sound which are still raising Atlantic Salmon and are permitted to do so until 2022. After the 2017 incident, the state legislation passed a law phasing out the farming of any non-native species. Therefore, Cooke Aquaculture proposes to switch to raising native Rainbow Trout/steelhead, ones modified to be sterile and female only. If granted the required Marine Aquaculture Permit by WDFW, Cooke Aquaculture would begin raising Rainbow Trout/steelhead immediately at its net-pen near Hope Island in Skagit Bay and at its net-pens elsewhere around Puget Sound that still have the required DNR Aquatic Land Lease. If DNR at some point issues leases for the Cypress net-pens, Cooke Aquaculture would raise Rainbow Trout/steelhead at two of those three net-pen sites.

There are important omissions in the environmental analysis of the proposal which Skagit Audubon, at this writing, is preparing to submit to WDFW. The extended deadline for comments on WDFW’s determination of non-significance for this proposal is November 22, 2019. You can read the voluminous background information and submit a comment at https://wdfw.wa.gov/licenses/environmental/sepa/open-comments (scroll down to SEPA 19056).

You may also want to read the position of the Wild Fish Conservancy on this issue: http://www.wildfishconservancy.org/industrial-fish-farms-threaten-puget-sound-once-more. At https://www.oursound-oursalmon.org/#cooke-is-back you can sign a petition addressed to WDFW and find links to the Wild Fish Conservancy’s technical analysis.

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Other issues on which action is needed:

  1. Improving Skagit County’s and Anacortes’ Critical Areas Ordinances to protect heronries. - - Show up in support of protecting Great Blue Heron nesting areas

Washington cities and counties are required under the Growth Management Act to have a Comprehensive Plan guiding development and land use. The Comprehensive Plan must include a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) regulating development near wetlands, steep slopes, and certain other areas as well as potentially including provisions related to protected species of wildlife. Skagit Audubon played a role years ago in seeing that the Skagit County CAO gives at least a nod to the communal nesting sites of the Great Blue Heron. This species is of special note in Skagit County because there are so many of them here, attracted to the rich feeding opportunities in the bays and fields as well as the availability of nesting sites. At over 700 nests, the March Point heronry is quite possibly the second largest heronry on the U.S. West Coast. The heronry suddenly abandoned on Samish Island a few years ago had over 300 nests. There are also several smaller heronries in the county. Because most of the March Point heronry is on land owned by Skagit Land Trust and other heronries in the county are either on Land Trust property or on property with a conservation easement held by the Land Trust, Skagit Land Trust staff and associated volunteers have been working for over a year towards modification of the CAOs of Anacortes and Skagit County to provide some actual protection for these important sites. The process of modifying CAOs is lengthy. Land Trust staff and volunteers have met with planning staff for the City of Anacortes and at Skagit County Planning and Development Services. Staff are preparing presentations on this and other proposed CAO changes which they will make to each entity’s Planning Commission.

On November 13 at 5:00 p.m. in the Anacortes Municipal Building Council Chambers, 904 Sixth Street, staff from the Anacortes Planning Department will present to the city’s Planning Commission about the draft update of the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance. There will not be an opportunity to give oral comments but showing up will help show public support for protecting heronries in Anacortes. Part of the very important March Point heronry is in Anacortes; part is in Skagit County outside the city limits. There will be a similar meeting later at which Skagit County Planning & Development Services staff will present draft CAO changes to the county’s Planning Commission. It will be especially important for supporters of heronry protection to show up at that meeting and at a public meeting of the Planning Commission in January 2020 when public testimony will be taken.

Other proposed changes to the Anacortes Critical Areas Ordinance could weaken protection of wetlands in the city such as the Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve. The preserve hosts a great variety of birds and other wildlife species. Skagit Audubon opposes weakening of wetland protections, and representatives from the Skagit board will attend and present comments at Planning Commission and City Council meetings.

