Conservation Northwest: Keeping the Northwest Wild

two people in red hats and coats compare tracks in snow to a notebook containing images of animal footprints

For the 7.5 million residents of Washington state, most, if not all, have used or will use I-90 at some point. This interstate connects the two largest cities in the state: Seattle to the west and Spokane to the east. It also runs right through the southern end of the North Cascade mountains, home to great populations of blacktail deer, Roosevelt elk, coyotes, and black bears, among other species. As you drive east from Seattle, you might notice a bridge with no roads connected to it that spans the interstate just before you get to the city of Easton. This bridge is a wildlife crossing that will help keep these animals safe from vehicles. The bridge is there thanks to a Seattle-based organization, Conservation Northwest, and is just one of many projects this organization has helped fund, design and implement in this region.

Conservation Northwest was started by Mitch Friedman in 1989 and originally based in Bellingham, WA. As a zoology student at UW and afterwards, Mitch was deeply involved in the Ancient Forest Campaigns of the 1980s, working to stop the clear-cutting of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests. He wanted to bring clearer strategy and greater organization to the region’s environmental movement, including sitting down with loggers and agencies to find workable forest protections. This led to the founding of CNW, and early campaigns included touring a massive 700-year-old Douglas Fir log around the country to raise public awareness about old-growth logging. Soon after, Friedman worked on President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, which balanced logging revenues and environmental protections. Formerly known as the Greater Ecosystem Alliance, Conservation Northwest was established 30 years ago, “with a vision of bringing together activists, agencies and other stakeholders—even those we might not always agree with, like loggers and ranchers—to find common ground to build on, collaborating for win-wins and a wilder future in the Pacific Northwest,” said CNW spokesperson Chase Gunnell.

team of vets and forestry service personnel inspect an animal on a towel on top of a table with a breathing apparatus attached to its face

Fisher being prepped at Calgary Zoo featuring Dave Werntz. Photo Jason Ransom, NPS

Conservation Northwest uses boots-on-the-ground research and scientific studies to provide evidence and data for their various wildlife projects in the northwest. This can cause some friction on both sides of the political aisle, but their focus is the wildlife and the spaces they live in, first and foremost. CNW spokesman Chase Gunnell describes this balance by saying, “We recognize that for long-term progress, conservation must go hand in hand with healthy, prosperous communities. We’re restoring wildlands and wildlife by working with diverse stakeholders. Conservationists, farmers, Indigenous peoples, hikers and climbers, hunters and anglers—we all share a love for wilderness, wild animals, and careful stewardship of our natural heritage. Through dialogue, we find common ground and collaborative solutions for challenging issues.”

Some of the solutions are delicately balanced. For instance, environmental groups and individuals are highly invested in the recovery of wolves in Washington, wishing to protect every wolf. On the other hand, if the wolves are ravaging their stock, farmers’ livelihoods are at risk. With this knowledge, CNW looks for ways that will reestablish a wolf population to a sustainable carrying capacity, while also avoiding wolf-livestock conflicts. One way they do this is by hiring what they call “range riders,” modern-day cowboys who ride on horseback all grazing season to act as a barrier between the herd of cows and a pack of wolves. The wolves will see the human on a horse and “spook,” instead of continuing to pressure the herd to find the weakest link and attack. In addition to avoiding conflicts with wild and domestic animals, CNW also work to avoid human-wildlife conflicts.

team of people releasing a small wolverine pup into a forest

CNW staffer Laurel Baum releases a fisher to the Cascades. Photo: Paul Bannick

Remember that wildlife crossing bridge on I-90? That didn’t get put there by chance. Conservation Northwest conducted extensive monitoring to identify where the wildlife wanted to cross the interstate and took that data into account when situating the wildlife bridge. Some of that monitoring involved snow tracking animals during the winter months. Footprints left behind in the snow can show where the animals came from and where they are going. With extensive tracking knowledge, Citizen Wildlife Monitoring project coordinator Lauren Baum can tell what type of species are in the area and the directions they are traveling through it. With this information, she can see if they might be in danger of collisions with vehicles on I-90 or if they are using the established wildlife crossing that crosses over and under the interstate. This monitoring can also tell where to establish a future crossing to reduce the potential for more animal-human conflicts.
In addition to keeping current populations of wildlife intact, Conservation Northwest also works on reestablishing populations of grizzly bears, wolves, pronghorn antelope, wolverine, fishers, and sharp-tailed grouse to help ensure that these species do not become extirpated from Washington State. Just recently, Conservation Northwest met their goal of releasing more than 250 fishers back into the wilds. Fishers, a house-cat-sized member of the weasel family, were extirpated from Washington state in the mid-1900s due to over-trapping and loss of their native habitats. But since 2008, state, federal and partner biologists have released 85 fishers in the North Cascades, 90 on the Olympic Peninsula, and 81 in the South Cascades. Since the initial release of 90 fishers on the Olympic Peninsula, they have successfully established a breeding population and, as of 2017, an estimated 120 fishers are thriving.
“We recognize that for long-term progress, conservation must go hand in hand with healthy, prosperous communities. We’re restoring wildlands and wildlife by working with diverse stakeholders.”

Conservation Northwest is one of the few organizations based in the Northwest that is on everyone’s side. They work for the loggers, environmentalists, hunters and anglers, and the wild animals and wild spaces in the Northwest. They work to figure out what works best for the wildlife first, but satisfies the needs of the ever-increasing human population, as well. To learn more about Conservation Northwest or to donate to support their efforts, visit their website below.