Conservation Notes - May 2020
- Last Updated: May 10, 2020
The following 2 items were on the agenda for Skagit Audubon’s May Board meeting:
- Vancouver Audubon Society’s request for Skagit Audubon to join in its objection to the U.S. Forest Service decision to build a road across the Pumice Plain in Mt. St. Helens National Monument
In January 2020 Skagit Audubon joined other Audubon chapters in signing a comment letter from Vancouver Audubon to the U.S. Forest Service voicing concern that this proposed road would jeopardize long-term ecological research projects underway since shortly after Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. The road would bring equipment to sites near Spirit Lake to investigate a location for a second outlet tunnel from the lake. The Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers submit that a second outlet is needed to insure against a catastrophic breach of the dam holding back the lake which would inundate downstream communities. The Forest Service states that such a breach is not imminent, but damage to the present outlet tunnel dictates that measures be taken to avoid such an incident. The Forest Service has decided to build a temporary road, which would be in existence at least 7 years, across the Pumice Plain intersecting certain study plots and transects, rather than building a shorter road and utilizing helicopters to move equipment and crews. Vancouver Audubon Society is filing what is termed an objection to this decision. During its May 5, 2020, board meeting, Skagit Audubon decided to join other chapters in adding their names to this objection. Vancouver Audubon’s Conservation Co-Chair, Susan Saul, who was involved in the establishment of the National Monument, will represent the Audubon chapters at a meeting the Forest Service could call to discuss objections. The Environmental Assessment for the project and other information can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57259 The May 2020 issue of High Country News has an article about this situation: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.5/north-scientific-research-the-threat-below-mount-st-helens .
- Vaux’s Roost Sites Monitoring
Skagit County has three known locations where Vaux’s Swifts roost during migration. The tall stack at the former Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley (now the “SWIFT” Center for Technology) was hosting up to 20,000 per night and was one of 3 roost sites in Washington State designated an Important Bird Area because of this. Then a few years ago, swifts abruptly stopped roosting in that stack for reasons unknown. We continue to check a few times during the spring and fall migration. Meanwhile activity has picked up a bit at 2 downtown Sedro-Woolley roost sites, which have been in use off and on over the years by a smaller number of swifts. Last week, I observed about 200 swifts very quickly drop into the stack at Vic’s 66 antique store. And around sunset on May 4th, I counted about 640 as they disappeared into the chimney of the Sedro-Woolley Post Office. Anyone interested in helping with these observations should contact me at email@example.com. After each evening’s observation, there is a simple on-line reporting form to send to Larry Schwitters, the enthusiastic and dogged organizer and recruiter of swift watchers from Mexico to British Columbia. Go to https://www.vauxhappening.org/. Skagit Audubon participates in the Save Our Swifts (SOS) committee that serves as an advisory board for this long-running project.
Recent Action by Skagit Audubon:
March Point Landfill Clean-up and Potential Impacts to the March Point Heronry
In early April the Skagit Audubon board approved a comment letter to WA Department of Ecology concerning the plan for cleaning up the March Point Landfill that is leaching pollutants into Padilla Bay. The letter supported the need for the cleanup but urged DOE to better plan for avoiding disruption of the March Point Heronry adjacent to the landfill site. From 1950 to 1973, this landfill (a.k.a. Whitmarsh Dump) received a variety of waste, including highly toxic materials, from Skagit County, Texaco, Shell Oil Company, and possibly other petrochemical industries in the vicinity. Cleaning up the site is a high priority for the Department of Ecology (DOE). Skagit Audubon commented in 2016 on the alternative approaches being considered. Partly for reasons of cost, rather than removing all the dumped material DOE plans to cap the site in a way designed to prevent rainwater infiltration and stop the leaching of toxic substances into the adjacent lagoon connecting to Padilla Bay. Of special relevance to Skagit Audubon is the fact that directly across March Point Road from the landfill site is the March Point heronry, now believed to be the largest on the West Coast and a central point for the heron population all around the Salish Sea. As herons have lost nesting habitat, they increasingly concentrate their nesting activity in a few large heronries rather than many smaller ones. As demonstrated in 2017 at the Samish Island heronry, disturbances, sometimes difficult to pinpoint, can cause abandonment of heronries any time during the nesting season. The challenge in cleaning up the March Point Landfill will be to avoid causing abandonment of the heronry in the process. Most of the March Point Heronry is on property belonging to Skagit Land Trust, which has monitored it for years and has been communicating with DOE with the same concerns as those expressed in the Skagit Audubon letter. Other organizations and individuals also submitted similar comments by the April 17th extended deadline. Information about this project is at https://apps.ecology.wa.gov/gsp/Sitepage.aspx?csid=304.
