Shrubsteppe was historically the most abundant habitat in the Columbia River Basin of Washington. Declines in abundance and quality of shrubsteppe have coincided with declines in the populations of many species including greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), sage thrashers (Oreoscoptes montanus), and Brewer’s sparrows (Spizella breweri).
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other conservation programs are currently the largest-scale efforts to restore grassland and shrubsteppe habitat in the Columbia River Basin. Administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these voluntary programs pay farmers to take agricultural lands out of production to achieve conservation objectives including reduced soil erosion and provision of wildlife habitat. In Washington, about 600,000 hectares of converted farmland has been planted to perennial grasses, forbs, and shrubs; this makes up roughly 10% of the state’s total agricultural lands. While not an ideal solution to the problem of declining native habitat, conservation programs have enormous potential to provide habitat for many grassland and shrubsteppe species. The purpose of this avenue of research has been to examine the relationship between wildlife and conservation programs in Washington, focusing primarily on species closely adapted to shrubsteppe habitat.
- Shrubsteppe passerines are benefiting from CRP both through creation of suitable nesting habitat and development of a more contiguous “non-cropland” landscape where CRP adjoins fragments of native shrubsteppe.
- CRP was of most benefit to shrubsteppe-obligate passerines and to greater sage-grouse when it contained sagebrush and was located in a shrubsteppe landscape.
- CRP is providing suitable nesting habitat for some passerine birds and for sage-grouse; those species examined were equally successful at nesting in CRP fields compared to native shrubsteppe.
- CRP appears to be gaining in importance as nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering habitat for sage-grouse in Washington as the sagebrush matures.
- The greater sage-grouse population in north-central Washington, an area with abundant CRP, is one of the few populations in North American that is not declining. The population response appears to correspond to the development of CRP fields into habitat with abundant sagebrush.
- Research on conservation programs is continuing with the addition of roughly 25,000 hectares enrolled in the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program in Douglas County. The SAFE program is similar to CRP except that it is tailored to benefit greater sage-grouse.
- Greater sage-grouse populations are monitored annually so that populations can be examined as a response to farm conservation programs.
All photos unless otherwise indicated are courtesy of Michael A. Schroeder