The shrubsteppe is an arid ecosystem found in Eastern Washington and other western states. As one of Washington’s most diverse ecosystems, shrubsteppe provides habitat for species found nowhere else in the state, such as the greater sage-grouse, sagebrush sparrow, and burrowing owl. With an estimated 80% of historic shrubsteppe lost or degraded to development and agriculture since the arrival of non-native settlers, protecting remaining shrubsteppe habitats is more important than ever.
Here, at the northern extent of the great “Sagebrush Sea” that once sprawled across much of the American West, growing collaboration between agencies, Native American tribes, conservation organizations, local landowners, and other partners seeks to preserve and restore shrubsteppe ecosystems while supporting cultural and economic values.
Despite impacts from severe wildfires and habitat fragmentation, recovery programs are underway for species such as the greater sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, sharp-tailed grouse, and pronghorn antelope, while efforts including the Arid Lands Initiative and Conservation Reserve Program foster constructive partnership for the future of Washington’s shrubsteppe. For wildlife lovers, hunters and anglers, Indigenous peoples, farmers and ranchers, outdoor recreationists and so many others, this land is no desert devoid of life, this land is part of us.
This Land is Part of Us: A short film produced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Northwest.
Description and Range
Shrubsteppe landscapes are dominated by rolling, grassy plains, or “steppe,” with an overstory of sagebrush and other woody shrubs. On the ground, a fragile community of microscopic organisms form the cryptobiotic crust, which locks in moisture and helps prevent erosion. Various habitat features such as streams, wetlands, rocky talus slopes, and canyons support a variety of plants and animals uniquely adapted to the harsh and sensitive shrubsteppe ecosystem.
While Wyoming big sagebrush is the most widespread shrub in this ecosystem, other common shrubs include antelope bitterbrush, three-tip sagebrush, and stiff sagebrush. Common grasses include Idaho fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, Sandberg bluegrass, Thurber's needlegrass, and needle-and-thread. Some shrubsteppe areas have a layer of algae, moss, or lichens which are part of the cryptobiotic crust. In areas with greater precipitation or on soils with higher moisture-holding capacity, shrubsteppe can also support a dense layer of flowering plants. Common and iconic groups of plants in the shrubsteppe include balsamroot, buckwheats, and lupines.
Of the 10.4 million acres of shrubsteppe that existed in Eastern Washington before European settlers arrived in the mid-19th century, only 20% remains. Many areas with deep-soil shrubsteppe (supporting Wyoming big sagebrush) were the first to be converted to agriculture. In addition, non-native grasses such as cheatgrass often dominate existing shrubsteppe, which eliminates most of the native shrub cover through altered fire cycles. Non-native grasses also provide little nutritional value for wildlife and are much more prone to burning. Although fire is a natural part of the shrubsteppe ecosystem, the presence of invasive grasses increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, contributing to the continued decline of shrubsteppe habitat health.
Shrubsteppe landscapes extend from south-central British Columbia into Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, through Idaho, Nevada, and Utah, and into western Wyoming and Colorado.
In Washington, shrubsteppe habitats are throughout the Columbia Plateau and into the surrounding higher elevations regions.
Over 200 species of birds, 30 species of mammals, and numerous species of reptiles, amphibians, and insects live in and depend on Washington’s shrubsteppe. Look for mule deer, western fence lizards, burrowing owls, and northern Pacific rattlesnakes hiding amongst the sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass, which is the official state grass of Washington.
Since remaining shrubsteppe habitat is often fragmented due to development, species that depend on large, intact shrubsteppe habitat, such as the sage thrasher and sagebrush sparrow, are disproportionally affected. Although sensitive species may still use small patches of shrubsteppe, these fragmented areas usually offer less effective breeding habitat and are more susceptible to invasive weeds.
Some species such as the greater sage-grouse require large areas of undisturbed shrubsteppe to survive, as they rely on big sagebrush for cover and as a year-round food source, and are highly sensitive to human disturbance, particularly during the breeding season. While not currently listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the greater sage-grouse may eventually be listed as endangered if shrubsteppe habitats continue to decline. The federally-endangered pygmy rabbit is another species that depends on the sagebrush and undisturbed deep soil of shrubsteppe landscapes.
Although many shrubsteppe-dependent species are on the decline, this ecosystem continues to support a rich array of species, including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bats, rabbits, rodents, frogs, snakes, lizards, and birds. Streams running through otherwise arid shrubsteppe can support species not typically thought of as living in arid climates such as porcupines, beavers, and songbirds.
Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
Governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations are attempting to restore populations of greater sage-grouse with the aid of land acquisition, habitat improvement, conservation programs, and translocations. Between 2004 and 2016, WDFW, Yakima Training Center, Yakama Nation, and others collaborated to translocate this species from other states (Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming) to augment existing populations in Washington.
Did you know?
During the mating season, males inflate yellow throat sacs to make popping sounds to attract females.
Traditional lek (mating) sites may be used for years.
