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Washington’s Shrub-steppe By Jordan Ryckman

Nestled amidst the Cascade and Rocky Mountains is the beautiful and rugged shrub-steppe habitat of the Columbia Plateau. This habitat, characterized by large rolling hills, is often dominated by shrubs and grasses, but is also home to incredible biodiversity. Rivers, creeks, and wetlands meander through parts of the shrub-steppe that offer important food and refuge for migratory and local wildlife. Canyons, rocky talus slopes, and intermittent forested areas also provide ample resources and habitat. 

There is an elusive beauty to the shrub-steppe that is often missed. Many who drive by central or eastern Washington may overlook the wide open and arid landscape. However, those who wander into the sagelands almost immediately begin observing the beauty of the unique plants and animals who thrive in this sunny, diverse, and delicate but resilient environment. 

Shrubs such as sagebrush, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, and others provide a short overstory and create our very own sagebrush forests. The smell and expanse of a sea of sage, especially after a little essential rainfall, is something to be admired. In the spring you’ll see many different wildflowers begin to bloom throughout the summer and fall months with incredible colors- yellows, purples, red, and white blooms often cover the hills in a stunning display. Native grasses cover much of our wild rangelands and provide food for livestock and migrating wildlife. 

As you continue down the trail you may start to notice little flapping wings zipping between shrubs as various shrub-steppe obligate birds use sagebrush for food, shelter, and nesting. Or you may hear the trills and chirping of a few recognizable birds like Western meadowlarks and Brewer’s sparrows, among others. If you are patient, you’ll become more aware of the little critters scurrying or slithering into holes in the ground or hopping around, and larger creatures climbing or running along the hills. Priority wildlife species who depend on shrub-steppe habitats include Greater sage-grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, burrowing owls, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, northern leopard frogs, and many more. These exceptionally adapted plants and animals are able to survive in the harsher conditions of this terrain but do often need a helping hand. 

Threats to shrub-steppe

Shrub-steppe landscapes require decades to mature and face an array of threats including wildfires, conversion, and fragmentation. Historically, shrub-steppe lands were sought after and converted to agricultural fields and other development. This has resulted in a significant reduction of available habitat (60-80%, WDFW) and also breaks up large intact lands into smaller fragmented sections. These scattered lands become more vulnerable to disturbance and degradation but are still critical for the connectivity and survival of wildlife. 

An increase in the size and frequency of disastrous wildfires can devastate hundreds of thousands of acres in a single event (as seen in 2020 when the Pearl Hill Fire burned over 170,000 acres in the first day), often leaving nothing but charred ground and shrub skeletons behind. Invasive weeds (like cheat grass) can often colonize these charred lands earlier than native plants can recover or reestablish, requiring an active effort to restore lands after fire. For a long time the delicate balance of this ecosystem has hung in the balance, calling for urgent conservation efforts to safeguard the future of central Washington’s shrub-steppe. 

Luckily, central Washington is also home to a variety of enthusiastic and experienced locals from many Tribal, federal, state, county, regional agencies, organizations, NGOs, landowners, and volunteers who have been dedicated to the protection and recovery of this landscape. These local professionals have joined in many successful collaboratives that have mapped priorities, have advocated for the support and investment into these communities, and fostered partnerships for successful projects using a variety of conservation tools necessary for local restoration and protections. 

Conservation Tools

Land Protection Initiatives

Federal and local agencies, organizations, land trusts, conservation districts and others often work collaboratively to propose, secure funding for, and conduct protection, restoration, and connectivity projects. There are those who specialize in identifying, acquiring, and managing lands for conservation like the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), The Nature Conservancy, Washington State Parks, local land trusts, and other federal wildlife and land management agencies (US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land management, DNR, etc.). These public lands provide opportunities for restoration and recreation, allowing many to learn about and experience this remarkable ecosystem. 

Others work to help private landowners enroll into conservation and land stewardship programs that provide guidance, support, and funding for restorative land management and protections. Programs and conservation easements are often available that provide benefits for local landowners who enroll acreage for long term protection and conservation actions such as restoring lands back to native habitat, improvements, and monitoring. These activities provide restored habitat for the persistence of local wildlife and critical stepping stones that connect fragmented shrublands. There are many examples of effective and valuable programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (USDA), the Voluntary Stewardship Program (Washington State Conservation Commission), the Conservation Stewardship Program (NRCS), among other similar or complementary initiatives. 

