The Washington Channeled Scablands: Wildlife, Hiking, Hunting & Fishing

by Elsie Eide Kelly

The Washington Channeled Scablands, known as one of the 7 Wonders of Washington, covers the landscape from around Spokane west to the Columbia River near Vantage and then SW to the Snake River near Pasco, traveling more than 550 miles. While encompassing a number of different habitats, there are still many of the same type of wildlife gathering in the entire scope of its area. In other words, you can find mule deer almost the full length of the Scablands, as well as coyotes, porcupines, rodents large and small, snakes, amphibians, raptors, songbirds, and waterfowl large and small. Cougar are known to hunt the scablands and are seen once in a while.

From the air the Scablands appear as wounds, cutting through the land. The channels, known as coulees, are sometimes hundreds of feet deep with wildlife habitat often found at the bottom, following water flow and providing forage for many species. From within the Scablands show just what nature will do with her home if given enough time. They were named for the rock and erosion that made it impossible for settlers to farm. Now there are 33 wildlife areas and preserves dotting the lands, which offer respite for many species. Much of the traffic between the wildlife preserves is made up of songbirds returning to the north from winter in the south. Also there are a number of Swans, Pelicans, ducks, geese, and smaller wetland birds that also make their way north to nest, stopping at the numerous lakes and ponds dotting the Scablands eating the marsh grasses, insects and fairy shrimp. Cranes and migrating egrets, are also seen on the various lakes and ponds.

Dry Falls Dam
Dry Falls Dam, photo by Val Mohney

Mule deer are the primary deer found in the Scablands with Whitetail sometimes seen in certain areas. Many deer live at the “edges” where farmland meets the rocks. These are the deer that trespass on the wheat and hay farms eating their way through the fields and attracting some hunters. Most of these hunters have permission from landowners to hunt their lands. Permission should be requested and can be done by acquiring the map showing all landowners with contact information. The site has those maps but requires a $30 per year fee for downloading them. They can also be downloaded to your phone so that when you’re out of cell range you can still access them. Using GPS with the ap will let you know where public and private lands meet. Hunting and fishing regulations are available at various locations including hardware stores and gun shops. Within the hunting regs are descriptions and photos or drawings of the various game birds so that you can distinguish the endangered birds that are illegal to hunt. The saying that the wildlife folks have is to “identify and know before shooting.” Occasionally wandering moose are sighted but the population seems to be small.
Another excellent map called, “Channeled Scablands of Washington,” a BLM map, clearly shows the wandering channels and also shows public and private lands but does not give ownership information. It’s an intriguing map and well worth adding to your map collection.

Upland game birds in the Scablands include Ring-necked Pheasants, Quail, and Hungarian Partridge. The Columbian Sharptailed Grouse and the Greater Sage Grouse are illegal to hunt since their populations are very small and they are on the endangered list. How to differentiate the different birds is found in the hunting regulations.

There are a number of smaller mammals which can be found including coyote (most everywhere), marmot (in the rocks and on the basalt bluffs), gopher (around rocky areas and also out in open fields), porcupine (usually near the trees where they eat their way around the bark), skunk, badger (in the more open country), racoon, rabbits, white tailed jackrabbits, an assortment of small rodents (including mice, rats and pack rats), and the occasional lone wolf traveling through. Some of these animals are illegal to hunt, especially at certain times of the year. Any of the wildlife agencies can inform you of those times or hunting regulations can be picked up in many stores around the state. Hunting is allowed for all species, in prescribed areas, during the normal seasons. The scablands fall within a number of hunting units whose regulations are found in the Washington State hunting regulation publication.

The goal of the Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the specific wildlife area governing bodies, is to reach sustainable populations of endangered species, as well as mule deer, and specific grouse, and to restore native grasslands and riparian habitat to provide recreational opportunities for the public. To do this, the scabland areas fall under the auspices of several different smaller agencies which divide up their areas according to species needs and sustainable habitats for specific species.

