As part of our new Columbia Basin Arid Lands conservation program, we're joining a collaboration to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe habitat for the good of both wildlife and people.
By Alaina Kowitz, Communications and Outreach Associate
The sage grouse pokes her head out to greet the early morning sun rising over Washington’s arid Columbia Basin. She has used the sagebrush as cover for the night, as she does every night. Soon she may use the thick brush to hide her nest when she lays eggs. But today winter is giving way to spring and it’s mating season.
With an occasional “cluck”, the grouse moves cautiously toward the center of the sage flats that fill the floor of a wide coulee bordered by steepening hillsides and brown basalt rimrock. In a small opening, a veritable meadow among the meter-high sage, male grouse are beginning to congregate.
These mating grounds, where males gather to show off elaborate displays during mating season, are called leks. Often prominent openings in the shrub-steppe, leks may be used annually for decades if not disturbed.
The males strut and fan their tail feathers, making popping noises with their inflated chests. The females observe quietly from the brushy shadows. Only a few males will succeed in being chosen as a mating partner. The picky females watch and judge, sometimes for several days, before deciding on a mate. After mating, the female grouse will retreat to a remote thicket of sage to rear her young, with the plant providing both shelter and food.
Historically, these large grouse were abundant throughout Eastern Washington. Today, only about 1,000 birds remain in two isolated breeding populations: one in Douglas and Grant counties and another in Kittitas and Yakima counties. Sporadic sightings also occur in Okanogan, Lincoln and Benton counties.
- Male and female sage grouse. Photo: USFWS
Scientists have long described America’s Sagebrush Sea has “old growth forests in miniature”. This is an ancient and complex shrub-steppe ecosystem that once stretched from the eastern foothills of the Cascades through the Columbia and Great Basins, around the Rocky Mountains and into the western front of the Great Plains. Today, this expansive landscape is fragmented and threatened by development, agriculture, roadways, increasing wildfires and other challenges.
The sage grouse is an “obligate”, reliant on a healthy, connected sagebrush environment to survive. It moves extensively throughout its range searching for mates, food, and cover. Many die on fence lines as they attempt to cross, or become food for raptors, ravens or coyotes. Habitat loss and fragmentation threaten this fascinating but threatened bird, as well as other wildlife like mule deer and pronghorn antelope that thrive in this arid landscape.
Despite historically covering more than a third of Washington, the arid shrub-steppe lands of the Columbia Basin (also known as the Columbia Plateau Ecoregion) are sometimes overlooked among the Evergreen State’s natural treasures. True, rolling deserts of sage and rocky coulees may not inspire with the same grandeur as towering old growth evergreens or massive icy-blue glaciers. But observe the frenzied dances on a grouse lek, or watch a majestic mule deer buck carefully escort does up a well-worn trail, and it’s unfathomable not to want to protect these creatures and the unique landscapes they call home.
We're joining a public-private collaboration
The Arid Lands Initiative, begun in 2009, is composed of multiple private and public entities in Eastern Washington who benefit from coordinating ongoing actions to help achieve goals and objectives. Photos courtesy of the Arid Lands Initiative
Wildlife are not the only ones who thrive in the nuanced beauty of the Columbia Basin. These arid lands are also prized by hikers, wildlife watchers, hunters and anglers. Locals and visitors alike find deep value in connecting with the land and the creatures that live here. Both people and wildlife benefit from the protection and restoration of the Columbia Basin. However, agricultural development has converted much of the landscape from shrub-steppe to cropland. Moreover, development is increasing along with appetites for vacation “ranchettes”. These changes threaten this complex ecosystem. Because of its disappearing habitat, the sage grouse has been listed as threatened in Washington.
Challenges like this are why Conservation Northwest is now joining a collaboration with other conservation organizations and state and federal agencies: the Arid Lands Initiative. The Initiative is composed of multiple private and public entities working in Eastern Washington who benefit from coordinating ongoing actions. This collaborative group intends to maintain and restore habitat connectivity in the arid lands of Washington’s Columbia Basin for the good of both wildlife and people.
Participants in the Initiative have been working with landowners to convert land back to its native shrub-steppe state to increase habitat connectivity. It works to ensure that existing fences are flagged to warn grouse, as well as high enough off the ground to allow pronghorn to crawl under. Projects are undertaken to remove unnecessary fencing and better allow animals like mule deer and big horn sheep to move through the landscape. Healthy watersheds are supported where native Columbia redband rainbow trout can flourish. And the effort works to place wildlife crossings and better signage on roadways to protect people and wildlife from vehicle collisions. Mule deer, sage grouse, and badgers are especially high on the road kill count.
Working with our partners in this important ecosystem will be imperative for our success. With a focus on conservation in the Columbia Basin as a new program area for Conservation Northwest’s 2017-2022 Strategic Plan, we look forward to immersing ourselves more in this landscape and the Arid Lands Initiative in the years ahead. We’ll be working to restore habitat and native wildlife, while also supporting sustainable recreation and thriving local communities, so that the sage grouse can continue her lek pilgrimage for many years to come.
Visit aridlandsinitiative.org for more information on the Initiative and plans to conserve this unique landscape.