Shrubsteppe Fire Preparedness, Response, and Restoration

Wildflowers on shrubsteppe

During the 2021 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature appropriated $2.35 million from the state general 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. 

WDFW formed a steering committee in partnership with the Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to make decisions on how to use new state funding to benefit wildlife by restoring shrubsteppe habitat, implementing species-specific recovery actions, and supporting working lands in Eastern Washington. An advisory group with representatives from local, state, federal, Tribal, agricultural, and conservation organizations provided recommendations to the steering committee on delivery mechanisms, location priorities, and restoration program development. 

The new effort is named the Washington Shrubsteppe Restoration and Resiliency Initiative (WSRRI). This collective work will prepare us to be able to step in and provide help immediately when a future wildfire crisis occurs.   

About the Washington Shrubsteppe Restoration and Resiliency Initiative (WSRRI)

Helping wildlife also helps people

The primary purpose of the WSRRI is to benefit Washington's shrubsteppe wildlife, particularly in the face of increasing frequency and intensity of wildland fire, recognizing and acknowledging the shared benefit to human communities. 

Working together to build a more resilient shrubsteppe

The WSRRI is making policy recommendations, identifying spatial priorities, and setting strategic direction to create a shrubsteppe landscape more resilient to fire, to better respond to wildland fire when it occurs, and to restore habitat after fires. As a collaborative initiative, the WSRRI is led by a tri-state agency coalition consisting of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Conservation Commission, and Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The WSRRI is informed and advised by the diverse interests of Washington's shrubsteppe landscape, including Tribal entities and public and private partners.

The WSRRI provides support to benefit Washington's shrubsteppe wildlife by restoring burned habitat, implementing recovery actions for at-risk species, and supporting working lands impacted by recent wildfire. 

WSRRI aims to:

  • Deliver support for restoration projects primarily by providing coordinated and shared resources and services to landowners on the ground rather than solely providing funding as project grants. 
  • Expand and enhance available restoration resources such as native plant materials, skilled habitat management professional, specialized equipment and operators, and other professionals needed to advance restoration actions. 
  • Be responsive with restoration resources and services within the critical ecological windows that occur post-fire. 

2022-23 WSRRI priorities

The WSRRI will coordinate delivery of resources and services to projects that benefit wildlife by restoring shrubsteppe habitat, rebuilding wildlife friendly fencing, and incentivizing grazing practices that allow for habitat recovery after wildfires. Initially, WSRRI will focus on landscapes damaged by the Pearl Hill, Cold Springs, and Whitney fires in September 2020 (Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties). 

Starting Feb. 14, 2022, private, tribal, and public landowners could submit project applications to benefit wildlife impacted by wildfire in Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties. Panels conducted their first review of project proposals in early March. Initial working lands projects have been selected and solicitation for new projects is closed at this time. Solicitation for habitat restoration projects remains open on an ongoing basis until all available funds and resources are allocated.  

All WSRRI project applications were evaluated for benefit to Species of Greatest Conservation Need and other wildlife in the context of important data sets, including breeding habitats, habitat concentration areas, and Arid Lands Initiative priority areas. Further, selection panels considered current and future land use, likelihood of project success, long-term commitment to wildlife habitat, and overall wildlife value. Special considerations were given to projects within pygmy rabbit recovery areas as well as important breeding and wintering habitats for Greater sage-grouse and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

1. At-risk species recovery actions for 2022-23

  • Installing a fuel break at The Nature Conservancy’s Beezley Hills Preserve to protect pygmy rabbit population.
  • Providing support to assess and establish a third Pygmy Rabbit Recovery Area to replace the one destroyed by the Pearl Hill fire.
  • Supporting Washington State University-led research to assess wildlife communities in relation to land use and wildland fire.

2. Working lands resources for 2022-23

The Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC) is facilitating working lands support resources, which include removal of burned fence, fence retrofit or replacement with wildlife friendly versions (including virtual fence opportunities), and facilitating deferred grazing to allow habitat time to recover. Initial projects have been selected and implementation is underway.  

3. Habitat restoration resources for 2022-23

The WSRRI habitat restoration objective is to enhance and restore wildlife habitat, with a special emphasis on benefitting Species of Greatest Conservation Need as identified in Washington’s State Wildlife Action Plan. WDFW will facilitate habitat restoration resources, which include labor from Washington Conservation Corps crews, cultural resources reviews, native plant materials, and limited project support funding. 

Starting Feb. 14, 2022, resources and services are available for habitat restoration projects within the Pearl Hill, Cold Springs, and Whitney fires footprints. WSRRI aims to support restoration work conducted through June 2023, but applicants may seek future support for ongoing needs in longer-term projects For more information, review the WSRRI Habitat Restoration fact sheet.

Contact WSRRI Coordinator Kurt Merg at 509-288-7067 or kurt.merg@dfw.wa.gov to discuss potential habitat restoration projects.

Habitat Restoration Resources

Resource/Service

Availability

Materials

Limited quantities of plant materials (e.g., seeds and sagebrush plugs) and herbicides.

Field Assistance

Two, five-person Washington Conservation Corps crews to support on-the-ground labor needs.

Cultural Resource Review
Projects supported by WSRI are subject to Cultural Resources review and consultation requirements consistent with Governor’s Executive Order 21-02.

Cultural Resource consultations and surveys can be provided for selected projects on all non-federal lands. For projects on federal lands, WDFW will defer to Section 106 consultation conducted by federal partners. WDFW will ensure that responsibilities under the Governor’s Executive Order 21-02 are met. 

Funding

Approximately $240,000 is available for projects seeking funding assistance to supplement available WSRI resources and services. Funding must be spent by June 30, 2023 and will require a contract between the applicant and WDFW.

Long-Term Shrubsteppe Strategy

The Washington State Restoration and Resiliency Initiative (WSRRI) advisors are working together to build a long-term strategy for shrubsteppe conservation that addresses spatial priorities, a wildlife habitat restoration program that coordinates and shares resources and services at the landscape scale, wildland fire protection and response, and the interaction with other threats to the shrubsteppe landscape. The group developing the long-term shrubsteppe strategy will be working through what it would take to fully realize that vision and meet the needs of Washington’s shrubsteppe communities.

The long-term strategy effort kicked off in January 2022 with the involvement of diverse stakeholders and facilitated by a neutral third party. The long-term strategy is expected to be completed by June 2023.

Contact

Kurt Merg, WDFW Shrubsteppe Restoration/WSRRI Coordinator
509-288-7067, kurt.merg@dfw.wa.gov