Shrub-steppe communities form the iconic western landscape of open sagebrush plains, rim rock, and tumbleweeds. The shrub-steppe is a semi-arid plant community of perennial bunch grass, forbs and intermittent shrubs rooting out of its characteristic deep-soil.
Our shrub-steppe in Kittitas County hosts various species of amphibians, reptiles, small and large mammals, and birds. Many species of concern such as the striped whipsnake and the sage brush lizard call this area home as do state candidate species like the Townsend’s ground squirrel and both black and white-tailed jackrabbits. Local birders can enjoy glimpses of sage grouse, sage sparrow, sage thrashers, and loggerhead shrikes.
Roughly 5,000 elk and over 1,000 mule deer winter in the shrub-steppe just east of Ellensburg. Protecting this sensitive habitat is critical for the success of so many species.
Historically shrub-steppe communities dominated much of eastern Washington. Today, less than 50% of Washington’s historic shrub-steppe remains and much of it is degraded, fragmented, or is isolated from other similar habitats. Across the Intermountain West, shrub-steppe communities have been lost to resource extraction and conversion to cropland. The shrub-steppe is particularly sensitive to vegetation disturbances through off road motorized recreation, over-grazing, or exotic plant invasion.
Fortunately the culture is shifting to protect these fragile, vital ecosystems. Agencies, nonprofits, and conservation groups are working to protect key habitats through land acquisition and adaptive management. Thousands of acres of critical shrub-steppe habitat have been brought into public ownership to be conserved in perpetuity. Land managers work to balance habitat conservation and recreational desires. Coordinated Resource Management groups manage livestock grazing to manipulate vegetation and protect ecological integrity. Land managers collaborate with the weed board to eradicate exotic vegetation across ownership boundaries each growing season. Throughout the west, shrub-steppe habitat is being conserved and managed for wildlife and public recreation.
We are fortunate to live amongst this diverse ecosystem exploding with assemblages of flora and fauna. In a few short weeks the shrub-steppe will transform from snow drifts to vast fields of delicate wild flowers. As the new manager of the L.T. Murray, Whiskey Dick, and Quilomene Wildlife Areas, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to explore these complex systems with the expert biologists, taxonomists, historians, and local birders that have studied and cherished these lands for decades. It is my privilege to help manage these lands to preserve and protect this fragile ecosystem for future generations to enjoy.
With the onset of spring knocking at our door, I hope to inspire readers to explore and protect this magnificent place we and many other critters call home. KEEN hosts a diversity of events in the spring that highlight the shrub-steppe and I would encourage our community to engage and learn. Two important upcoming events are the Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest May 12th-14th, and the 18th Annual Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe on Saturday May 13th. You can find out more about their events and gatherings at www.ycic.org.
Melissa Babik received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and her Masters of Science from Central Washington University. Melissa has worked on a variety of wildlife projects across the western states, Mexico and on the Virgin Islands. From 2011 to 2016 Melissa worked as the Wildlife Biologist and Project Manager for Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group managing stream restoration projects and leading a five year beaver reintroduction project. She currently works for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as the manager of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area. Melissa and her family enjoy the vast outdoor recreational opportunities the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
KEEN Connects is a monthly column produced by the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) board members and volunteers. KEEN’s focus is on creating an ecologically and environmentally literate citizenry who connect and engage with their surroundings. Our goals include establishing the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center, restoring native habitats at Helen McCabe Park, and helping our community make lifestyle and behavioral decisions that support the ecological integrity of our region. Join us on our Second Sunday Guided Nature Walks and First Friday Green Drinks, and several annual events. You can find out more about KEEN at www.ycic.org.