Issues needing action:
Some of the best ways for Audubon members to advocate for the protection of birds and other wildlife and their habitat are to receive and act on alerts from Washington Audubon and National Audubon. Sign up for Washington Audubon’s Action Network at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/JGKjknsVTUKMSr4BoP2Nvw2. Recognizing that climate change poses the greatest threat of all to birds, Audubon Washington is especially focused on advancing policies and laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Find and participate in National Audubon ‘s current issue campaigns at https://www.audubon.org/takeaction. Sign up there to receive alerts.
- Comment on the U.S. Navy’s request to use state parks for training
The U.S. Navy’s 5-year permit to conduct “Special Operations Training” in 5 specific Washington State Parks expired May 1, 2020. On February 12, 2020, the Navy applied for permission to expand this use of state park lands to 29 parks. Read about this request and how to comment at https://parks.state.wa.us/1168/Navy-training-proposal. The decision will be made by the State Parks and Recreation Commission at a regularly scheduled meeting not yet specified later this year. You can read the Navy’s position on this request and its response to actual or anticipated criticism in a letter and presentation by Rear Admiral C.S. Gray, Commander, Navy Region Northwest at https://parks.state.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/15170/Navy-Special-Operations---WA-State-Parks-Commission-letter-3-12-20. Among the 29 parks where the Navy would like to conduct training are Cama Beach, Camano Island, Deception Pass, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey, South Whidbey, etc. The map on page 9 of the Environmental Assessment the Navy prepared in 2019 for its training program shows the locations (state parks, naval bases, etc.) where it would like to conduct special operations training (Environmental Assessment for Naval Special Operations Training in Western Washington State https://parks.state.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/15033/Navy-Environmental-Assessment-FONSI). In the Navy’s estimation, there would be no significant environmental impact from the proposed activities. This request to use state parks, set aside for habitat preservation and the enjoyment of the general public, for military training should receive close scrutiny. Such parks as Deception Pass, which Skagit Audubon members know well, support a variety of birds and marine life as well as rare plants which could be impacted.
- Support Permanent Funding for the Land & Water Conservation Fund
Within the last year or two, the great efforts of Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell were essential to the passage of federal legislation permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). For over 50 years, this program has used revenues from offshore oil and gas leases to buy and preserve land in and around national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges as well as supporting state and local parks. Much wildlife habitat has been preserved thanks to this program as well as providing places for people to enjoy the natural world. It has rarely been the case that Congress authorized the full funding for LWCF allowed under the law. Now bipartisan legislation has been introduced into the Senate which would permanently fund the LWCF at its full allowed level. The bill, the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422), combines this with yearly funding to begin addressing the huge backlog of infrastructure maintenance needs on federally managed public lands (national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, BLM lands). In a rare instance of bipartisanship, this bill was introduced on March 9, 2020. See https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3422?s=1&r=1 You can learn a lot more about what has been accomplished thanks to the Land & Water Conservation Fund over the more than half century since its establishment, and how it could be improved, at the website for the Land & Water Conservation Fund Coalition: https://www.lwcfcoalition.com/home. The site also provides opportunities to comment to legislators.
- Support Codifying the Roadless Rule on National Forests and Protecting the Headwaters of the Skagit River
Skagit Audubon is a member of the Washington Environmental Community Action Network (WeCAN), a grassroots coalition of environmental, recreation, and community organizations. WeCAN is coordinated by Washington Wild and is focused on protecting Washington’s public lands, clean water and wild places for future generations. It provides a ready way for commenting on several issues relevant to Skagit Audubon. See https://wawild.org/take-action/ Here are two:
- Preserving the Roadless Rule
Skagit Audubon has submitted comment letters or signed on those of other organizations on this important issue. Since 2001, the Roadless Rule has protected many millions of acres of National Forest land from the construction of roads and thus protected wildlife habitat, including over 2 million acres in Washington State. The Roadless Rule is an administrative entity and is vulnerable to being undone, as the present federal Administration is attempting. Congress needs to hear from people who support codifying the Rule in legislation such as that sponsored by Washington Senator Cantwell. To comment, go to https://wawild.org/take-action-provide-permanent-protection-for-our-roadless-forests/.
