State agencies convene advisory groups to guide work for shrubsteppe fire preparedness, response, and restoration

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Hannah Anderson, 360-515-6885
Rachel Blomker, 360-701-3101

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In 2020, wildfires scorched much of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area in Lincoln County. 

OLYMPIA – During the 2021 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature appropriated $2.35 million from the general state fund to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to restore and protect shrubsteppe habitat in Eastern Washington amid the threat of wildfires. These operating funds are to be appropriated each biennium (two-year period). An additional $1.5 million of capital funds to rebuild wildlife-friendly fences in prioritized areas will be available through June 2023.

The shrubsteppe is an arid ecosystem found in Eastern Washington and other western states. Once covering over 10 million acres in Eastern Washington, 80% of historic shrubsteppe has been lost or degraded. In 2020 alone, 600,000 acres of this imperiled landscape burned in devastating wildfires.

“This is a historic opportunity. We’ve never had this kind of dedicated funding and support focused on shrubsteppe before,” said Kelly Susewind, WDFW Director. “Collaboration will be key in this effort, and we are looking forward to working with partners and stakeholders to create a more resilient shrubsteppe landscape.”

The new funding will support near-term actions to benefit wildlife habitat and landowners in shrubsteppe communities affected by wildfires, including supporting recovery actions for endangered pygmy rabbits and Greater sage-grouse populations. Restoration efforts will be coordinated with other natural resource agencies and interested stakeholders.

Pygmy rabbit
Roughly half of the pygmy rabbit population in Washington was lost in 2020 wildfires. New state funding will support actions to recover this endangered species and other wildlife that depend on shrubsteppe habitat.

A portion of the funding will be used by WDFW to form a collaborative group process representing diverse stakeholders and facilitated by a neutral third-party to develop a long-term strategy for shrubsteppe conservation and fire preparedness, response, and restoration to meet the needs of the state’s shrubsteppe wildlife and human communities.

WDFW partnered with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) to form a steering committee that will meet regularly and make decisions on how to best use state funds after considering input from two advisory groups and associated technical teams.

“Washingtonians identify with the natural beauty and biodiversity of our state; recreating and connecting with nature from our coastline and mountains to sagebrush desert and grasslands," said Duane Emmons, State Lands Division Manager for DNR. "By conserving our native species and ecosystems, we can ensure that future generations inherit the Washington that we know today.”

“The Conservation Commission has been working with conservation districts and other partners on 2020 wildfire recovery efforts,” said Carol Smith, executive director of the SCC. “When WDFW approached us with this opportunity, it was a natural fit to join the team. We are excited to contribute to this very important work.”

Restoration actions may include increasing the availability of native plant materials, increasing the number of trained personnel for restoration implementation at scale, support for wildlife-friendly fencing replacement, support for private landowners/ranchers to defer wildland grazing and allow natural habitat regeneration, and species-specific recovery actions. 

For more information about the steering committee and advisory groups, including meeting calendars, agendas, and materials, visit WDFW’s website at https://wdfw.wa.gov/about/advisory/ssc.

To learn more about shrubsteppe habitats in Washington, visit WDFW’s website or watch the short film, “This Land is Part of Us” produced in partnership with Conservation Northwest.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect, and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish, wildlife, and recreational and commercial opportunities.

Individuals who need to receive this information in an alternative format, language, or who need reasonable accommodations to participate in WDFW-sponsored public meetings or other activities may contact the Title VI/ADA Compliance Coordinator by phone at 360-902-2349, TTY (711), or email (Title6@dfw.wa.gov). For more information, see https://wdfw.wa.gov/accessibility/requests-accommodation.