- Sage-grouse have a specialized stomach that can digest sagebrush, their main food.
Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis)
Major recovery efforts continue for the pygmy rabbit in Washington. In 2001, with as few as 16 pygmy rabbits known to exist in Washington, the WDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) initiated a captive breeding program with the intent of reintroducing rabbits to the wild, but none of the pygmy rabbits from the first release in 2007 survived beyond the first year.
Since 2011, thousands of pygmy rabbits have been released into the wild on Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in Douglas County and on The Nature Conservancy Preserve in the Beezley Hills in Grant County as a result of collaborative recovery efforts between WDFW, USFWS, the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University, other state wildlife agencies, Northwest Trek, The Nature Conservancy in Washington, and Conservation Northwest.
Did you know?
Pygmy rabbits make a whistle sound to warn others of predators.
Rather than jumping like other rabbits, they scuttle close to the ground.
They are one of two rabbit species that dig their own burrow.
Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis)
The population size of ferruginous hawks in Washington is low. This species is impacted by the loss and fragmentation of shrubsteppe and grasslands from agriculture and residential development and associated declines in distribution and abundance of its primary prey, jackrabbits and ground squirrels. Washington State is on the northwestern edge of the species' breeding range. In 2002, only 20% of historical ferruginous hawk nesting territories in Washington were occupied, with many vacant for years.
Did you know?
- The ferruginous hawk is the largest hawk in North America with an average 4.5-foot wing span.
- The word 'ferruginous' means rust-colored, and refers to the reddish color commonly seen on their back and legs.
Ferruginous hawks and rough-legged hawks are the only North American hawks to have feathered legs all the way down to their toes.
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus)
The population size of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in Washington is low. Shortages of nesting, brood rearing, and wintering habitats are important factors limiting population recovery. Maintaining the species in Washington will require restoring habitat and increasing populations. The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were the most abundant and important game bird in Eastern Washington during the 1800s. The current distribution of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse covers only about 2.8% of their historical range in Washington.
Did you know?
- In the spring, males gather on leks (traditional mating grounds) to dance and attract a mate. Males also inflate their purplish air sacs on the side of their neck to court females.
- Sharp-tailed grouse grow fleshy projections on their toes called pectinae that distribute the bird's weight as it walks across snow fields or other uneven terrain.
- In winter, these birds sometimes build tunnels in the snow for protection and to keep warm.
Places to explore
Washington’s wildlife areas provide habitat for fish and wildlife as well as land for outdoor recreation. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit these areas to hunt, camp, hike, fish, and enjoy other outdoor activities. These activities support local economies and contribute to Washington’s wildlife-related recreation industry.
WDFW owns or manages nearly a million acres of land on 33 wildlife areas across the state. In addition to wildlife areas, WDFW also owns or manages hundreds of water access areas that provide boating access to lakes, rivers, and marine areas.
All visitors to WDFW lands need to purchase and display a current Discover Pass or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass. Annual and daily Discover Passes are available online at fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov or at license vendors across the state. Vehicle Access Passes are free with the purchase of most Washington hunting or fishing licenses.
WDFW Wildlife Areas
- George Creek
The George Creek Unit is comprised of steep rocky canyons with riparian habitat in the canyon bottoms. George Creek forms the largest sub-basin within the Asotin Creek watershed, but this creek, along with its tributaries Pintler and Rockpile creeks, has no surface flow for the majority of the lower reaches.
- Quincy Lakes
The Quincy Lakes Unit has been shaped over time by lava flows, glacial floodwaters, erosion, and seepage from irrigation water. Visitors to this unit will experience towering 800-foot basalt cliffs, isolated mesas, stair stepped benches, box canyons, and potholes. Several of the potholes are filled with water that has seeped from the irrigation of the Quincy Basin farmlands upslope, adding important diversity to the unit's fish and wildlife habitat.
The Cowiche Unit is an excellent example of intact shrubsteppe plant community attracting a variety of shrub steppe obligate birds. Birders and nature lovers can see many bird species and beautiful spring wildflowers throughout the area. Elk and mule deer can be found year-round. This unit is walk-in and horseback access ONLY.
- Whiskey Dick
The Whiskey Dick Unit offers steep, rocky slopes and rolling ridges and canyons, most of which are covered by shrubsteppe habitat. The Wild Horse Wind Farm, owned and managed by Puget Sound Energy is adjacent to the boundary of the Whiskey Dick Unit, and spans from Quilomene Ridge Road south to Vantage Highway.
The Revere Wildlife Area consists of Palouse grassland/shrub-steppe/scabland terrain with seeps and springs in the Rock Creek drainage, supporting a rich array of wildlife species. The area is popular for hunting, mostly mule deer, upland bird, and coyote, and some people fish the creek. This is also a good area for viewing spring wildflowers and shrubsteppe obligate songbirds.
