OFF THE ROAD AND ON THE NERVES

Illegal off-road vehicle usage is a problem south of Moses Lake.

One weekend this January, Richard Smith and Chris Anderson were hunting ducks near Crab Creek, south of the Moses Lake Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Area, in a region known as the mud flats or the Yellow Zone. That’s when several loud ORVs came into the immediate sector they were trying to lure ducks into. This zone is only legally accessible from July 1 through September 30 to prevent conflicts with hunters in the fall and winter and minimize disturbance to nesting wildlife in the spring. They called the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, asking for a deputy to respond, but none ever did, and their hunt was ruined.

It’s a story that has been repeated many times for these two and for other hunters in recent years. Richard Smith told me, “Everyone knows they [deputies] are not out there during weekends. We never see them out there.”

Smith became so frustrated he wrote a lengthy letter to the Grant County Board of Commissioners shortly after this January hunt. Smith outlined the problem and recommended they turn the Yellow Zone back in to a Red Zone (where no ORV use is allowed at all) or alternately, turn enforcement back over to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Smith told me he never received a response to this letter.

Chris Anderson, a retired captain with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said, “Weekends are the biggest problem. I don’t know how many times we hunted out there and ORV users were there, and we packed up and left.”

Anderson says he has called in violators several times over the years to the Sheriff’s Office, which has enforcement jurisdiction in this area, and has never seen a deputy respond. This is in part because ORV deputies do not work weekends during the waterfowl hunting season, and the vehicles regular patrol deputies have can’t get off the main roads to contact the ORV violators.

The experiences Anderson and Smith have had hunting this are ones I know well. I first started hunting ducks here in 1977 as a young teenager with my father. Back then, no access was allowed into this region except on foot, and even the Powerline Road leading from the ORV Area to Crab Creek was gated off. In the 1980s the Powerline Road was opened, and it was not uncommon to see up to 50+ parked vehicles and up to 200 hunters north and south of this road for the bird hunting opener.

ORV usage became more popular and eventually, a local ORV group called the Sand Skorpions lobbied the Grant County Commissioners to open up the mudflats to ORV use in the summer months. This group helped put up signage to let fellow ORV users know about the seasonal closures and to this day conducts annual clean-ups of the Yellow Zone to remove litter.

Unfortunately, the ORV usage during the summer months has resulted in significant damage to what was pristine wetland habitat. The noise and habitat destruction from these vehicles has also led to a decrease in not only waterfowl but other wildlife from wading birds and pheasant to rabbits and deer.

In addition to this, a significant number of ORV users disregard the seasonal closure. Those that do often will run full throttle past hunters in duck blinds with decoys set out in the pothole ponds in front of them. As you might imagine, this activity scares away the waterfowl and ruins the experience for the hunters who have hiked out to this area to hunt in some measure of solitude.

The problem has gotten worse in recent years. When ORVs were first allowed into this zone, both Grant County ORV Deputies and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Officers patrolled the area and were present for the start of the hunting season. Over time, enforcement of this area was turned over just to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and with ORV deputies taking weekends off, ORV illegal use increased due to a lack of enforcement.

Through a Public Records Request to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, I found that during the last five years only one citation was issued for violating the Yellow Zone during the waterfowl hunting season. I contacted Grant County Undersheriff Ryan Rectenwald about this issue.

Undersheriff Rectenwald told me he has only been the Undersheriff since 2017 and can’t speak to what occurred prior to that time. The ORV unit, which used to have two deputies, is now down to one due to staffing shortages which effects enforcement. However, the current ORV deputy has agreed to work weekends this hunting season in an effort to address this situation.

With the opening day of duck and goose season taking place Saturday the 16th, Rectenwald encourages hunters and others to contact the Grant County Sheriff’s Office through MACC Dispatch at (509) 762-1162 if they see ORVs operating in the Yellow Zone or other off-limits areas this fall.