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Shrub-steppe in Kittitas County and the Yakima Canyon: Critical Wildlife Corridors in Need of Conservation BY: Scott Downes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)

The shrub-steppe is a unique ecosystem, not just for the species that spend their entire lives within it, but also for species who migrate to Washington State and use this habitat for only part of their lives. The Yakima Canyon and much of the shrub-steppe of Kittitas County sit in a unique position on the edge of the larger Columbia Basin shrub-steppe ecosystem and adjacent to the east slope forested areas. These unique qualities of the shrub-steppe in this area make it vital that we work to conserve this habitat. Conservation efforts should focus, in part, on habitat connectivity to ensure that animals can move throughout the ecosystem as necessary.

Historically, but not too long ago (within the past twenty years) we had iconic species such as ferruginous hawks and greater sage-grouse using the Yakima Canyon as a movement corridor and breeding in lands in or adjacent to the Yakima Canyon. Sadly, the population of both species has declined to an extent where they are now listed as Washington State Endangered Species. Greater sage-grouse do occur on the nearby Yakima Training Center and occasionally ferruginous hawks do pass through the area on their migration. Keeping intact shrub-steppe habitat within the Yakima Canyon corridor is vital to ensure that if these species start to recover that the Yakima Canyon could play a role in their recovery and reoccupation of historic habitat. 

Habitat connectivity is also important for a myriad of other species that are candidates for Washington state’s endangered, threatened, or sensitive list, such golden eagles, white and black-tailed jackrabbits, loggerhead shrikes, sage thrashers and sagebrush sparrows. All of these can still be found in the shrub-steppe habitats of the Yakima Canyon. Working to keep the habitats connected here helps to ensure that these species can both live in the canyon and also migrate and disperse to surrounding lands such as the Yakima Training Center to the east and the WDFW Wenas Wildlife Area to the west. 

Ungulates (hoofed mammals) like mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep use the canyon both as residents but also for migration. Between March of 2022 and June of 2023, WDFW partnered with Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to place a wildlife camera at Lmuma Creek where it crosses under Interstate 82. The camera recorded more than 800 crossings by elk and over 400 by mule deer. Some of these deer and elk are likely to be the same animals you might encounter in our forested areas to the west of Ellensburg and Yakima during the summer months. Some unique species, like badger, were also captured on camera using this corridor.

Speaking of unique, even far-ranging species like the wolverine are known to use the canyon and its connectivity corridors from time to time. A young male wolverine, likely from Mount Rainier, was found dead on the Yakima Canyon Road (State Route 821) in April of 2021. This animal had successfully migrated over 60 miles from Mount Rainier to the Yakima Canyon only to be struck by a vehicle. We can only speculate how far he might have gone if not for this unfortunate incident. This record is key in reminding us of two key concepts: shrub-steppe habitat can be an important corridor for species not typically thought of as shrub-steppe species and even small roads can be deadly barriers to wildlife movement. 

Colleagues at WSDOT recorded 169 wildlife fatalities on the Yakima Canyon (State Route 821) between 2013 and 2022. Mule deer led the counts, but many smaller animals were among the fatalities including beavers, porcupines, jackrabbits, river otters, raccoons, and skunks. These fatalities are also likely an underestimate as many of the smaller mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are not large enough to be noticed and recorded by maintenance staff or the public. A recent graduate student at Central Washington University, Adrian Slade, has done some important work to identify where there could be necessary habitat connections and crossing points for species like the night snake. 

All these connections help to show how the Yakima Canyon is part of one of the most important habitat connectivity corridors in Washington state, connecting from the crest of the Cascades and, in some instances, further west to the Western Washington Lowlands. The Yakima Canyon, through its connections, also helps to maintain habitat connectivity to the north and south in Kittitas and Yakima Counties. Working together, we can help to ensure that the shrub-steppe habitat of the Yakima Canyon remains intact and unfragmented and is restored from impacts such as fires. Together, we can promote solutions that transform our local roads so that they cease to be barriers to movement.

To learn more, check out these unique outreach components produced by WDFW or visit our booth at Get Intimate with the Shrub-steppe on May 11th:

WDFW Shrubsteppe Ecosystem Page:

WDFW Outreach Film on Shrubsteppe:

WDFW Outreach Film on Habitat Connectivity:

Learn more about KEEN's Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe here


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