- Central Ferry Canyon
The Central Ferry Canyon Unit offers extensive shrubsteppe habitat for mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, dusky grouse, white-tailed jackrabbit, sage thrasher, Brewer's sparrows, ravens, and other wildlife. Due to its northern aspect and elevation gain (more than 1,500 feet), the unit also supports a mixed forest habitat type including aspen, birch, Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. Hunter registration is required on this unit.
Other places to visit
Shrubsteppe is identified as a “Priority habitat” under the Priority Habitat and Species Program (PHS). Priority habitats are habitat types or elements with unique or significant value to a diversity of species. A priority habitat may consist of a unique vegetation type (like shrubsteppe) or dominant plant species (like juniper savannah), a described successional stage (like old-growth forest), or a specific habitat feature (like cliffs).
WDFW management tools
The PHS Program is the agency's primary means of transferring fish and wildlife information from our resource experts to local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect habitat. PHS information is used primarily by cities and counties to implement and update land use plans and development regulations under the Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act.
In the State Wildlife Action Plan “Habitats of Greatest Conservation Need” (HGCN) chapter, shrubsteppe is listed under the vegetation formation “Semi-Desert Scrub and Grasslands” that includes these ecological systems of concern:
Columbia Plateau Low Sagebrush Steppe
Inter-Mountain Basins Big Sagebrush Steppe
Inter-Mountain Basins Semi-Desert Shrub Steppe
The department’s State Wildlife Action Plan is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife, and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species’ recovery before they are imperiled and more limited. A habitat of greatest conservation need is defined as an ecological system and community types that are essential to the conservation of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in Washington.
Major threats to shrubsteppe habitat
Conversion of shrubsteppe to cropland
Wind and solar power
Unusual fire frequency and intensity
Roads and transmission lines
As in other types of ecosystems, effects of climate change such as shifts in precipitation, drought, and wildfires may affect shrubsteppe plant composition, density, and distribution. Higher levels of rainfall increase plant growth and diversity, while drought negatively affects seedling survival in sagebrush systems and reduces shrub cover. These factors can also exacerbate increased climate change-induced alterations to frequency and intensity of wildfires, which can negatively affect native plants and loss of native shrub cover and expansion of annual grasses.
Habitat requirements for shrubsteppe-associated species of greatest conservation need
Deep soils: American badger, pygmy rabbit, and Washington ground squirrels require relatively deep soils suitable for burrowing. The burrowing actions of some of these species also function to provide natural disturbance in grassland habitats and even provide shelter for burrowing owls.
Minimal habitat fragmentation: Greater sage-grouse, ferruginous hawk, and sagebrush sparrow require large, intact blocks of shrubsteppe habitat.
High ecological integrity: Many species do best where habitats closely represent historical conditions, including being dominated by native perennial plants such as bunchgrasses and where wildfire frequency and intensity is low. Ecological integrity of streams and riparian areas in the shrubsteppe is important for salmon, steelhead, and freshwater fish.
Actions needed to maintain quality habitat
Manage land to maintain the appropriate wildfire frequency and prevent catastrophic fires
Control invasive species, especially cheatgrass
Restore habitat and native species
Restore damaged shrubsteppe habitats by replanting site adapted native shrubsteppe plant species
Ensure grazing practices are consistent with the needs of fish and wildlife
WDFW strives to maintain and restore shrubsteppe to benefit all species. When you visit a WDFW wildlife area, you may see staff and volunteers planting native plants or removing invasive weeds.
In December 2020, WDFW worked with a Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crew from the Department of Ecology to pick millions of tiny sagebrush seeds by hand. These seeds will be planted to speed up the regrowth process on wildlife areas impacted by the Pearl Hill fire in September 2020. Watch the video below to learn more.
WDFW biologists are working with various stakeholder groups to work on solutions that may lead to managing fire cycles to have a smaller footprint and less intensity, which in turn should lead to conservation of shrubsteppe habitat.
Register as a WDFW volunteer to help with activities that benefit fish, wildlife, and habitat.
Get involved in your community
Provide input to your local government about development in shrubsteppe and its impacts to fish and wildlife species.
For example: Take advantage of the public engagement opportunities afforded through Washington State’s land use planning frameworks, including the Growth Management Act (GMA). All towns, cities, and counties are required to protect critical areas, which include fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas (FWHCAs).
If you are an agricultural landowner, producer, or other agricultural operator, and your county participates in the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), get involved with the county’s VSP Work Group.
Support public lands
Buy a Discover Pass for yourself or as a gift– this parking pass provides access to recreation lands managed by WDFW, Washington State Parks, and Washington Department of Natural Resources; and purchasing the pass provides funding to those agencies.
Recreate responsibly in the great outdoors, including following “Leave No Trace” principles.
Engage with partners
Reach out and engage with partners working as part of the Arid Lands Initiative which is tackling management, conservation, and restoration of shrubsteppe in Eastern Washington.
Consider a landowner conservation agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.
Share your shrubsteppe experience
Share your photos and observations of shrubsteppe wildlife species for us to help monitor wildlife populations and habitat.