- Protecting the Skagit River’s Headwaters
If mining claims in the Silver-Daisy area between Manning and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks in British Columbia were to be developed, it would be very difficult to avoid degrading the water quality of the Skagit River. The Skagit starts in Manning Provincial Park. Besides providing water to Skagit County and Island County (e.g. Oak Harbor) communities, the Skagit River supports multiple species of federally and state-protected fish species. Public pressure led to British Columbia stopping logging in the vicinity of the mining claims, but the threat of Imperial Metals to develop its mineral claim is still alive. While the U.S. has no legal authority to block mining development in Canada, public pressure can make a difference.
To add your voice, go to https://wawild.org/take-action-deny-mining-permit-in-headwaters-of-the-skagit-river-2/.
- Threat of fossil fuel extraction around Teshekpuk Lake
Eight years ago National Audubon mounted a campaign to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management provided adequate protection for wildlife as it prepared a management plan for the Teshekpuk Lake vicinity of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. This Reserve is the largest block of public land in the U.S. The lake and the wetlands and uplands near it are the breeding grounds for millions of birds, including ones that winter on the bays and straits of Skagit County. Up to 30% of the Brant population in the Pacific Flyway uses the Teshekpuk Wetlands for molting. At least some of the hundreds of Red-throated Loons that gather around Deception Pass nest in those wetlands. Now there is a new threat of oil and gas development in this important area. Read about this issue on the Audubon Alaska website:
You can add your voice here: https://ak.audubon.org/take-action. Many birds we enjoy seeing in the Skagit in winter breed in the Arctic. Sign up to receive information from Audubon Alaska so that you can help protect the habitat these birds need: https://ak.audubon.org/
Updates on Additional Issues
Improving the protection of heronries in Skagit County’s Critical Areas Ordinance
See the March 2020 Conservation Notes for more details on this important issue. The Skagit County Planning Commission (https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningCommission/main.htm) will at some point pass its recommendation on to the Board of County Commissioners that there be no upgrade to the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance in regard to protecting heronries. Because of the cancellation of meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic, this action has not yet taken place. The next scheduled meeting of the Planning Commission is May 12. It will be important to convey to the County Commissioners what citizens such as Audubon members think of the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Watch for information on when the County Commissioners will meet to make their decision on whether to accept the recommendation and for how you can express your opinion.
Letters, emails, or calls to the County Commissioners are needed to make clear the strong public support for better protecting heronries. The 2017 sudden abandonment of the Samish Island heronry’s over 300 nests during the breeding season prompted Skagit Land Trust’s work on this issue and is a vivid example of what can happen when heronries are inadequately protected. You can find background information on the Land Trust’s website at http://www.skagitlandtrust.org/pages/takeaction.aspx or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that emails to the County Commissioners are best sent to their individual email addresses rather than to the general email address for the Board of Commissioners: Ken Dahlstedt: KenD@co.skagit.wa.us; Ron Wesen: RonW@co.skagit.wa.us; Lisa Janicki: email@example.com.
Inventory of Puget Sound Heronries
A side note on heronries in Skagit County: Heron biologist Ann Eissinger, in coordination with Pilchuck Audubon Society, is updating the inventory of heronries around Puget Sound. Ann Eissinger has worked closely for years with Skagit Land Trust in the monitoring of the Trust’s March Point Heronry, now believed the largest in the western U.S. at over 650 nests, and the Samish Island Heronry, whose over 250 nests were suddenly abandoned during the 2017 breeding season. The Samish Island Heronry has not been used since. The third known heronry in Skagit County is on Skagit Land Trust’s Barney Lake Conservation Area. Its 22 nests in 2020 straddle the boundary between Mount Vernon and Skagit County. Current information on these 3 heronries has been provided for the updated inventory. You can read Ann Eissinger’s Technical Report 2007-06, Great Blue Herons in Puget Sound, Prepared in support of the Puget Sound Nearshore Partnership at http://www.pugetsoundnearshore.org/technical_papers/herons.pdf. We think of Great Blue Herons as abundant in Skagit County because they are. But we cannot take their well-being for granted given the scarcity and fragility of good heronry habitat and the vulnerability of large, concentrated nesting colonies to natural or artificial disturbance.
Avian Monitoring in Puget Sound Estuaries - A collaborative effort by the Marine Birds Work Group of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP).
