Last year, our Evergreen State had the worst air quality in the world as a result of wildfires. Before the next fire season starts, Woodland Park Zoo joins the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in conjunction with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), in calling upon our state Legislature to fully fund comprehensive wildfire prevention and mitigation.
The shrub-steppe terrain of central and eastern Washington is a dry — yet exceptionally rich — landscape of sagebrush, wildflowers, lichens, and native grasses among pillars of basalt. Not easily seen cruising along I-90 or I-82, this habitat supports more than 200 species of birds, 30 types of mammals, and numerous reptiles and amphibians.
Pygmy rabbits, American badgers, coyotes, birds of prey, songbirds, and mule deer live, eat, and have babies in this iconic shrub-steppe ecosystem. Many of its creatures are not found anywhere else in the world. Many are already recognized as threatened or endangered species.
Woodland Park Zoo works hard to save Washington’s wildlife and believes strong policy is needed to address threats to biodiversity in our unique region. And right now, we are very concerned about wildfire.
In the last decade, an extraordinary increase in the severity of wildfires has put the remaining populations of vulnerable species in danger.
To prevent wildfire catastrophes that claim lives (both human and animal), livelihoods, and lands, the zoo urges our Washington State Legislature to create reliable funding for DNR for fire prevention, forest health restoration and community resiliency by passing House Bill 1168 and fully fund WDFW’s shrub-steppe fire recovery and preparedness budget proviso.
In many cases, fire is natural in many ecosystems.
What is changing in Washington is the intensity, size and temperature of our wildfires.
During the 2000s, an average of 189,000 acres burned each year. That number tragically continues to multiply. In 2020, 812,000 acres burst into flames, including 640,000 acres in central and eastern Washington, overwhelming entire communities.
These wildfires devastate the shrub-steppe.
Wildlife habitat in eastern Washington has declined approximately 80% in the past 80 to 100 years. The endangered pygmy rabbit lost a critically important recovery area to wildfires last year, killing at least 30% of this wild population and leaving only about 100 rabbits left in the wild.
Large-scale fires threaten critical habitat not just for pygmy rabbits, but also Greater sage grouse, ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, short-eared owls, prairie falcons, and every other species that rely on the shrub-steppe for food, shelter and breeding territory. Once lost, these wildlife populations will be gone forever.
Ravaging wildfires in Washington that burn hundreds of thousands of acres of critical wildlife habitat must not become routine. Woodland Park Zoo supports empowering these state agencies to bring proven prevention, restoration, and resilience strategies to the human and wildlife communities at stake.
DNR has outlined a comprehensive and actionable plan to increase capacity for wildfire response while decreasing risk to communities and restoring habitats. Funding will create 100 firefighting jobs to protect an additional 400,000 land acres and add natural wildfire resistance to 1.25 million forest acres.
WDFW’s resiliency plan calls for near-term wildfire relief to support wildlife habitat and landowners and provisions to create local jobs and support recovery for endangered pygmy rabbits and threatened Greater sage grouse populations that were severely impacted by fire.
Roughly 2.2 million homes in Washington are exposed to wildfire, threatening human life. The shrub-steppe is not just a home for humans, but a vital habitat necessary for the continued existence of entire species in our state.
Woodland Park Zoo calls upon the Legislature to protect human and ecosystem health by passing HB 1168 and WDFW’s budget proviso. Supporting wildfire prevention and community and environmental resilience through legislation would give the shrub-steppe, and the communities and creatures residing in it, a chance to regrow and rebuild.
Alejandro Grajal, Phd, is president and CEO of the Woodland Park Zoo. Hilary S. Franz is Commissioner of Public Lands for the state Department of Natural Resources.