SELAH — Last week the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced an emergency order banning campfires, or any other fires, on state wildlife lands. It also prohibited target shooting except at shooting ranges developed by the department.
But there are no such ranges in Yakima or Kittitas counties.
Now comes the difficult part: policing that in places like the sprawling Wenas Wildlife Area.
The area’s 165 square miles of low-lying shrub-steppe foliage, crisscrossed by unpaved and deeply rutted roads, may seem like a wasteland to more than a few of its users. Because they clearly treat it as such.
They haul out their old sofas and appliances to use as targets, create roads where there were none, start brush fires by shooting in tinder-dry conditions and generally behave as if the ubiquitous signs prohibiting such behavior are targets.
“Pretty much everything out here,” says Bob Haverfield, a state construction worker, “eventually becomes a target.”
Haverfield spent much of last week in an excavator hauling enormous boulders to a remote area of the wildlife area called Oasis Springs, where the channel of a natural spring has been turned into a rutted mess by four-wheeling “mudders.” The boulders are intended as a boundary between legal and nonlegal driving areas.
But Haverfield and Wenas Wildlife Area Manager Cindi Confer Morris have too often seen evidence of those boulders being winched out of the way by four-wheelers who didn’t want to be confined to the roads — just as shooters have torn down fences and signs designed to keep them from hauling “targets” into fire-prone areas.
“All this is to keep the honest people out,” Haverfield says. “The other ones are going to get in anyway. Nothing you can do about it.”
At certain times of the year — during wetter seasons — even staying on the wildlife area’s roads can be a problem.
“Our roads are almost all native surfaces,” says Confer. “When it gets wet, they get torn up. People think, well, it’s ... open year round, so I should be able to drive it whenever — instead of thinking, ‘Geez, you know, it’s kind of wet to be out here and I’m really kind of tearing things up.’
“Then we end up in a position of either we let it happen and end up with things like this” — she gestured to section of road so rutted that a second, user-created road was running parallel to it — “or else put a seasonal closure on it. And people don’t want us closing roads for any reason.”
That same don’t-close-roads attitude has created serious problems for ranchers with property within the Wenas Wildlife Area. One of those, a cattle rancher, had indicated a willingness at a public meeting of user-group representatives to allow recreationists to cross his property to reach a popular horse-camping area known as Barbecue Flats.
In the following days, though, the property owner said he received several threatening phone calls essentially telling him to leave that road open — or else.
The landowner then “did a 180 and said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to deal with it.’ And I don’t blame him,” Confer said. “To these private landowners, the public can be a pain in the butt. Every place we have a section of private road, those (owners) are saying, ‘I’m done. People come in, they trash my property, they tear my gates up, they leave garbage, they camp on my land and have fires. I’m done with that.’”
Wildfires are a very real problem on the Wenas Wildlife Area, which serves as winter range to thousands of elk. Every fire — and, to a lesser extent, every time some off-roader’s tires tear up native foliage — creates a disturbance that is quickly capitalized upon by invasive plants such as cheatgrass and knapweed.
“They call them invasive for a reason,” Confer said. “Where you have good native habitat, there’s not a niche for something else to come in, but as soon as you disturb that ground, you’ve opened up that niche. And water is a lot of it, and that’s one of the downsides of cheatgrass: It greens up so early in the spring that it uses up the moisture in the soil before the natives actually come out of dormancy. Then the natives are drought-stressed.”
As a result, the elk and other plant-dependent wildlife suffer.
Invasives such as cheatgrass “are not very nutritious and are definitely not a preferred food,” says habitat biologist Eric Bartrand. “I mean, a starving elk would probably eat cheatgrass, but it’s of very limited value on any type of range. The elk shun it pretty readily.
“That’s why fires are so devastating. It will generally kill off a lot of the native grasses, and the cheatgrass will come in and dominate for years.”
And, of course, sparks caused by target shooting has in recent years ignited numerous fires on the Wenas. The ones at unofficial shooting areas, like the one off Sheep Company Road near Selah or those alongside Durr Road nearer to Ellensburg, have generated the most public attention. But spark-caused spot fires have occurred nearly everywhere on the wildlife area.
Until the recent emergency rule, people could shoot anywhere on the wildlife area from sunrise to 11 a.m. between June 8 and Sept. 30, though even those liberal rules were routinely ignored.
“The enforcement guys did an emphasis patrol a couple of weeks ago (before the emergency rule was in place) and they must have cited 20, 25 people” for shooting after 11 a.m., Confer said. “And the next day there was a whole new group of people cited for the same thing, and they had no idea enforcement had been out there or that anybody had been cited. That tells me just how much turnover we have — that it’s not organized groups, it’s all individuals that don’t talk” to one another.
Shooters, the potential for fires and the mess of shotgun hulls and “target” junk left behind have all but chased away some other users from the wildlife area. Until the last few years, for example, the Cottonwood area was a popular staging area for the horse-riding community.
Now it’s been all but abandoned by the horse riders over fears of the shooting spooking their horses. Or, worse, having their rigs turned into what so much of the Wenas Wildlife Area has unfortunately become: a target.