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Working together to conserve the shrub-steppe

March 17, 2017 GMT

Shrub-steppe communities form the iconic western landscape of open sagebrush plains, rim rock and tumbleweeds. The shrub-steppe is a semi-arid plant community of perennial bunch grass, forbs and intermittent shrubs rooting out of its characteristic deep-soil. Our shrub-steppe in Kittitas County hosts various species of amphibians, reptiles, small and large mammals and birds. Many species of concern such as the striped whipsnake and the sagebrush lizard call this area home as do state candidate species like the Townsend’s ground squirrel and both black and white-tailed jackrabbits.

Local birders can enjoy glimpses of sage grouse, sage sparrow, sage thrashers and loggerhead shrikes. Roughly 5,000 elk and over 1,000 mule deer winter in the shrub-steppe just east of Ellensburg. Protecting this sensitive habitat is critical for the success of so many species.

Historically, shrub-steppe communities dominated much of Eastern Washington. Today, less than 50 percent of Washington’s historic shrub-steppe remains and much of it is degraded, fragmented or is isolated from other similar habitats. Across the Intermountain West, shrub-steppe communities have been lost to resource extraction and conversion to cropland. The shrub-steppe is particularly sensitive to vegetation disturbances through off road motorized recreation, over-grazing or exotic plant invasion. Fortunately, the culture is shifting to protect these fragile, vital ecosystems.

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Agencies, nonprofits and conservation groups are working to protect key habitats through land acquisition and adaptive management. Thousands of acres of critical shrub-steppe habitat have been brought into public ownership to be conserved in perpetuity. Land managers work to balance habitat conservation and recreational desires. Coordinated Resource Management groups manage livestock grazing to manipulate vegetation and protect ecological integrity. Land managers collaborate with the weed board to eradicate exotic vegetation across ownership boundaries each growing season. Throughout the West, shrub-steppe habitat is being conserved and managed for wildlife and public recreation.

We are fortunate to live amongst this diverse ecosystem exploding with assemblages of flora and fauna. In a few short weeks the shrub-steppe will transform from snow drifts to vast fields of delicate wild flowers. As the new manager of the L.T. Murray, Whiskey Dick, and Quilomene Wildlife Areas, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to explore these complex systems with the expert biologists, taxonomists, historians and local birders that have studied and cherished these lands for decades. It is my privilege to help manage these lands to preserve and protect this fragile ecosystem for future generations to enjoy.

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With the onset of spring knocking at our door, I hope to inspire readers to explore and protect this magnificent place we and many other critters call home. KEEN hosts a diversity of events in the spring that highlight the shrub-steppe and I would encourage our community to engage and learn. Two important upcoming events are the Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest May 12-14, and the 18th annual Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe on Saturday, May 13. You can find out more about their events and gatherings at www.ycic.org.

Melissa Babik received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and her Masters of Science from Central Washington University. She has worked on a variety of wildlife projects across the western states, Mexico and on the Virgin Islands. From 2011 to 2016 she worked as the wildlife biologist and project manager for Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group managing stream restoration projects and leading a five year beaver reintroduction project. She currently works as the manager of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area.

KEEN Connects is a monthly column produced by the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) board members and volunteers. More information is at www.ycic.org.