Published in Summer 2018 Issue of Backcountry Journal
By Carmen Vanbianchi
The Cascade Mountains begin in southcentral British Columbia and continue southward into Oregon, but something special happens where this range tumbles jaggedly into Washington. Fingers of boreal forest reaching southward from B.C. begin to transition into more southerly forests types, creating a species-rich ecosystem of uniquely mixed environs.
The local wildlife are equally diverse. North Cascades National Park supports more plant species than any other national park, and these mountains support one of the few remaining populations of lynx in the contiguous U.S. Wolverines roam the high alpine while threatened bull trout, Chinook salmon and steelhead ascend the streams to spawn. A small number of grizzly bears, estimated at fewer than 10 animals, persist in the high country of the North Cascades, one of six designated Grizzly Recovery Areas in the Lower 48. The largest population of migratory mule deer in Washington flanks the eastern slope, along with moose, elk, black bears, cougars, bobcats, wolves and 150 bird species, including spruce, dusky and ruffed grouse.
In the heart of this rich mountain landscape lies the Methow Valley, defined by the free-flowing Methow River and surrounded by iconic landscapes such as the national park, the Pasayten Wilderness and the 4-million-acre Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Sportsmen and women from across the Northwest have long treasured the Methow Valley for its vast, wild and stunningly beautiful public lands
“I’ve hunted mule deer in dry pine forests on autumn mornings, got lunch in the western town of Winthrop, then walked down to the river to swing flies for wild steelhead and westslope cutthroat trout, all in one day,” said Chase Gunnell, a Washington BHA Chapter board member.
Fellow board member Ryan Los has been hunting the valley for 20 years. “I grew up driving over four hours between my dad and grandpa’s houses to the Methow and its tributaries every fall. I shot my first deer in one of those drainages.”
In 2014, a Canadian company called Blue River Resources filed for exploratory drilling permits on Flagg Mountain, situated on U.S. Forest Service land at the northern end of the Methow Valley. Flagg Mountain is known to have a low-grade deposit of ore, and exploratory drilling would be used to confirm the size and value of the deposit – the first step to developing a copper mine.
An open-pit mine would likely be used to access the copper deposit, which would require at least 3,000 acres of surrounding infrastructure, including roads, drilling pads and staging areas. A mining project of such scale could affect habitat for wildlife, including federally listed species like lynx and game species such as black bear and mule deer, through direct loss of habitat, fragmentation of migration corridors and increased human presence. In addition, the site is directly adjacent to vital spawning areas for wild fish in the upper Methow and Lost rivers. Any contamination from acid mine drainage in the Methow watershed would impact threatened, anadromous species including Chinook and steelhead. Mining projects in the headwaters threaten clean air and water, fish and wildlife, and the wild, quiet and scenic experience this landscape offers.
Support for protecting the Methow from development is growing, with WA BHA lending a sportman’s voice. In 2016 and 2017, Washington’s Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Methow Headwaters Protection Act, legislation that would secure a mineral withdrawal not only for Flagg Mountain but for 340,000 acres of USFS lands in the Methow headwaters, making it off limits to industrial scale mining, permanently. The bill has not yet moved from committee as the Senate deals with other priorities. Because the legislative process takes time, ensuring temporary protection is critical. To this end, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management initiated an administrative mineral withdrawal in 2016 that prevents any new mining claims in the Methow headwaters for two years while the case for a 20-year mineral withdrawal is reviewed. The environmental review for this proposal is currently underway and will include a recommendation regarding the 20-year withdrawal.
Support for the mineral withdrawal has poured in from local and statewide residents, including the collaborative Methow Headwaters Campaign, a coalition of local businesses, tribes, farmers, ranchers, and recreation and conservation groups. The Washington chapter has submitted official comment letters on both the administrative and legislative mineral withdrawal proposals and plans to do so again during the summer of 2018 when the BLM hosts a public meeting about the withdrawal. The chapter also uses its social media platforms and Pint Nights to spread the word about the need to protect these world-class to hunting and fishing grounds.
Now, as the Methow Headwaters Protection Act awaits congressional debate and the final recommendation moves toward Interior Secretary Zinke’s desk, sportsmen and women must stand together, speak up and show support for protecting this area. Whether you are from Washington and have hunted and fished in the Methow for years, or you have yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, join Washington BHA in asking Congress and Secretary Zinke to protect the Methow headwater’s fish and wildlife for future generations.
Carmen is a wildlife biologist and board member for the Washington BHA Chapter. She lives in Winthrop in the Methow Valley.
WANT TO PUT YOUR BOOTS ON THE GROUND?
Join us on July 14h for a Fence Removing Work Party in the Methow!