  1. Keeping the Tongass Roadless Rule in place - - Add your voice.

Earlier in November, the Skagit Audubon Board joined many other conservation groups signing on a letter drafted by Washington Wild opposing weakening of the Roadless Rule in southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. This 18 million acre national forest is the largest temperate rainforest in the world and tremendously important for wildlife habitat, sequestration of atmospheric carbon, and sheet natural beauty. The 2001 Roadless Rule has kept about half the Tongass National Forest off-limits to timber harvest since the rule was established under the Clinton Administration. The present Administration in Washington, D.C., is moving to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, which would both degrade this world treasure and set a precedent for exempting other national forests from the Rule, including about 2 million acres in Washington State.

Because the U.S. Forest Service has not scheduled any public meetings on this proposal in the lower 49 states outside of Washington DC, Washington Wild and other organizations have organized a community public meeting for people to learn about the proposal and why it is important in this state and nationally. Oral comments will be recorded and sent to the Forest Service. This meeting is open to all and will take place Saturday, November 23rd (1:00 – 3:00 pm) at the REI Flagship Store in Seattle (222 Yale Ave N, Seattle).

The public has until Dec. 17, 2019, to submit comments on the U.S. Forest Service plan. You can find information on how to comment at https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2019/10/15/usda-forest-service-seeks-public-comment-draft-environmental-impact. Alternatively, you can sign a letter opposing changes in the Roadless Rule at Washington Wild’s website: https://wawild.org/take-action-stand-up-for-national-forests-in-alaska-and-your-own-backyard/ (next to the posting date of October 16, 2019).

  1. Send scoping comments to WDFW on wolf post-recovery in Washington

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is beginning to plan for how wolves will be managed in the state after their population and distribution meet the goals of the wolf recovery plan. WDFW’s web page for this project (https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/gray-wolf/post-recovery-planning) states:

       “Since 2008, Washington’s wolf population has grown by an average of 28 percent per year. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) documented a minimum of 126 individuals, 27 packs, and 15 successful breeding pairs during the last annual population survey, marking a population increase for the 10th consecutive year and the highest counts to date. Not only is Washington’s wolf population growing, but its distribution is also expanding westward in the state. In 2018, WDFW biologists confirmed the state’s first wolf pack west of the Cascade crest in the modern era. WDFW is confident that Washington’s wolf population is on a path leading to successful recovery.

       “Given the pace of wolf recovery, WDFW proposes to develop a post-recovery conservation and management plan for wolves to guide long-term wolf conservation and management under state authority once wolves are considered recovered in Washington and are no longer designated as state or federally endangered.”

Note that the reference to the wolf pack west of the Cascade crest is the Diobsud Pack, consisting of a male and a female in the Diobsud Creek drainage near Marblemount in Skagit County.

WDFW will be preparing a plan with alternatives and an Environmental Impact Statement EIS). The first step is “scoping” which involves asking the public what topics should be covered in the plan and EIS.  You can submit your comments at https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/gray-wolf/post-recovery-planning/public-input by filling out a very brief survey or sending a narrative you write. The deadline is 5:00 p.m. on November 15th. When the draft plan and EIS are ready, there will be additional opportunities to comment.

Other issues on which Skagit Audubon has acted in the last several months:

 

New public comment period on grizzly restoration in the North Cascades

Despite the lengthy public comment period in 2017 on the plan and Environmental Impact Statement for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades, certain elected officials required another comment period this year. Skagit Audubon submitted a letter reiterating its support for Alternative C in the plan, which takes a moderate and very long term approach to translocating enough bears from British Columbia or Montana to start to rebuild a viable grizzly population. Given the slow reproductive rate of this species, in 60 to 100 years the target level of 200 bears in 6 million acres of mostly very wild and remote public land will be reached.  The comment period closed October 24th. Skagit Audubon is a member of the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear, a coalition of conservation groups (https://www.northcascadesgrizzly.org/).

