Widespread Wildfires Could Threaten Hunting Access in Eastern Washington

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Hunters are anxiously waiting to see how this year's fires impact fall hunting seasons, some of which start as soon as Aug. 1.

"This is terrible what's happening in Eastern Washington," said Mark Pidgeon, the president of the Hunters Heritage Council. "Sure, it's going to have an impact on hunting access. Especially on mule deer territory. (But) the most important thing is that those firefighters are safe."

News earlier this week that the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are limiting access to their lands due to extreme fire danger comes on the heels of the closure of an entire ranger district in the Blue Mountains last week — a popular elk hunting area.

Tuesday morning DNR indefinitely closed its lands east of the Cascades due to drought and the worsening wildfire season. On the same day WDFW made its Eastern Washington wildlife areas day-use only. That includes popular areas like Waikiki Springs and Rustler's Gulch.

Hunting groups support the closures, noting both the public safety and conservation necessity of closing the lands. But the closures, which aren't uniform across all land management agencies, mean that hunters and other recreationists need to be extra aware of where they're going.

"The hard part about this time of year is that the rules aren't consistent necessarily from one entity to the other," said Marie Neumiller, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council's executive director. "When you are in those combined areas you risk passing into a closed area."

One example is the Mica Peak area, some of which is owned and managed by Spokane County Parks and some of which is DNR land. WDFW will be posting signs, particularly in areas where its lands abut open lands, said agency spokeswoman Staci Lehman

County Parks will not close its 15,000 acres of parkland.

"We have been monitoring the weather situation closely and have ratcheted up restrictions in response to increased fire risk by prohibiting all recreational fires, use of charcoal briquettes and all motorized use within our Liberty Lake Off-Road Vehicle Park," said county parks planner Paul Knowles.

The Bureau of Land Management in Eastern Washington has not made a decision about closing, according to a spokesperson.

The council supports the closures, noting that there is a conservation argument in addition to a public safety one.

"These animals are stressed, they are having a hard time tracking down water and they are having to move because of fire," Neumiller said. "General bear season opens August 1 and that's going to have a big impact on where those hunters are going to go."

The only fishing access impacted by fires, as of Monday, was the Wooten Wildlife Area, which is closed, Lehman said.

"We do plan to keep water access areas open but that could change on a case-by-case basis if there is an active fire nearby or (a) responder needs the water body as a water source to fight the fire," she said in an email. "Hunting impacts we still have not been able to fully assess yet but do expect that some areas that are traditionally used by hunters could still be closed at the end of the summer when hunting seasons start, or a loss of habitat from fire could make them poor hunting areas this year."

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