Help us protect fragile sagelands before it’s too late

Help us protect fragile sagelands before it’s too late

Conservation Northwest / Jul 29, 2021 / Connecting Habitat, Sagelands

More than 80 percent of Washington’s sagelands have already been lost. Help us protect this fragile ecosystem before it’s too late by making a donation or renewing your membership!

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

The beauty of shrub-steppe may be more subtle than our majestic Northwest forests, but once you get up close, you realize it’s an ecological wonderland full of magnificent flora and fauna great and small.

Wildflowers and sage brush in the shrub-steppe near Moses Coulee, Douglas County, Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Sadly, these soils and landscapes so good for wildlife habitat are also good for farming, ranching, and other human activities, and over the last century we’ve lost more than 80 percent of 10 million original acres in Washington, making the sagelands one our most imperiled ecosystems.

That’s why three years ago, Conservation Northwest launched our Sagelands Heritage Program, to protect and restore this vital yet often overlooked ecosystem before it’s too late.

Through improving landscape connectivity, addressing pinch-points and fractures caused by human development, restoring degraded habitat, and recovering endangered wildlife, the Sagelands Heritage Program is working to create a protected backbone of healthy shrub-steppe that extends from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.

By making a tax-deductible donation today, you can help to bring back what’s been called a “miniature old-growth forest” and ensure that locally endangered wildlife like sharp-tailed grouse and pygmy rabbits continue to have a future here.


Learn more in our film, This Land is Part of Us: Washington’s shrub-steppe ecosystem

Or view our interactive Sagelands Heritage Program Story Mapcheck out a map showing key work areas (PDF) across our Sagelands Heritage Program, or the northern and southern extent of the program.

Threatened by fire and climate change

Tragically, this already threatened landscape took another harrowing blow last September, when the Pearl Hill, Cold Springs and numerous other wildfires burnt over 800,000 acres of Washington’s remaining shrub-steppe.

Local ranchers, Alex McLean and Daniel Hammond were there, with fires burning all of their family’s 5,000-acre ranch, devastating its vegetation and wildlife including numerous sharp-tailed grouse nesting sites (called leks) that were the pride of the property. They’ve seen many fires over the years, but never one that burned so hot and so fast.

With climate change increasing temperatures, this could be not just a once-every-century kind of event, but rather the new normal.

The 2021 Batterman Fire burns shrub-steppe in north-central Washington’s Douglas County. Photo: InciWeb

Fanned by searing hot temperatures and epic winds, these fires destroyed everything in their paths: farms, ranches, houses—even jumping the mile-wide Columbia river—ravaging some of our state’s last big blocks of healthy shrub-steppe habitat. Worse yet, biologists estimate we likely lost half our state’s endangered sage-grouse and pygmy rabbit populations, two species already on the brink. Habitat occupied by pronghorn antelope, a native species only recently reintroduced to our state, was also burned.

The scale of destruction is hard to fathom and the losses truly immense. However, at Conservation Northwest, it’s not our nature to despair but rather to take action, partnering with communities and caring individuals like yourself to implement bold yet pragmatic solutions to address the most pressing threats to our wildlands through our local conservation programs.

Pronghorn antelope have been restored to central Washington’s shrub-steppe thanks to reintroduction programs by the Yakama and Colville tribes. But they need support to connect and protect their sagelands habitat. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Literally, as soon as the smoke had cleared, Jay Kehne, our Sagelands Lead, was on the ground surveying the damage and working with local partners and community members on plans to recover affected areas and advocate for policy changes that will help reduce the impact of future fires.

At Conservation Northwest, we know the importance of partnering with people like Daniel Hammond who understand and care for the land we’re working to protect, seeking to find solutions that are win-wins for both people and wildlife.

That’s why alongside local communities, conservation districts, land trusts, tribal governments, and state and federal agencies, we’re advocating for and implementing solutions like installing new wildlife-friendly fencing and purchasing hay for affected ranchers to help them through tough times while keeping their livestock off fragile habitat that needs time to recover.

It’s also what’s led us to work with groups like the Kittitas Environmental Education Network and Kittitas County Field and Stream, providing funds so that they can replant charred riparian areas in the Wenas Wildlife Area north of Yakima.

Collaboration and community, it’s at the heart of what we do—and one of the strengths of our work, especially in rural communities, that helps us move from idealism to action.

With your support, you can help sustain these efforts during this critical first year of recovery while also supporting the Sagelands Heritage Program’s larger goals of preserving a connected backbone of shrub-steppe habitat that restores ecological resilience in the face of population growth and climate change.

From conservation easements to wildlife crossings to pygmy rabbit releases to restoration work parties, we have the science and the tools needed to restore our sagelands back to health.

We just need the funds to put these tools to use, which is where you can help, as the vital link that powers our innovative and impactful efforts in shrub-steppe territory and across the Northwest.

Mitch Friedman

It’s at our peril, and that of countless species, if we let our shrub-steppe wither away from wildfire, fragmentation, exploitation and degradation. Last summer’s wildfires showed us just what’s at stake. But with careful stewardship and your help, this embattled landscape can and will thrive again.

I’m so grateful for your past support and hope you will consider making a generous gift today so that our extraordinary and irreplaceable sagelands can remain forever wild.

For the Wild,

Mitch Friedman,
Executive Director

P.S. Nearly half our state’s pygmy rabbits were wiped out in last September’s wildfires, but there’s still hope for their recovery if we act now. Make a gift today to give these endangered sagelands dwellers a future!

A Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit in Eastern Washington. Photo: WDFW