Some additional issues – a partial list

  1. Marathon Oil’s Clean Products Upgrade Project, a.k.a the Xylene project

The consortium of environmental groups opposing this project won their appeal contending that the Shoreline Hearings Board erred in finding the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) adequate. Evergreen Islands and the other groups in the consortium had argued that the EIS inadequately addressed vessel traffic impacts to the Salish Sea and the Southern Resident Killer Whales, listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005. Xylenes, which are used to create a variety of plastics and solvents, are refined from crude oil. What Marathon Oil and the former owners of the refinery, Tesoro and then Andeavor, call the “Clean Products Upgrade Project” involves equipping its March Point refinery to produce and export large quantities of xylene to Asian markets. As demand for transportation fuels derived from crude oil declines, refinery owners are looking for new products to made from crude.

  1. Concrete Nor'west Gravel Operation near Grip Road

In 2016, Concrete Nor’west applied to Skagit County for a special use permit to develop a gravel mine on property the company owns along the Samish River near Grip Road north of Sedro-Woolley. Community concern about the inadequately examined potential impacts of the proposed gravel operation led to the following, as stated on the website for Skagit County Planning & Development Services:

“Because there were factual discrepancies in Concrete Nor’West’s application, project description, SEPA Checklist, traffic study, and fish & wildlife site assessment, Skagit County requested updated materials from the applicant.  Once Skagit County reviews the updated materials, it will issue a revised SEPA threshold determination for public comment and hearing.  Since certain neighbors were inadvertently excluded from the original notice list prepared by the applicant, Skagit County will update the list and ensure that proper notice is provided.  Subsequently, Skagit County will revise its Staff Report regarding the Special Use Permit.  A public comment period and hearing before the Hearing Examiner will follow.” 

 

A large group of local citizens have organized to oppose the project and to compel the county to require a much more complete examination of the potential adverse impacts of the project, from heavy truck traffic on rural residential roads to disrupting the hydrology of the Samish River, a significant salmon-bearing stream.

Detailed information and all public comments to date are at: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/gravelmine.htm

Concrete Nor’west is a division of Miles Sand & Gravel. The Hearing Examiner’s decision about issuing the necessary special use permit can be appealed to the County Commissioners. A two vote majority of the Board of Commissioners would then decide whether or not to issue the permit.

  1. Restoration of Tidal Estuary at Leque Island

A century and a half ago Leque Island, west of Stanwood between Port Susan and Skagit bays, was salt marsh. Farmers built perimeter dikes to create farmland. The island became public property managed by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1974, which managed it for bird hunting. In more recent years, high tides and storms repeatedly breached the old dikes. It was determined that the best thing to do was to restore the estuary habitat rather than trying to obtain the very large sum of money required to rebuild the failing dikes. Restoration would also have the benefit of increasing the much-reduced extent of rearing habitat needed by salmon. Removing the Leque dikes would restore 250 acres of tidal marsh habitat in the Stillaguamish River watershed where 85% of historic tidal marsh has been displaced. After several years of studies, preparation, and earth and rock moving, as of October 14th, tides are now once again inundating much of Leque Island. This video produced by the Everett Herald gives an aerial view: https://vimeo.com/366614933.

Skagit Audubon, along with Pilchuck Audubon, participated in the stakeholder group which met with WDFW to provide input on the project. While access and the habitat are different from before, there is a 0.7-mile walking path atop a wave protection berm protecting the City of Stanwood and there will, of course, be birds of some different species than those which birders and photographers previously saw at Leque Island. Like the Hayton restoration project on Fir Island, this one will probably also provide unanticipated opportunities for birders while also supporting the recovery of salmon.

Read WDFW’s summary of the project at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/habitat-recovery/nearshore/conservation/projects/leque-restoration

For information on more conservation issues of concern to Skagit Audubon, scroll down to Conservation Notes from previous months on the Skagit Audubon website.