In the interior of Washington, a sea of sagebrush acts as a haven of peace hidden from view, with a passerby not noticing that there is more to this shrub-filled landscape than meets the eye.
It’s easy to see why the state legislature recently passed a provision to help this sagebrush steppe survive.
Some of the state’s most identifiable wildlife roam the ecosystem, such as mule deer, ground squirrels, and the red-tailed hawk, but vulnerable species not found anywhere else in Washington also depend on it. of the earth.
The sagebrush steppe is a staple of the Pacific Northwest, stretching from southern Canada to the slopes of the Eastern Cascades to Oregon. It has been under attack for years, with around 80% of the steppe lost or degraded according to a 2022 budget request from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Managers and advocates are hopeful that a recent provision passed by the Washington legislature will provide crucial funds to help the vulnerable sagebrush steppe.
A direct partner of the reserve is Seattle-based Conservation Northwest and its Sagelands Heritage program led by Jay Kehne, who has worked in conservation for over 30 years.
The money in reserve will focus on keeping the sagebrush steppe connected, as this is necessary to maintain genetic variation, allow wildlife to migrate, and keep the fragile landscape intact.
This can be done in a variety of ways, from building animal crossings above and below to simply removing old barbed wire and installing wildlife-friendly fences. The conditional clause funds are more focused on the latter, with $ 1.5 million earmarked for cooperative shrub-steppe and pasture fencing.
Forest fires have also burned large swathes of the steppe in recent years.
The September 2020 wildfires, primarily the Cold Springs, Pearl Hill and Whitney fires, burned 800,000 acres of sagebrush and devastated critical wildlife habitat.
The endangered dwarf rabbit of the Colombian Basin was particularly affected, with biologists estimating that the fires had killed a third of the population.
Although plants tend to rebound well after fires, plants on which steppe fauna depend, such as sagebrush, “take much longer” to regrow after a fire, according to Kehne.
Pygmy rabbits and sage grouse eat mugwort and struggle to survive without it. This same mugwort is used as a blanket against predators and a way to stay warm for large species such as mule deer that need bitterness to eat and survive the winter.
“They all depend on intact sagebrush ecosystems that include many plant species,” Kehne said.
The conditional clause provided $ 2.35 million for recovery from the 2020 wildfires.
According to a WDFW fact sheet, planned actions include creating and maintaining local jobs in communities in eastern Washington, establishing growth contracts with local nurseries and working with the Sustainability in Project. Prisons to increase the availability of native shrub-steppe seeds and clods for post-fire replanting and to support recovery efforts for endangered pygmy rabbits and endangered sage-grouse populations.
According to Kehne, there are many partners provided Conservation Northwest, Audubon Society and the Department of Natural Resources.
“Putting it all together can be intimidating at times because there are so many people involved in so many programs,” Kehne said.
“But with the shrub steppe conditional, we are trying to fill in the gaps and provide more opportunities for private, state, federal and tribal landowners to do more things and get back on track after these huge catastrophic fires. “
Kehne has learned that teamwork and partnerships are key to saving the sagebrush steppe he loves.
This land is used by ranchers to produce fodder for livestock, whether it’s producing hay, grazing on their own land, or leasing other private or federal lands, Kehne said.
Contrary to popular belief, he said, herders want to see the sagebrush steppe in pristine condition just as much as environmentalists.
Forage is one reason, as ranchers want an abundance of healthy vegetation for their livestock to feed on. When the land is tended, it translates into a good outcome for ranchers, local economies, and wildlife, as good grazing habitat is good habitat for wildlife.
But ranchers also share a love for the land on which they live.
“They love wildlife as much as environmentalists love wildlife and it comes from a life spent on earth that you have to respect,” Kehne said. “We all want a good environment and a good habitat for the wildlife that we all love to see, and they live off the land, so we’re not that far removed from what we want to see. In fact, we are very close. … The private landowners who have lived there for many, many years sometimes know far more than science can tell. So we make very good partners.
The conditional clause is intended to help ranchers by partnering with landowners to share the costs of a wildlife-friendly range fence and by making hay available to ranchers to defer grazing and allow for burnt habitat. to recover, according to the WDFW fact sheet.
As Kehne said, at the end of the day “what’s good for cows is good for grouse”.
A more modern creation, wind and solar, is also a threat.
According to Michael Garrity, head of the energy, water and major projects division at WDFW, solar projects provide shade, mowing and fencing.
“Typically, you wouldn’t have shade, obviously, in a sunny, dry shrub-steppe ecosystem,” Garrity said. “And you can’t really have something that doesn’t require mowing under solar panels, so that makes growing native vegetation, like sagebrush, very difficult.”
Solar energy, in particular, poses the greatest threat to vulnerable wildlife.
The greater sage grouse and the Columbia Basin dwarf rabbit rely on native vegetation, with solar farms reducing their food sources or blocking them with fences. They can also affect the coveted breeding and living areas of the species; The proposed solar farms in Douglas County (one of the sage grouse’s last strongholds) could potentially “wipe out one of the last habitats and breeding grounds (lek) they have left across Washington,” according to one letter from Conservation Northwest to government Jay Inslee’s office.
Wind projects, although generally occupying more area, have less effect because they do not involve fencing and cause much less shade, but they can also harm wildlife dependent on intact habitat and potentially disturb some bird habitats.
Some communities also raised concerns about the reduction in farmland and “aesthetic concerns about the perceived industrialization of the landscape,” Garrity said.
So how can the sagebrush steppe coexist with these clean energy sources?
“WDFW strongly supports the creation of solar and wind resources to meet the state’s clean energy goals and legal requirements. We just want to see them thoughtfully located to avoid the worst impact on shrub steppe habitat, other habitats and species, ”Garrity said.
Some have suggested building projects in areas where they will not affect wildlife, such as already disturbed land.
Potential locations for solar projects include rooftops, warehouses, server farms, roads, canals and parking lots, according to Garrity and Conservation Northwest.
Garrity found that some private landowners can lease land for projects as a source of income, and many can farm around wind turbines. He said that in other parts of the world, solar panels have been lifted to be grown under them, a potential solution in Washington.
WDFW hopes the state legislature will approve a budget request to improve sagebrush coexistence and security.
To keep control of an “explosive number of solar proposals”, two new employees would be hired if the request is accepted.
A hiring would be engaged in policy forums, helping to find ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate the impacts of solar installations, and seeking to “channel solar projects to less controversial areas, as this controversy stems from concerns related to wildlife, agriculture, cultural resources. concerns or something, ”Garrity said.
The other employee would take care of the development of the solar installations, participate in conversations about potential sites and ensure that the WDFW biologist is prepared and supported in working with the solar proposals.
Garrity compared the situation to the 20th century hydroelectric boom that was made in such a rush that populations of salmon, rainbow trout and lamprey were significantly damaged or wiped out in parts of the Pacific Northwest. by dams.
“A lot of that could have been avoided with more forethought, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Garrity said.