Combined 15,573 acres of wildlife, riparian habitat acquired, conserved as part of Minam River Wildlife Area in Oregon after two-phase project by US Forest Service, Oregon Dept. of Forestry, Manulife, others; project area improves habitat for elk, deer

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November 22, 2023 (press release) –

MINAM - A combined 15,573 acres of wildlife and riparian habitat has become part of the Minam River Wildlife Area in Northeast Oregon after a two-phase project by the U.S. Forest Service , the Oregon Department of Forestry and other groups, according to a press release.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife , Manulife Investment Management Timber and Agriculture Inc. and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation announced Tuesday, Nov. 14 , what they called a major conservation victory for elk, mule deer and other wildlife, fish, hunters, anglers, hikers and public access.

The area is between Wallowa and La Grande in Wallowa and Union counties. It is accessible off Highway 82 and the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway .

A proposed trailhead near the highway will run south through the project area and connect with the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Combined with the 361,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness and Minam State Recreation Area , it now forms a block of public land larger than Yellowstone National Park . The project also improves hunting and recreational access to 6,000 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Officials speak Michelle Dennehy , communications coordinator for ODFW, said Thursday the parcel is important because it helps preserve the river's water quality and because it supports a variety of wildlife.

Mark Holyoak of the elk foundation agreed, saying Thursday that he is aware that ODFW has wanted this to happen for decades.

"It's a reality now and we're just grateful that it's happened," Holyoak said. "We want folks to get out there and enjoy it."

He agreed with Dennehy that the particular parcel of land is important because it is prime elk and deer habitat and contains prime fisheries.

"The fact that it's now conserved are big wins not just for wildlife, but for people who enjoy wildlife, as well," he said.

Dennehy said it took time to complete the final phase of the acquisition because of the hoops they had to jump through.

"We needed to find the funding," she said. "(The Forest Service's ) Forest Legacy program contributed money but that took time."

"ODFW has pursued this property since the 1960s and finally, an opportunity came along to protect this large swath of diverse habitat that benefits so many fish and wildlife species," said Curt Melcher , ODFW director. "This is an extremely significant acquisition that would not have been possible without the leadership and major funding from USDA Forest Legacy Program and RMEF, as well as a strong partnership with Manulife and additional funding from federal excise taxes on hunting equipment."

"We recognize and thank Manulife and ODFW as well as sportsmen and women, elected officials and others for their support in conserving this sprawling, wild landscape," said Kyle Weaver , Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president and CEO. "Without this collaborative effort, we would not have been able to protect its wildlife values and greatly improve public access to a vast and connected landscape."

An importa nt river A 2021 report named the Minam River as the second-most ecologically important river in the state because of its water quality, recreational value and ability to support rare or at-risk species.

The project area improves habitat connectivity and supplies critical winter range for up to 1,200 elk, serves as transitional and migration range for elk, mule deer and other species, and includes 114 miles of riparian habitat that benefits Snake River spring/summer run Chinook salmon (listed as threatened by the federal and state governments), Snake River Basin steelhead (federal threatened), Grande Ronde bull trout (federal threatened) and Pacific lamprey (state sensitive). In addition, ODFW and tribal co-managers documented coho salmon redds in the Minam River in 2021, after a 40-year absence.

Oregonians and visitors to the state also gain permanent public access to an area of high recreational value that is planned to be open April 1 to Nov. 30 annually. A closure of Dec. 1 to March 31 protects big game on their winter range. Recreation opportunities include hunting, fishing, hiking, birdwatching, horseback riding, kayaking and other activities.

The collaborative partnership completed phase one of the project in 2021.

Significant funding partners include the Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program, Wyss Foundation , Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's Outdoor Fund , ODFW, Oregon Hunters Association , the Elk Foundation and hunters, thanks to dollars generated by the Pittman-Robertson Act.

"The continued responsible and sustainable management of this special property will be ensured by the closing of this sale, which concludes years of work by Manulife, ODFW, RMEF and others," said Joseph Justice , Manulife's Eastern Oregon region manager. "Within our broader Oregon portfolio of over 620,000 acres, it's been a privilege to manage this working forest with my team. I look forward to ODFW's continued management and the benefits this property will bring to wildlife, the local community and all of Oregon ."

Manulife has been managing and conserving sensitive lands for more than 37 years with over 497,000 acres in its Sensitive Lands Program.

"The Wyss Foundation is extremely proud to support the conservation of critical wildlife habitat in one of Oregon's most ecologically important areas. RMEF, ODFW and Manulife worked tirelessly alongside numerous partners to increase public access to recreational opportunity and conserve land and water for future generations," said Molly McUsic , Wyss Foundation president.

"The cooperative efforts of this group led to a successful Forest Legacy Grant application and approval," said Lori Bell , ODF small forestland owner assistance and incentives manager. "This is a nationally competitive grant and to get the $9.75 million shows the worth of the project and the dedication of these organizations to conserve this natural treasure."

An on-site celebration is tentatively scheduled for June 20-22 .

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