Washington Shrubsteppe Restoration and Resiliency Initiative: Long-Term Strategy 2024 – 2054


Published: March 1, 2024

Pages: 144

Author(s): Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Conservation Commission

Executive Summary


Once covering more than 10 million acres in Eastern Washington, 60 to 80 percent of our state’s shrubsteppe landscape has been lost or degraded. This is a diverse landscape, with large expanses of arid mixed shrub and grasslands, scattered permanent and seasonal wetlands, riparian areas, sand dunes, and basalt cliffs and talus. It provides habitat for a wide range of wildlife and plant species, some of which only occur here. Many of these dependent species are federally or state listed as endangered or threatened, and yet more are candidates for listing. This landscape is home to people who derive their livelihoods from these lands and provide essential stewardship and conservation of fish and wildlife habitats.

On September 7, 2020, a historic fire event driven by high winds resulted in 80 fires and nearly 300,000 acres burned in a single day; several of these fires were unprecedented in their scale and impact on wildlife. The Cold Springs Canyon/Pearl Hill fire, the largest wildfire in Washington State recorded history, burned over 410,000 acres of shrubsteppe habitats in Douglas and Okanogan Counties, and the Whitney fire impacted an additional 127,400 acres of shrubsteppe habitats in Lincoln County.

The extent of the areas impacted, the speed at which the fires moved, and the intensity at which they burned resulted in severe and immediate impacts to wildlife, habitat, and human communities, through loss of forage for wildlife and domestic livestock, loss of cover for wildlife coming into winter, and loss of structures and fencing used for management of wildlife and working lands. Long-term impacts include the conversion of shrub-dominated to grass-dominated habitats, and the expansion of invasive species. These fires burned in areas that were critical for endangered and threatened species, including greater sage-grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, likely setting back their recovery for many years to come.

In response to the unprecedented damage from these fires, the Washington State Legislature, through a budget proviso, directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to collaborate with the Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to restore shrubsteppe habitat and associated wildlife impacted by wildland fire.

Together, these three agencies worked together to implement immediate actions that support wildlife habitat and rural landowners in response to these fires, and collaboratively develop a long-term strategy to conserve and restore wildlife habitats, enhance wildfire preparedness and response, and support working lands in Eastern Washington’s shrubsteppe landscape. This collective effort is the Washington Shrubsteppe Restoration and Resiliency Initiative (WSRRI).

WSRRI’s primary objective is to conserve and restore Washington’s shrubsteppe wildlife and habitat with an emphasis on addressing the escalating extent, frequency, and severity of wildland fires. WSRRI also addresses the needs of people that live and work in Washington’s shrubsteppe ecosystems and benefit from healthy and resilient landscapes, habitat, and wildlife populations. WSRRI is a collaborative effort, closely informed and guided by an advisory group comprised of tribal nations and diverse stakeholders with a vested interest in Washington’s shrubsteppe landscape, including various public and private partners.

This strategy recognizes that cooperation with tribal nations is fundamental to the ongoing stewardship and management of Washington's shrubsteppe landscape.

WSRRI Vision, Mission, and Guiding Principles

Developed with input from an Advisory Group representing broad stakeholders, the vision, mission, and guiding principles articulate the desired outcomes of the Long-Term Strategy (Strategy).

WSRRI’s vision is a resilient shrubsteppe landscape, achieved through collaborative partnerships for the benefit of wildlife and human communities.

WSRRI’s mission, as inspired by the State Legislature, is to implement the collaboratively developed Long-Term Strategy for shrubsteppe conservation and wildland fire preparedness, response, and recovery, to meet the needs of the state’s shrubsteppe wildlife and human communities.

Guiding Principles in developing the Strategy:

  1. Focus on Shrubsteppe Wildlife and Habitat Conservation
  2. Support Working Lands and Rural Communities
  3. Strategically Target Investments
  4. Accelerate the Pace and Scale of Conservation and Restoration
  5. Support and Build Upon Existing Efforts and Capacity
  6. Incorporate Diverse and Traditional Perspectives
  7. Proactively Address Equity and Environmental Justice
  8. Monitor Results and Adapt Strategies

Committing to Environmental Justice

Addressing environmental justice (EJ) and inequities through implementation of the Strategy requires meaningful involvement with underserved, highly impacted, overburdened, and vulnerable human populations across Washington’s shrubsteppe landscape to identify their needs, how to meet them, and taking actions that address these needs. WSRRI is committed to these fundamental principles, and this strategy lays the groundwork for developing actions to further assess and integrate EJ and equity principles into shrubsteppe conservation and wildland fire preparedness, response, and recovery.