Grouse, pygmy rabbits, and other ground dwelling and migrating species rely heavily on these protected lands here in Washington, and we are fortunate to have local lands managers, private landowners, and these programs that provide the support and stable environment needed to reestablish and restore native plant and wildlife communities.  

Restoration Projects

Intentional efforts are underway to restore degraded or disturbed lands and there are many restoration tools we use to accomplish this.

  • Restoring native plant communities

After a wildfire, or in an area in need of restoration, it is often effective to help speed things along by seeding areas with native grasses and planting native species such as sagebrush and other shrubs. We try to work expediently to prevent invasive weeds from outcompeting these native plants, but more often active invasive weed management and removal through herbicides, intentional grazing, or prescribed burning is required. The fall season is a really great time to get plants and seeds in the ground so that they can be better protected from the harsh and hot sun and lack of water. The winter months then provide the cold and precipitation needed to get these plants ready to grow in the upcoming spring.  

  • Restoring creeks, streams, and watersheds

Riparian areas in shrub-steppe landscapes offer resources and refuge for many animals. Restoration actions have been developed and implemented to restore water levels, decrease erosion, and entice ecosystem engineers back into the system where they are needed. Riparian areas are more dominated by grasses, flowering plants (forbs), and trees. Plantings of trees and willows help shade the creeks which improves water quality and fish habitat. Once matured, these trees then drop leaves and woody debris into the creeks adding additional nutrients and structure. Beaver dam analogs (BDAs) or other natural-esque structures can be built in incised or eroded creeks to prevent further damage and begin restoration through natural processes. When a BDA is built, you can witness the water beginning to pool before these structures start collecting sediment (rocks and dirt) that help push around the water to create more stream “branches,” which diversifies the stream bed and makes more water available. These woody structures act similarly to how a natural beaver dam would, but unfortunately there are not as many beavers present in this landscape as there used to be. Through the thoughtful placement and construction of these structures, watersheds can begin the slow process of restoring until hopefully those beavers (who can take over the engineering and construction within streams) can return.


Fragmentation of shrub-steppe habitat has been occurring for decades. Large intact landscapes have been split by roads, fences, and other development. To increase wildlife connectivity and to protect those on the roads, Washington has invested in many wildlife crossing structures along major highways like I-90 and Highway 97. These have effectively reduced wildlife collisions and better-connected habitat. These overpasses, underpasses, and bridges have also been replanted and restored. Wildlife fencing often connects these structures which actively funnel wildlife towards the crossing structures and off the roads. 

Traditional fencing creates barriers to wildlife who can often get caught up or become prevented from moving across these fence lines. Add fire into the mix and you have a real problem on your hands, because those barbed-wire fences burn up and become dilapidated posing an even bigger risk for wildlife. Recently, many organizations and initiatives (WSRRI, NRCS, etc.) have supported the removal or replacement of burned fences with a wildlife friendly or virtual option.  Wildlife friendly fences use smooth wires and markings that are helpful for wildlife. And a newer virtual fence technology for livestock management is being used and has been very effective in reducing the need for physical fences while still improving rotational grazing. Central Washington ranchers with the support of non-profit organizations (like Conservation Northwest), local and federal agencies, and conservation districts have been planning virtual fence projects that improve rotational grazing, spot graze invasive weeds, and help protect Washington’s priority species. 

Community Engagement and Education 

It is important to raise awareness for our local shrub-steppe landscapes, so that we can work together to support conservation efforts on these wild lands. Those who work in conservation also work to share the successes and struggles of their efforts with local residents, students, and other professionals. Educational programs, outreach events, and other opportunities help inspire a sense of stewardship among locals. This has fostered the knowledge and appreciation of this ecosystem that can be passed down for generations. It has also allowed more coordination and volunteer involvement to make a real impact on the ground. Activities occur year-round and often rely on local volunteers to complete. This can include wildlife and habitat monitoring, restoration plantings, fence/barrier removal, or other supplementary actions. Volunteer opportunities can be found by checking in with local organizations (such as KEEN), following them on social media, or keeping an eye out for local announcements.

Hope and Persistence

In the face of mounting challenges, the conservation community remains dedicated to its commitment to preserving the pristine beauty and ecological integrity of central Washington’s shrub-steppe habitat. Through collaborative efforts, community support, and innovative conservation strategies we can ensure that future generations inherit an arid landscape teeming with wildlife critters, native plants, and brimming with natural wonder provided by the quiet and calm of the intact sagelands. 

Learn more about shrub-steppe and meet many of the passionate folks working to conserve our local habitat and wildlife at KEEN’s Get Intimate with Shrub-Steppe!


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