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 rabbit, 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.

This Land is Part of Us: A short film produced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Conservation NorthwestFor 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. 

Description and range

Physical description

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.

Wildflowers on shrubsteppe
Photo by WDFW
Shrubsteppe habitat in Eastern Washington

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.

Geographic range

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.

Mule deer in shrubsteppe habitat
Photo by WDFW
Mule deer in shrubsteppe

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.

Shrubsteppe-dependent wildlife species

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.

Species of Greatest Conservation Need 

Species of Greatest Conservation Need include species that are state listed as sensitive, threatened, or endangered, or federal listed as threatened or endangered, as well as additional species thought to need conservation attention. These species of greatest conservation need are the basis for the State Wildlife Action Plan, which is an effort to protect rare species while keeping common species common. 

The plan links species of greatest conservation need to the specific habitats they depend on. To not only survive but thrive, these species require quality habitats.

The following list features Species of Greatest Conservation Need that depend on shrubsteppe habitats. 


* Indicates "at-risk" species, meaning the animal is state listed as sensitive, threatened, or endangered, or is federal listed as threatened or endangered.

At-risk wildlife

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. The federally-endangered pygmy rabbit is another species that depends on the sagebrush and undisturbed deep soil of shrubsteppe landscapes.

"At-risk" species include animals that are listed as sensitive, threatened, or endangered at the state or federal level. 

Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Male and female greater sage-grouse
Photo by WDFW
Male and female greater sage-grouse

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.

Learn more about the greater sage-grouse.

Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis)

Pygmy rabbit
Photo by WDFW
Pygmy rabbit

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.

Learn more about pygmy rabbits.

Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens)

Largish brown and tan frog with dark brown spots crouched in the grass
Photo by WDFW
Northern leopard frog

This frog is endangered in Washington. Only one known population remains -- in Grant County -- with limited information about population status and trends. Efforts are underway to determine the feasibility of translocations of these frogs to their former range.

Northern leopard frogs are semi-aquatic, requiring aquatic and terrestrial habitats. They are typically underwater (aquatic) during winter and on land (terrestrial) during the summer. The frogs require deep, well-oxygenated water that does not freeze solid for hibernation. These frogs are challenged by non-native vegetation and encroaching, native wetland vegetation that reduce the amount of exposed shoreline where they breed and forage. Northern leopard frogs may be preyed upon by many species throughout their life, but the most common are mustelids (weasel family carnivores), bullfrogs, and fish.

Did you know?

  • The northern leopard frog is the only frog in Washington with round or oval dark spots arranged in irregular rows on its topside.
  • Historically, this species was observed in seven Eastern Washington counties but is now only detected in one (Grant County).
  • These frogs move across land, but little is known about their terrestrial movements in Washington.

Learn more about the northern leopard frog.

Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis)

A ferruginous hawk flies low of sagebrush near a barbed wire fence with wooden posts
Photo by Wallace Keck - National Park Service
Ferruginous hawk

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.

Learn more about ferruginous hawks.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus)

Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse in a birch tree in winter
Photo by WDFW
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

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. 

Learn more about Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. 

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 display a current Discover Pass or WDFW Vehicle Access Pass. Annual and daily Discover Passes are available online at 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.

  • Cowiche

    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.

  • Revere

    The Revere Wildlife Area consists of Palouse grassland/shrubsteppe/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. 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 such as shrubsteppe or a dominant plant species such as juniper savanna; 
  • A described successional stage such as old-growth forest; or
  • A specific habitat feature such as cliffs. 

WDFW management tools

Shrubsteppe habitat
Photo by WDFW
Shrubsteppe is identified as a “Priority habitat” under the Priority Habitat and Species Program.

The Washington Shrubsteppe Restoration and Resiliency Initiative (WSRRI) seeks to address wildlife habitat protection and restoration challenges while also supporting working lands and communities in the face of wildland fire across Washington's shrubsteppe habitat. Wildland fire preparedness, response, and recovery are important components of this effort. The WSRRI long-term strategy provides management guidance for the next 30 years and includes five key elements focused on community engagement, habitat protection, habitat restoration, species management, and fire management.

The Priority Habitat and Species Program is the Department'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. This 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 Department’s State Wildlife Action Plan “Habitats of Greatest Conservation Need” chapter, shrubsteppe includes these ecological systems of concern: the Columbia Plateau Low Sagebrush Steppe, Inter-Mountain Basins Big Sagebrush Steppe, and Inter-Mountain Basins Semi-Desert Shrubsteppe.

The 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 in Washington.

Conservation threats and actions needed

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.

wildflowers on shrubsteppe
Photo by Alan Bauer
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
Major threats to shrubsteppe habitat
  • Conversion of shrubsteppe to cropland
  • Wind and solar power
  • Residential development
  • Soil disturbance
  • Invasive plants
  • Increased fire frequency and intensity
  • Excessive grazing
  • Roads and transmission lines
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

Conservation efforts

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 crew from the Department of Ecology to pick millions of tiny sagebrush seeds by hand. These seeds were 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. 

Fire management

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.

Get involved


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.
  • Engage with partners working as part of the Arid Lands Initiative which is tackling management, conservation, and restoration of shrubsteppe in Eastern Washington.
  • Consider The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This program provides free technical and financial assistance to landowners, managers, tribes, corporations, schools, and nonprofits interested in improving wildlife habitat on their land.
  • Reach out to your local habitat biologist or private lands biologist for ideas on how to conserve, protect, and restore shrubsteppe in your area.

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 followingLeave No Trace principles.

Share your shrubsteppe experience


WDFW publications and guides

Educational materials

Other resources