The Importance of Private Lands in Shrubsteppe Conservation

Private lands constitute approximately 75% of the Columbia Plateau in Washington, making private landowners and managers key partners in shrubsteppe habitat protection and restoration. Working lands provide a significant benefit by keeping the shrubsteppe landscape open in the face of development pressure, conserving shrubsteppe habitat for wildlife. Livestock grazing is a common practice on the working lands in the shrubsteppe ecosystem. When managed properly, grazing can benefit wildlife and shrubsteppe habitat. However, improper grazing can also be a threat and cause great damage. The Strategy provides recommendations to implement grazing management programs while striving to find a balance in supporting both human and wildlife communities. We recognize the essential role of working lands and rural communities to steward and conserve shrubsteppe habitats, and the Strategy identifies support and opportunities for their sustained well-being, while also protecting wildlife and habitat. The WSRRI organizational structure will provide opportunities for working lands communities to contribute their insights and knowledge, through participation in an Advisory Group, Regional Implementation Teams, and Local Grazing Networks, and participate in implementing wildlife conservation projects supported by funding provided by their local agency partners.

Strategic Approach

Given the extent of habitat loss across the shrubsteppe landscape, all remaining habitat has conservation value, but it is necessary to collaboratively and strategically prioritize action to realize the best conservation outcomes. WSRRI’s strategic approach to this prioritization in the Strategy is built upon the principles of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Sagebrush Conservation Strategy (Remington et al. 2021) and Sagebrush Conservation Design (Doherty et al. 2022). At the root of these principles is a collaborative framework to “defend the core, grow the core, and mitigate impacts” where core habitat is the highest quality remaining on the landscape. Because of habitat fragmentation across Washington’s shrubsteppe landscape, and the need to keep wildlife populations connected to each other for long-term viability, WSRRI’s approach is not only to defend and grow the core, but also connect it.

To facilitate this approach, the Strategy development process included collaboratively identifying, geographically, core areas, growth opportunity areas, corridors, and other habitat, to guide where on the landscape WSRRI and its partners should invest proactively and implement specific actions. Maps of these spatial priorities were developed for both dry (xeric) and wet (mesic) habitats, as well as greater sage-grouse, a species of highest conservation concern.

Core Areas have the highest quality habitat, and actions targeted here should include protection, threat prevention and abatement, and restoration where disturbances occur despite protection measures.

Growth Opportunity Areas are areas with significant amounts of habitat that is more degraded than habitat in core areas and should be targeted for strategic restoration where increases in habitat quality would result in more core area.

Corridors are relatively free of wildlife movement barriers and connect core areas and growth opportunity areas across the landscape. Further barrier development (e.g., road construction) should be avoided in corridors.

Other Habitat is more degraded than the other three categories but is still important to retain and, if resources allow, their condition should be improved over time.

While these maps will influence the geographic application of many specific WSRRI strategic actions and investments over its 30-year planning period, ongoing mitigation of threats to shrubsteppe habitats, wildlife, and human communities (e.g., invasive annual grasses, wildland fire) across the shrubsteppe landscape will continue to be necessary.


Human communities in the shrubsteppe landscape are better protected, prepared, and resilient to wildland fire, engaged in shrubsteppe conservation, and economically viable.

The extent, frequency, and severity of wildland fire in the shrubsteppe landscape are similar to pre-1800s fire return intervals, while taking into consideration changes in land use, climate, and other modern factors.

Habitat quantity and quality is increased to support healthy wildlife populations and communities.

Populations of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) are: representative, ensuring they can adapt to changing conditions; resilient so they are able to persist despite disturbance; and redundant, such that they can withstand catastrophic events.


WSRRI considered the following threats, the factors contributing to them, and their impacts to wildlife and human communities while developing our strategies and actions.

  • Altered wildland fire regimes
  • Altered hydrology
  • Invasive plant species
  • Climate change
  • Wild and free roaming horses
  • Incompatible grazing
  • Mining and energy development
  • Land use and development
  • Small wildlife population size
  • Human associated predators
  • Direct human resource use and disturbance


In developing the Strategy, subject matter experts were asked to consider specific mechanisms, structures, and processes necessary to facilitate action and affect change. These are referred to as the “enabling conditions,” which are listed below.

Enabling conditions for the Strategy:

  • Information and Planning
  • Science and Monitoring
  • Organization and Governance
  • Policy and Permitting
  • Resources and Equipment Capacity
  • Outreach and Education
  • Funding

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