The Swanson Lakes Wildlife area, located about six miles south of Creston (off Hwy 2) and covering 21,000 acres in Lincoln County 60 miles west of Spokane, provides year-round habitat for greater sage grouse, sharp tailed grouse and is important spring/summer habitat for mule deer, a WDFW priority game species. Its location is in the upper portion of the Crab Creek watershed. It is designated as a state-level Important Bird Area because of the habitat restoration done for the sage grouse and sharp tailed grouse. In addition, the lakes provide habitat for turtles and amphibians as well as resting areas for migrating water fowl. Z Lake, about a 2 mile hike in from the trail head, has a popular stocked trout-fishing opportunity and other lakes within the Wildlife Area also offer good fishing. Since Z Lake is the first lake with a string of creeks connecting lakes farther down the Scablands, the trout that are planted in Z Lake migrate down through the creeks and into the other lakes, ending up in Coffeepot Lake. Coffeepot is also a refuge with no hunting allowed, but fishing is encouraged. Within Swanson Lakes Area it is open to hunting all species in the appropriate season.

Swanson Lakes was devastated on 7 September 2020 when the Whitney Road Wildfire rampaged through more than 250,000 acres, destroying most of the wildlife habitat and resulting in the deaths of many of the species living there. It will be many years and require much rehabilitation by WDFW to begin to restore the habitat. At this time, it is not known what species will return and in what numbers. There simply is no cover or food for them.

The Reardan Audubon Lake Unit, located on Hwy 2 at Reardon is at the headwaters of the Crab Creek watershed and is a valuable habitat for migrating birds including waterfowl, shore birds, as well as being home to upland game birds. It also supports a population of mule deer. The unit provides habitat for amphibians and aquatic creatures in its riparian and wetland areas. This Unit of 427 acres of wetlands and Channeled Scablands incredibly supports more than 200 species of birds and other wildlife. This is also the headwater source for both Crab Creek and Deep Creek. It is a prime area for bird watching and photography.

The Revere Wildlife Area Unit, in Whitman County, contains mule deer and an upland bird population. It is located within the Rock Creek watershed and is one of the major tributaries of the Palouse River drainage. Public recreational use is encouraged. Its primary function is for mule deer habitat restoration and supporting public hunting opportunities for mule deer and pheasants. Fishing for trout, particularly in Rock Creek, is also allowed.

The Washington State Channeled Scablands were formed when ice age Lake Missoula, covering Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, broke through its ice dam several times. It unloaded many millions of square miles of deep, rushing water that carved through the soils and scraped the basalt rock bare making for many rock faces and valleys running the length of Washington. The Dry Falls area, between Sun Lakes and Banks Lake Dam, has a wonderful museum filled with information on the huge lake and how it carved the land into deep basalt lined channels. Within these channeled valleys are the most wonderful wildlife habitat areas that provide for wildlife viewing, photographing, hunting and even fishing. Some of the lakes are stocked with trout and other fish species specifically for public fishing. This is a wonderland of beautiful, stark scenery with pothole and rimrock lakes and creeks popping up throughout its boundaries. Most require a hike in from trail heads that are clearly marked on the maps. There are maps available for public hiking through the various agencies that govern the Scablands and surrounding acreage.

Vernal pools, which are filled by winter rains and snowmelt, are concentrated in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area and some contain invertebrates like fairy shrimp which provide food for migrating waterfowl. These pools dry up during the summer heat but provide much needed sustenance for the waterfowl working their way north.

The designated agency-governed habitat areas are connected by corridors which wildlife use to navigate between the habitats. These corridors often include the margins of farmlands which cover the silty ground around the scabland channels.

The Washington Channeled Scablands are relatively unknown, even to Eastern Washington residents, but definitely deserve a close exploration. They are impressive and there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the United States. Agencies like WDFW, BLM, and State Parks can offer interesting information on access and what to see in the Scablands.

The State Parks within the Scablands are: Steamboat Rock, Sun Lakes Dry Falls (which was the largest waterfall in the world 10,000 years ago), Palouse Falls, Potholes and Sacajawea. Each has its own beauty and all are a must-see. The roads in the Scablands are open year-round but may be impossible to navigate in the winter months. Perhaps it’s time to explore Eastern Washington and see the wonders contained there. You won’t be sorry.

Many thanks to Mike Finch and Donovan, of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area (WDFW) for their assistance in patiently answering my many questions and guiding me in writing this article. Your assistance is gratefully appreciated.