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Shrub-steppe birds of Kittitas County: fire and habitat fragmentation is taking its toll By Deb Essman, Kittitas County Field and Stream

Kittitas County hosts an incredible number of bird species. With a little effort it is possible to see over 200 different kinds of birds in a single year (although my husband may disagree that it’s “just a little effort”)!  I admit that I do spend a fair amount of time birding.


A total of 304 species have been confirmed for Kittitas County on Cornell University’s website eBird since we birders started keeping track. I’ve been lucky enough to see 262 of them so far. Some birds are year-round residents, many others migrate here from as far away as South America to breed and nest in the spring/summer, and some come down from the arctic tundra to spend the winter with us. A few, like the scissor-tailed flycatcher, are rare vagrants. Our county has many diverse habitats for all our visiting avian friends, and the shrub-steppe comprises a large part of it. A review of eBird records clearly shows that shrub-steppe is a vital habitat especially for nesting birds in the spring.


“Hotspots” have been designated on eBird as areas that are especially good for finding birds, and in the shrub-steppe habitat of Kittitas County there are many to choose from. In the Yakima River Canyon, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Umtanum Recreation Area is one of the top spots to find shrub-steppe birds. Over 180 species of birds have been documented there, and those who have joined me on Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) field trips across the swinging bridge and up the canyon (which is part of the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Wenas Wildlife Area) know that it is not unusual to find over 50 different species in less than 3 hours on a Saturday morning in May. And what amazing birds they are—refulgent lazuli buntings singing their beautiful songs from atop big sage, canyon wrens mournfully calling from the cliff walls, and magnificent golden eagles soaring overhead.


Yet all this amazing bird activity came to a crashing halt when a wildfire raged from Selah to the Yakima River during the fall of 2020. The conflagration burned almost all of it to the ground, over 75,000 acres. Lush bitterbrush, sumac, elderberry, and other native shrubs and grasses are gone in a blink of an eye. I fell to my knees and sobbed the first time we were allowed in to view the damage. Of course, we know that wildfire can be an important component of healthy wildlife habitat, but the much larger and hotter fires we are now experiencing can be incredibly destructive instead of restorative. We rallied a hardy band of over 100 volunteers with help from KEEN and the Kittitas County Field & Stream Club (KCFS) in the winter of 2020 and hand-seeded native grasses on over 200 acres (4,000 pounds of seed was provided by the Washing State Department of Fish and Wildlife) of the WDFW Wenas Wildlife Area. A mere drop in the bucket perhaps, but we hoped that the resulting spring growth would slow erosion from snow runoff and hamper non-native cheatgrass from taking over. We also planted big sage and bitterbrush seed, both very slow growing and notoriously hard to reestablish. The riparian areas, although badly burned too, have slowly recovered on their own—cottonwood, aspen, willow, wild rose, and elderberry being especially resilient.


But what of the birds that returned in the spring of 2021? They had no knowledge of their habitat being wiped out. We were happy to see that our grass seed overwintered as hoped and sprang up green and lush, but most of the returning birds’ nest sites were gone. Why not just move on to another area you might ask? Well, because nearby suitable habitat was already occupied of course. What becomes of displaced birds I can only guess, but it might be that remaining habitat becomes overpopulated, straining limited resources such as space and food thereby negatively affecting breeding success.


Then in 2022 another 30,000 acres of WDFW land burned along the Vantage Highway south of Ellensburg and into the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area. The many obligate bird species that nest there (sagebrush sparrows, sage thrashers, and Brewer’s sparrows to name just a few) migrated back the next spring to find most of their habitat gone. Restoration efforts have begun but it will take decades for it to return to what it once was. Our shrub-steppe habitat is facing many new challenges, but uncontrolled wildfire is only one.


Habitat fragmentation is another huge issue confronting our birds and other wildlife. People have been moving to Kittitas County in droves. The result has been a loss of habitat to homes and other infrastructure being built in the shrub-steppe. For some reason many folks think they need sprawling acres of lawn—a completely sterile habitat for wildlife.  I admit my own culpability--I have 5 acres of irrigated horse pasture. Over the last 34 years living here I have tried to mitigate this habitat loss by planting native species including choke cherry, smooth sumac, serviceberry, blue elderberry, red-osier dogwood, ponderosa pines, and willows. (All these native plants can be purchased through KEEN’s native plant sale in the spring (www.ycic.org/native-plant-sale ). Fencing also negatively hampers the movement of wildlife and even kills some birds. Short-eared owls and northern harriers, for example, both hunt low and slow over large open spaces for rodents and can run into fence wire. They are also both ground nesters, and lack of large enough areas suitable for nesting and raising their young is also causing their populations to dwindle in Kittitas County.


We can all make a difference though. If you live here, learn about the ways you can make your property bird and wildlife friendly. Whether you have a city backyard or acreage in the country there are ideas on WDFWs website (https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/habitat-at-home) that will help you. If you have shrub-steppe or timbered land the Kittitas County Conservation District can help you “Firewise” your property ( Kittitas County Fire Adapted Program (mapseed.org) ). 


Lastly, participate in volunteer efforts: KEEN, KCFS, Conservation NW, Ruffed Grouse Society, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Kittitas Audubon and other groups have many opportunities to help local conservation efforts. These might include replanting burned areas, derelict fence removal, or litter pick-up efforts (like KCFS’s annual Durr Road Clean Up).  Almost 80% of Kittitas County is public land—including USFS, BLM, WDNR, WDFW, and State Parks. These entities often have volunteer opportunities too. And last but not least, take a kid outdoors. We need to teach our next generation to love nature like we do!


The birds and other wildlife need our help. Let’s all be part of the solution.


Photos by Deb Essman - Osprey, Rufous hummingbird, Cedar Waxwing



























Learn more about KEEN's Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe here https://www.ycic.org/giss

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