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Federal grant will protect Crockett Lake

Thanks to the non-profit Whidbey Camano Land Trust, hundreds of thousands of birds that visit Crockett Lake over the course of a year will forever have an oasis from development.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced Friday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded $1.7 million in grants for two preservation projects in Island County.

Just over $850,000 of the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant money will allow State Parks to purchase and permanently protect about 355 acres of Crockett Lake, a shallow brackish lake and combination of salt and freshwater marshes.

Located across the highway from the Keystone ferry terminal, Crockett Lake is within Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

Also, the state will receive $928,000 to purchase 3,318 acres and 63 acres of conservation easements on Camano Island’s Port Susan Bay, known by locals as Livingston Bay. The area is critically important as a wintering area for waterfowl and supports as many as 65,000 snow geese from Wrangell Island in Russia — about half the total population.

“These are incredibly important areas for birds, salmon, mammals and there’s probably a lot we don’t know yet,” said Patricia Powell, the executive director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

Powell wrote the 50-page grant application detailing the scientific importance of the two wild areas and listing the many species that rely on them.

Coupeville resident and Whidbey Audubon member Bob Merrick is delighted by the news. He described himself as the “local repository of bird lore for Crockett Lake.” He said the wetland provides vital habitat for migrating birds.

“It’s an important wintering ground,” he said, “for a large number of waterfowl — ducks — and that attracts raptors, including eagles and falcons, that feed on ducks.”

For the last eight years, he has documented the number of shorebirds at the lake for Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences’ international shorebird survey. Unfortunately, he’s found that the population at Crockett Lake has followed the downward trend of shorebird populations worldwide.

That makes protection of places like Crockett Lake all the more important, he said.

Ted Smith, assistant regional manager for resource stewardship with State Parks, will oversee the purchase of the approximate 355 acres of Crockett Lake, which will become part of Fort Casey Park.

“Crockett Lake is one of the very few pocket estuaries left that combine fresh and saltwater,” he said. “There used to be lots and lots of them in Puget Sound.”

The approximate 700 acres of the Crockett Lake wetland system has a combination of owners — the state and federal government, Seattle Pacific University and private individuals. The federal grant will allow State Parks to acquire most or all of the privately-owned land, which means almost the entire wetland will be protected.

Once the purchase is complete, Smith wants to explore the history of Crockett Lake more completely. He said there’s some debate among local naturalists as to whether the lake was originally connected to Puget Sound. He said state and national parks services will do a joint study.

Currently, the lake is connected to Keystone Harbor by a tidal gate that allows seawater to flow in and out. Smith suspects that the lake used to be completely freshwater since scientists recently took sediment samples and found peat, which isn’t found in saltwater.

Once the experts have a better understanding of Crockett Lake, Smith said they can decide whether to keep the tidal gate and “make it work right” or perhaps stabilize the water levels in the lake to provide for better nesting habitat.

Smith said the wetlands have been misused in the past, but can be improved, from an ecological standpoint. “It’s been drained and degraded over time,” he said.

Nonetheless, there’s an abundance of wildlife that depends on Crockett Lake.

According to the grant application, 238 species of birds have been recorded in the Crockett Lake area. It’s an important migration staging area for over 17 species of shorebirds and nine species of raptors, including the peregrine falcon and merlin that feed on shorebirds and follow their migration. Each fall, as many as 222,000 shorebirds stop at Crockett Lake.

This time of year, at least 13 species of duck are wintering there. A colony of Great Blue herons nest and forage at Crockett Lake.

Many protected or species of concern frequent the wetlands, including bald eagle, peregrine falcon, pileated woodpecker northern goshawk, Townsend’s big-eared Bat and Yuma myotis bat.

“When people at so many different levels come together in these kinds of projects, everybody wins,” Sec. Norton said of the 19 projects receiving federal grants. “This is the kind of effort that makes it possible for us to leave a real legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

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