Within Washington’s interior, a sea of sagebrush acts as a haven hidden in plain sight, with one passing by not noticing that there’s more than meets the eye to this shrub-filled landscape.
It’s easy to see why the state Legislature recently passed a proviso to help this sagebrush steppe survive.
Some of the state’s most identifiable wildlife wander the ecosystem, such as mule deer, ground squirrels and the red-tailed hawk, but vulnerable species found nowhere else in Washington also rely on the land.
The sagebrush steppe is a fundamental piece of the Pacific Northwest, running from southern Canada down the slopes of the east Cascades to Oregon. It’s been under attack for years, with an estimated 80% of the steppe lost or degraded according to a 2022 budget request by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Managers and advocates alike hope that a recent proviso passed through Washington’s legislature will provide crucial funds to help the vulnerable sagebrush steppe.
A direct partner of the proviso is Seattle-based Conservation Northwest and its Sagelands Heritage Program led by Jay Kehne, who has worked for more than 30 years in conservation.
The proviso money will focus on keeping the sagebrush steppe connected as this is necessary to keep genetic variation, allow wildlife to migrate, and to keep the fragile landscape intact.
This can be done in a variety of ways from building over and underpass wildlife crossings to simply removing old barbwire and installing wildlife friendly fencing. The proviso’s funds are more focused on the latter with $1.5 million going toward shrub steppe and rangeland cooperative fencing.
“The bottom line is you have to have the habitat,” Kehne said. “You’ve got to have new territories for the animals to expand out into, places for them to go for this to work.”
Wildfires have also burned large swaths of the steppe in recent years.
September 2020 wildfires, primarily the Cold Springs, Pearl Hill and Whitney fires, burned 800,000 acres of sagebrush and devastated essential wildlife habitat.
The endangered Columbian Basin pygmy rabbit was hit particularly hard with biologists estimating fires killed one-third of the population.
Although plants tend to bounce back well after fires, the plants the wildlife of the steppe rely on, like sagebrush, “takes much longer” to grow back after a fire, according to Kehne.
Pygmy rabbits and sage grouse eat sagebrush and struggle to survive without it. That same sagebrush is used as cover from predators and a means of staying warm for larger species such as mule deer that need bitterbrush to eat and survive the winter.
“They all kind of rely on intact sagebrush ecosystems that include a lot of plant species,” Kehne said.
The proviso granted $2.35 million to recovery after the 2020 wildfires.
According to a WDFW fact sheet, actions planned to be taken include creating and sustaining local jobs in Eastern Washington communities, establishing growing contracts with local nurseries and collaborating with the Sustainability in Prisons Project to increase availability of native shrub steppe seeds and plugs for replanting after fire, and supporting recovery actions for endangered pygmy rabbits and threatened greater sage grouse populations.
There are many partners on the proviso, including Conservation Northwest, the Audubon Society and the Department of Natural Resources, according to Kehne.
“Pulling it all together can be daunting sometimes because there’s so many folks involved in so many programs,” Kehne said.
“But with the shrub steppe proviso, we’re trying to fill the gaps and offer 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 essential to saving the sagebrush steppe he loves.
These lands are used by ranchers to produce forage for cattle, whether it be hay production, grazing on their own land or a lease on other private or federal land, Kehne said.
Contrary to popular belief, he said, ranchers want to see the sagebrush steppe in pristine condition just as much as conservationists.
Forage is one reason, as ranchers want a healthy abundance of vegetation for their cattle on which to feed. When the land is maintained, it ends up in a good outcome for ranchers, local economies and the wildlife as good grazing habitat is good wildlife habitat.
But ranchers also share a love for the land off which they make a living.
“They love the wildlife as much as environmentalist love the wildlife and that comes from a lifetime of being on the land that you’ve got to respect,” Kehne said. “We all want a good environment and habitat for the wildlife we all love to see, and they happen to make a living off the land, so we’re not very far apart from what we want to see. In fact, we’re very close. … Those private landowners that have lived there for many, many years sometimes know a lot more than science can talk about. So we make really good partners.”
The proviso looks to help the ranchers by partnering with landowners on cost-sharing for wildlife-friendly rangeland fencing, and making hay available for ranchers to defer grazing and allow burned habitat time to recover, according to the WDFW fact sheet.
As Kehne said, in the end “what’s good for the cows is good for the grouse.”
A more modern creation, wind and solar energy, also poses a threat.
According to Michael Garrity, the energy, water and major projects division manager at the WDFW, solar projects bring shading, 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 anything that doesn’t requires mowing under solar panels, so it makes it really hard for the native vegetation, like sagebrush, to grow.”
Solar, in particular, poses the greatest threat to vulnerable wildlife.
The greater sage grouse and Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit depend on the native vegetation, solar farms cutting back their food sources or blocking them off with fences. They can also affect the species’ coveted breeding and living areas; proposed solar farms in Douglas County (one of the final strongholds for sage grouse) could potentially “wipe out one of the last habitat and breeding (lek) areas they have left in all of Washington,” according to a letter Conservation Northwest sent to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
Wind projects, although usually taking up more acreage, have less effects as they don’t involve fences and cause much less shading, but they can also harm wildlife dependent on intact habitat and potentially disrupt certain bird habitats.
Some communities have also raised concerns about reduction of farming land and “aesthetic concerns about perceived industrialization of the landscape,” Garrity said.
So how can the sagebrush steppe coexist with these clean energy sources?
“WDFW is very supportive of building out solar and wind resources to meet the state clean energy goals and legal requirements. We just want to see them sited thoughtfully to avoid the worst impact to shrub steppe habitat, other habitats and species,” Garrity said.
Some have suggested constructing projects in areas where they won’t affect wildlife such as already disturbed land.
Potential locations for the solar projects include rooftops, warehouses, server farms, roads, canals and parking garages, according to Garrity and Conservation Northwest.
Garrity has found that some private landowners can lease land for the projects as a source of income and many can farm around the wind turbines. He said in other parts of the world, solar panels have been lifted up to farm underneath them, a potential solution in Washington.
WDFW is hoping state legislature will approve a budget request to improve coexistence and sagebrush safety.
To keep on top of an “exploding number of solar proposals,” two new staff would be hired if the request passes.
One hire would be engaged in policy forums, helping to find ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts of solar facilities, and looking to “funnel solar projects to areas of less controversy, whether that controversy stems from wildlife concerns, agriculture concerns, cultural resources concerns or anything like that,” Garrity said.
The other employee would look over developing solar facilities, participating in potential siting conversations, and making sure that WDFW biologist are prepared and supported in working with solar proposals.
Garrity compared the situation to the hydropower boom of the 20th century that was done in such haste that salmon, steelhead and lamprey populations were significantly damaged or wiped out in some 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.
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