At the Northwest 1 regional meeting held via Zoom on May 2, Audubon Washington’s Director of Bird Conservation, Dr. Trina Bayard, presented on this topic. The estuaries of the Skagit and Samish Rivers are major geographical features of Skagit County with great importance for birds, salmon, and people. Farming and development have altered these estuaries very significantly. Birders are all familiar with the major ecological restoration projects which have taken place in these estuaries in the last 10 or more years: Hayton Reserve (aka Fir Island Farms), Wylie Slough, Fisher Creek, with more to come. Dr. Bayard has been leading a group working towards methods of monitoring birds in estuaries to evaluate restoration projects and also developing a method to identify the most important shoreline areas around Puget Sound to protect for birds (Puget Sound Conservation Blueprint). Read more about this important, collaborative project of Audubon on the Audubon Washington website under “Estuary Conservation”: https://wa.audubon.org/conservation/estuary-conservation
Other issues Skagit Audubon is following
For information about these issues, on the Skagit Audubon website (https://www.skagitaudubon.org/) go to the Conservation tab, then to Conservation Notes and scroll down to earlier monthly editions.
- DNR’s Marbled Murrelet Long-term Management Plan and Sustainable Harvest Calculation and related lawsuits.
Skagit Audubon has been one of the chapters participating in public comment opportunities on the development of this plan since scoping began in 2012. When the plan came out last year it quickly led to suits by the timber industry, counties (such as Skagit) which receive revenue from the cutting of state trust lands, and environmental groups which believe the plan will not save the murrelet from extinction in Washington. Conservation Northwest’s website summarizes well the issue as these groups see it and as Skagit Audubon expressed in comment letters over the years:
“In response to lawsuits by the timber industry and counties calling for more logging, a complaint filed late last week by a coalition of local conservation groups and residents seeks a shift in the way Washington manages its state forests for public benefit. The suit calls on the Department of Natural Resources to better reflect language in the state constitution requiring that these public lands be managed to maximize benefit for all the people of the state.
“The suit also underscores the need for trust beneficiaries, including rural counties and school districts, to have a more reliable source of funding instead of being tied to unstable revenue flows and often unsustainable logging on public forests that frequently comes at the expense of other public benefits. Today, state forests are recognized as providing a multitude of diverse economic and environmental benefits for Washingtonians beyond simply timber for harvest.”
The Washington State Association of Counties, an organization in which the Skagit County Commissioners are active, is establishing a committee to look at the economic impacts of the Marbled Murrelet plan. It includes a representative from Washington Environmental Council and may add someone representing Audubon.
- Fish Farming by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific
Cooke Aquaculture’s fish farming operations require multiple permits from state agencies. Skagit Audubon commented in opposition to the application for a permit from Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to transition certain Cooke Aquaculture facilities from raising Atlantic salmon to raising triploid rainbow trout designed to be sterile. WDFW decided to issue the permit. Now Cooke Aquaculture has applied to the Department of Ecology for a modification to its water quality permit as part of the same plan to change the type of fish to be farmed. In Skagit County these permits pertain to the company’s operation near Hope Island near the Swinomish Reservation. The failed fish farm off Cypress Island lacks another key permit and is not part of the present request. The DOE website has a clear explanation of this permit and the others required and explains how to comment by the May 22, 2020 deadline at https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Water-quality/Water-quality-permits/Water-Quality-individual-permits/Net-pens.
- Revision of the Critical Areas Ordinance of the City of Anacortes in relation to protecting wetlands. Connected to this: the city’s Proposed Routing of the Guemes Channel Trail through the Buffer of the Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve
Neil O’Hara, Anacortes resident and member of the Skagit Audubon Board, will be giving a live presentation via the web on the avian diversity of the Preserve and its importance to resident, migrating, and breeding birds. The presentation is part of a series being organized by the Anacortes Public Library and Friends of Skagit Beaches. This will be another step in Skagit Audubon’s efforts, along with other groups, to make the case for the ecological importance of the Preserve and the need to not impair it by constructing a paved path through the wetland buffer.
Increase in the number of Growler flights from Whidbey Naval Air Station and their effect on people, protected wildlife such as the Marbled Murrelet, along with the effects of radar-jamming training flights over Olympic National Park (Marbled Murrelet, Spotted Owl, etc.) and adjacent marine shoreline and waters. A local group, Sound Defense Alliance, and National Parks Conservation Association have succeeded in getting a requirement by Congress that the U.S. Navy do actual noise monitoring and not depend only on modeling in determining likely impacts of the Growler flights.