The Habitat Puzzle

Eleven years ago, Dean Allen and his family were searching for land on the sunny side of Washington State, as a peaceful get-away from the hustle and bustle of Seattle. They found about 4,000 acres on a former cattle ranch that the Nature Conservancy wanted to purchase. Dean wondered what was so special about this property. It didn't take long to find out.

The Swauk Valley Ranch near Cle Elum, named after the creek that runs through it, is an oasis for a plethora of wild animals, including 22 species of neotropical migratory songbirds, 50-plus species of resident birds, elk, cougars, marmots, bears, beavers, and salmon. It also has one of the largest northernmost swaths of native oak trees.

Protecting habitat

There was no question for Dean's family, and the two other families with whom they now share ownership of the ranch, that it had to be protected. So far they have donated easements of more than 2,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy, permanently extinguishing development rights on this gem. In a time where wild landscapes are decreasing, areas like this are extremely valuable for wildlife. It takes compassionate people to make sure these spots remain.

Additionally, they have worked to restore habitat across the entire ranch and even take time to enjoy the natural wonders. "In the fall, we gear up with binoculars and sandwiches to watch the Black Bears gorge themselves on the fruit in an old orchard on the ranch," Dean shared. "It's better than reality TV."

Every piece matters

Helping wild animals and providing habitat can also easily be done on a smaller scale. PAWS Naturalist Kevin Mack explained, "Every tree, native plant and brush pile is a crucial piece of a larger habitat puzzle that can help migratory birds refuel as they pass through, or provide excellent nesting spots for any number of wild animals."

Kevin points to PAWS' campus in Lynnwood as a great example. There is about three acres of native foliage surrounding the companion animal shelter and wildlife center. Kevin walks the campus to document the activities of our wild neighbors. He has spotted over 70 species of wild animals, from Northern Flickers, Anna's Hummingbirds and Long-toed Salamanders who stay year-round, to Western Tanagers, Golden-crowned Sparrows and warblers who stop by during migration.

"Whether you have 4,000 acres, a 400 square-foot backyard, or an apartment balcony, you can help wildlife by preserving pieces of the habitat puzzle," explained Kevin. "When deciding what to plant or what to remove, think about what might be beneficial for wildlife. Every bit counts."

Dean agrees. When asked what he'd say to someone who might be thinking about protecting a piece of habitat, he shared some unforeseen benefits to being part of a conservation project. "When you raise your kids around something like this, it not only teaches them about the science, but the connection of what humans and animals need," said Dean. "They don't have to be mutually exclusive and can go together quite nicely."

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