In contrast to places like the forested and snowy mountains of the North Cascades, Pacific Northwest coastline beaches, and temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia, the sagelands and deserts of the American West might seem dull and barren. But these ecosystems and habitats are so much more than they seem and are gorgeous in their own ways. There are numerous plant and animal species that call these areas home and add to the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest.
As an ecosystem, shrubsteppe is a relatively arid natural grassland with perennial grasses or shrubs. In North America, this type of ecosystem can be found in the western United States and Canada, between the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east. In the Pacific Northwest, shrubsteppe can be found in eastern Washington and Oregon. In Oregon, there are sagebrush habitats in four ecoregions that are considered to be of most concern around the state: the Blue Mountains, the Columbia Plateau, the East Cascades, and the Northern Basin.
According to Audubon Washington, an estimated 10.5 million acres of Washington were once covered by sagebrush and native grasses, which means almost a quarter of the state was once sagelands. The native grasses and plants of this type of ecosystem include big sagebrush, bitterbrush, blue bunch wheatgrass, balsamroot, lupines, and phacelia. In addition to many different types of flora species, there are over 200 avian species, 30 mammal species, and numerous reptile, amphibian, and insect species in Washington’s own shrubsteppe.
Some species, like the Greater Sage-Grouse, Burrowing Owl, and Pygmy Rabbit, rely heavily on the shrubsteppe ecosystems and some are considered “at risk” in part because the habitat they rely on is disappearing. Other species, like bighorn sheep, are doing well in population but still face threats from diseases passed on from grazing livestock. Pronghorn Antelope are another species that relies heavily on shrub-steppe and grasslands and historically, Washington was the northwestern extent of their range. Nowadays, it’s rare to see pronghorns in the state and their general population has significantly declined in the last century.
Like other ecosystems and habitats, the sagelands and shrub-steppe of the Pacific Northwest face threats like devastating wildfires, urbanization, climate change, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and incompatible grazing practices. Unfortunately, an estimated 80% of Washington’s historic shrubsteppe has been lost or degraded because of development and agriculture and what’s left is fragmented by roads, highways, and other urban development.
Organizations like Audubon Washington and Conservation Northwest are working towards identifying and protecting the shrub-steppe ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. Audubon Washington, for example, has spent years working on the Sagebrush Songbird Survey, which has helped build species distribution models for songbirds in sagebrush habitats. Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program reconnects shrub-steppe habitats by promoting habitat corridors, integrating First Nations and Tribal knowledge and communities in conservation work, and more. Conservation Northwest has also worked with local ranchers and the Washington State Legislature to protect the shrub-steppe regions of the state.
For someone from a heavily forested and coastal area, finding the beauty in sagelands and desert areas was (and continues to be) a very active and mindful act. If you find yourself in these areas with some time to spare, consider spending the time quietly looking and listening for the beauty of these ecosystems. There is so much more to these areas than one might imagine.
Have you been to this type of habitat before? Let me know in the comments!