Short-Eared Owl near Bow, Washington (photo by Glenn Nelson)

Conflicts over Short-Eared Owls, other birds, and access to habitat in Bow, Washington, prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to update access rules to the Samish River Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area.

The area commonly referred by birders and photographers as the “East 90,” or others as “Edison East,” has a Hunters Only zone to support visitor safety and reduce the potential for conflict.

More information, including a map, about the area can be found here, as well as in WDFW’s statement.

The rules are posted at field entrances and on new signage along the zone’s border and will remain in force through the waterfowl hunting season, which runs from the second Saturday in September through the first Saturday in February.

“There have been persistent visitor disagreements, overcrowding, improper parking, and unsafe, unethical, and potentially unlawful behavior at this site,” Chase Gunnell, a WDFW spokesperson, said in an email, “and we needed to make a change.”

New signage at “East 90” applies to most (photo by Glenn Nelson)

The area is known as the “East 90” because of the 90-degree turn on Bayview Edison Road at the property’s southwest corner. The Samish Wildlife Unit, a mile west, is known as “West 90” because of the 90-degree turn from Bayview Edison to Samish Island Road.

Similar access limits were not implemented at “West 90,” Gunnell said, because the area is a lot larger, has ponds and standing water, as well as areas farmed to support food resources for winter waterfowl and other birds, “and has not needed such rules.”

“West 90” also has a gravel parking lot, requiring a Discover Pass, and a portable restroom, amenities absent at “East 90.” There are only two spaces at “East 90,” which are reserved for licensed hunters during the waterfowl hunting season.

Implemented in December, the access changes are a pilot program for the remainder of the 2022-23 season, according to an agency release, and could be made permanent after consultation with the WDFW’s Skagit Wildlife Area Advisory Board. The WDFW has applied to build a parking area off Bayview Edison Road, where it crosses the Samish River, according to Gunnell. It is hoped that construction will begin this summer.

A Short-Eared Owl at “East 90” in Bow, Washington (photo by Glenn Nelson).

There have been consistent complaints to WDFW over the years from hunters about harassment and from birders and bird photographers about disruption of raptors. Those accelerated this fall when Short-Eared Owls appeared in the Skagit Wildlife Areas after a virtual absence the previous year. Severe rainstorms during fall 2021 caused considerable flooding in the area, which was thought to adversely impact food sources, mostly voles and other small mammals.

Because the area lies at the intersection of managed farmland and abundant water sources, it is a magnet for migrating waterfowl, who in turn serve as a magnet to area raptors, who also are drawn to migrating salmon. Skagit County is renowned for huge flocks of overwintering Snow Geese and Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.

Short-Eared Owls are a major attraction because they also are fall/winter migrants and the most diurnal of all owls. Their distinctive “butterfly”-like flight patterns and afternoon hunting behavior in open fields make them easier to find than even most other raptors.

The appearance of the “Shorties,” as they’re also known among the owl cognoscenti, combined with long periods of sunny fall weather, prompted considerable car and people traffic along Bayview Edison Road and an accompanying increase in conflicts. Access to the area was a hot topic in the field, as well as on social media and local publications.

A Short-Eared Owl in a setting sun at “East 90” (photo by Glenn Nelson).

Short-Eared Owls one of the most widely distributed owls on the planet. However, they are considered a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” under Washington’s State Wildlife Action Plan. Habitat loss and human activity have been factors in a sharp population decrease since 1970 within the medium-sized owls’ North America range.

Violation of the revised access rules at “East 90” is subject to prosecution under Washington state law. It also is unlawful, generally, to interfere with the legal taking of fish, shellfish and wildlife.

Hunters and non-hunters generally can share access to the state’s public lands, subject to any rules or guidelines governing specific areas. “East 90,” for example is part of the WDFW program to manage private lands for hunting. Recreators are urged to know the laws and access rules for land which they intend to enter.

“It is a person’s responsibility, including birders and hunters, to know whether they are on public or private land, and to avoid trespassing on private lands they don’t have permission for,” Gunnell said. “There are plenty of mobile apps, maps and other online resources available these days to make that easier than it’s ever been.”

Click here for a WDFW guide to viewing wildlife

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson

Seattle Audubon Community Director

A national-award-winning writer, photographer, and web publisher, Glenn founded The Trail Posse to explore the intersection of race and the outdoors. A longtime journalist, he started his career at The Seattle Times and co-founded or founded several digital media companies, including HoopGurlz, a girl’s and women’s basketball website that he sold to ESPN. Glenn earned his B.A.s in journalism and political science from Seattle University and his Masters in American Government from Columbia University.

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