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What do orcas and Kittitas County have in common?

An adult Southern Resident Orca eats nearly 400 pounds of fish, mostly chinook salmon, every day. Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days, traveling over 1,000 miles. Without eating.

We can easily identify with the plight of Tahlequah and her Orca family. The population of the Southern Resident Orcas is down to just 75 and failing right before our eyes. They are wild animals, but their obvious grief and pain seem relatable to most of us. Orcas are intelligent and social animals known to form lasting social bonds. They live in highly organized pods and care for the young, old, sick and injured. Watching Tahlequah mourn the loss of her child was heartbreaking.

Orcas eat salmon. Had she been able to eat as she grieved, Tahlequah would have struggled to meet her 400-pound daily need. The salmon they rely on migrate from high in the hills of the Teanaway, Clockum, Manastash and Taneum watersheds in Kittitas County. Salmon travel all the way to the Pacific Ocean via the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Salmon reproduce in freshwater streams, grow for several years in the ocean, and return home at the end of their lives to spawn and pass genetics on to the next generation.

But urbanization, pollution, irrigation and habitat removal have severely reduced the ability of these rivers to provide their natural functions. The habitats that remain are severely degraded, suffering from biodiversity loss and reduced ecological function.

There is no simple way to save the Southern Resident Orcas. Consider what it would take just to address the lack of salmon. The fish have a range that extends from far-inland streams to the expansive Pacific. They have to deal with dams, irrigation canals, underground piping, algal blooms, commercial fisheries and warm water caused by land use and our changing climate.

Despite our love for these iconic Orcas, human activities are driving the Southern Residents to extinction. And it is only human action that is going to save them. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing people, wildlife and the planet. From warming temperatures, more extreme weather, and longer wildfire seasons, communities in the U.S. and around the world are already feeling the impacts. But we can create a safer future if we work together to rethink the way we produce and consume energy, food and water, protect and restore habitats, and create climate resilient communities. Such a task can feel overwhelming and daunting at times.

KEEN believes that solving these problems and helping to save the Orcas requires providing opportunities for learners of all ages to become critical thinkers. KEEN encourages students to research, investigate how and why things happen, and make their own decisions about complex environmental issues. By developing and enhancing critical and creative thinking skills, KEEN helps foster a new generation of informed consumers, workers, as well as policy or decision makers.

We do that by providing environmental education opportunities, field trips, special events, habitat restoration, summer camp, school programming and supporting a network of subject area experts.

KEEN promotes a sense of place and connection through community involvement. When students decide to learn more or act to improve their environment, they reach out to community experts, donors, volunteers and local facilities to help bring the community together to understand and address environmental issues impacting their neighborhoods.

KEEN helps learners of all ages understand how their decisions and actions affect the environment, build knowledge and skills necessary to address complex environmental issues, as well as ways we can act to keep our environment healthy and sustainable for the future.

The health of Orcas and the future of our community in Kittitas County are closely tied together. What decisions can we make now to save these amazing creatures? How can we take steps here to secure their future? KEEN would love to hear your thoughts — please engage with us at and let us know what actions you’ll be taking.

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