An Innovative Approach to Conserving a Rare Habitat.

The Problem: Teeming with unique wildlife, the open and expansive natural landscapes of prairie and grassland ecosystems are now vanishingly rare across the United States. Washington’s South Puget Sound has less than 3% of its native prairie left, and Thurston County is home to much of it. The county is one of the fastest-growing in the region and expects to add 170,000 new people and more than 75,000 residences by 2040.

In 2013 and 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed three prairie species – Mazama Pocket Gopher, Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly, and Streaked Horned Lark as threatened or endangered. The county and its partners needed to a way to protect and restore the last few remnants of native prairie, while also providing some room for continued residential expansion and certainty to developers. Nearby Joint Base Lewis McCord , home to some of the best remaining prairie, also needed to find a way to continue its training operations without further endangering the species.

The Solution: Willamette Partnership and partners helped Thurston County build the Prairie Habitat Assessment Methodology (PHAM), a system for tracking the effects of development and conservation activities on prairie ecosystems. PHAM will be incorporated into a county-wide Habitat Conservation Plan for prairie habitat and species, which will allow the county to maintain local control over permitting decisions in sensitive habitat, but also provides certainty to the public and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that developers are avoiding and mitigating impacts to prairie.

Results: In 2014, the Center for Natural Lands Management began the process of acquiring the first prairie conservation sites tied to the Strategy. By mid-year, negotiations on one 140-acre prairie property had begun, with others under review. As a result of the close collaboration among federal, state, local, and private partners, Thurston County was the first area in the country to be selected as a Sentinel Landscape, highlighting the unique opportunity to simultaneously benefit agricultural lands, wildlife habitat, and military readiness.

Willamette Partnership and the Institute for Applied Ecology will continue to work with Thurston County and its diverse set of stakeholders through 2014 and into 2015 to build the county-wide Habitat Conservation Plan.