Clarity in Central Washington’s Sagelands

Clarity in Central Washington’s Sagelands

Conservation Northwest / Oct 11, 2018 / Connecting Habitat, Habitat Restoration, Sagelands

Working from Ellensburg, Rose uses her extensive experience as a wildlife biologist to support our work to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes for the good of both wildlife and people.

By Rose Piccinini, Sagelands Contractor

When I started my career as a general wildlife biologist, I expected a moment of clarity that would solidify what I wanted to specialize in. I sort of imagined it would be like love at first sight—an eagle majestically soaring over a mist-covered lake, or the silent slither of a blue racer escaping through dry grass—and suddenly I would think to myself, “Yes! This is what I was meant to do.”

It was pretty much the opposite of that. I loved that I had a great job. I hated that it was in the shrub-steppe. It was everything I didn’t want in a study area—dry, lacking vibrant wildlife (or so I thought), devoid of trees and frogs, and filled with unfamiliar plants.

Rolling sagebrush steppe at Wells Wildlife Area in Douglas County, near the mouth of the Okanogan River. Photo Chase Gunnell

Baba Dioum once said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” That pretty much sums up my journey with the shrub-steppe.

My first introduction to the shrub-steppe was working with Paul Ashley, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Regional Habitat Evaluation Procedure Team. We were the crew responsible for evaluating habitat value for wildlife in the Bonneville Power Administration Mitigation lands.

I learned about the shrub-steppe by studying every inch of it, starting with the fragile cryptogrammic crust and working my way up to some of the region’s oldest and tallest sagebrush. It was here, unbeknownst to me, where my love story with this landscape began.

The discreet world of shrub-steppe literally began to bloom in front of me. From the sweet smell of bitterbrush in the spring to the showy, yellow blooms of the arrowleaf balsamroot, I started to understand the suite of sensitive plants that survived and reproduced in these harsh conditions.

The ecology of the “barren” shrub-steppe revealed itself to be a diverse and vibrant suite of wildlife. I began to witness the emergence of shy mule deer, fierce and territorial badgers, captivating short-horned lizards and the unexpected presence of black bears and moose.

Pygmy rabbits use sage brush for cover and food, and depending on this iconic shrub-steppe plant species for survival. Photo: Chase Gunnell

While working for Ashley, we were contracted to evaluate some mitigation lands on the Reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes. After two summers of working with the biologists and technicians from the Tribe, I came back armed with my bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from Washington State University and was hired as a biologist for their sharp-tailed grouse project.

So, here I was again in the shrub-steppe—not in the mountains chasing fishers, not in the wetlands romping after herps (amphibians and reptiles, as the public knows them), but in this dry land that I was beginning to appreciate.

I met the Conservation Northwest crew at one of the first WildLinks Conferences in Colville. Their tireless work toward a common goal of protecting wildlife and habitat was contagious and inspiring.

The first project I worked on with Conservation Northwest was the Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative. I was still working for the Colville Tribes at the time, who were interested in the Safe Passage 97 project (which now includes Conservation Northwest’s Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign) because the proposed underpasses bordered Colville Confederated Tribe lands.

Shortly after, my family and I moved to Ellensburg and I changed my profession to a full-time mom. Watching my son grow and teaching him about the wonders of nature has been and continues to be one of my greatest accomplishments, but as he got older and I had more time, I felt like I needed to get back to the world of conservation.

So I became a board member for the Kittitas Audubon Society, and attended the showing of the Cascade Crossroads film as a representative. There, I chatted with Conservation Northwest’s Jen Watkins and Mitch Friedman about a new program they were in the process of initiating: the Sagelands Heritage Program.

Rare sharp-tailed grouse in Washington sagelands. Photo: Ferdi Businger

The program manager, Jay Kehne, called me to see if I was available to help implement the program in Kittitas and Yakima counties. I jumped at the opportunity, and was sent right back into my beloved shrub-steppe.

Though only a few months in, I can already see what an amazing program this is and the momentum it’s gaining every day. With projects on the horizon like rebuilding pygmy rabbit breeding structures, and efforts underway like removing old barbed-wire fence and planting native seeds at important State Wildlife Areas, it’s off to a great start.

It has been so motivating to meet all the other hard-working groups and individuals who are doing great work out on the shrub-steppe landscape, including our collaborators at the Arid Lands Initiative.

When you do work that you truly believe in and you know it is beneficial for so many species, it’s easy to get excited about it. It is this excitement that I wanted to share with you in the hopes that you continue to follow the journey of this awesome program as it makes its way and begins implementing its goals.

Learn more about our work in Northwest shrub-steppe from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills on this webpage.
Sagelands landscape at Spiva Butte in our Sagelands Heritage Program area. Photo: Ferdi Businger