Sagelands Heritage Program shares 2021 highlights in the shrub-steppe

Sagelands Heritage Program shares 2021 highlights in the shrub-steppe

Conservation Northwest / Jan 28, 2022 / Sagelands, Wildfire

State proviso, pygmy rabbit recovery and student engagement: another year of conservation in the “connected backbone” east of the Cascades

From British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven, the Sagelands Heritage Program (SHP) is doing just that. 2021 was an exciting year for conservation in this shrub-steppe landscape full of many projects with our bread-and-butter formula;  collaborative and pragmatic approaches to conservation. It is hard to highlight only a few from many, but we will try our best.

During last year’s legislative budget session, Conservation Northwest helped shape the intent and programs for the Shrub-steppe Fire Recovery & Preparedness Proviso. This was a formal budget ask intent on two major conservation objectives on the landscape: fire recovery and wildlife connectivity. Led by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), we got the budget approved in the state legislature for $2.35 million per biennium.  Read more about our efforts to secure this important win for conservation in the shrub-steppe.

members of CNW set up a new camera in shrub-steppe
Sagelands Heritage Program Lead, Jay Kehne, joins Conservation Northwest supporters and DFW to utilize new camera technology to scope deep burrows in search of pygmy rabbit signs. Photo: Jordan Ryckman

Through our participation in the Wildlife Friendly Fence committee, funded through the proviso, we began implementing fire restoration and fire prevention practices across the thousands of acres burned by the Pearl Hill, Whitney, and Cold Springs Fires in Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan Counties. We will continue this work throughout 2022.

On the ground, that means shrub plantings, grass seeding, species habitat restoration, and helping ranchers defer grazing on burned areas. Burnt fences have also become an opportunity to remove and replace them with a more favorable virtual fence alternative. This multifaceted effort is taking place at the core of Sagelands Heritage Program’s “connected backbone”—which includes important habitat linkages such as Dyer Hill, numerous state wildlife areas, Colville Reservation, Waterville Plateau, and Moses Coulee.

Species benefitting from this restoration and connectivity work span from mule deer to the reintroduced pronghorn antelope, as well as the endangered sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, and pygmy rabbit.

Pygmy Rabbits

People help set up a pygmy breeding enclosure
CNW and WDFW volunteers from around WA and ID state to build a new breeding enclosure. These keep rabbits safe from predation before future release into the wild. Photo by WDFW volunteer.

Roughly half of the pygmy rabbit population was lost in Washington throughout the 2020 fire season. Over the past summer and fall, The Sagelands Heritage Program team has been actively involved in the endangered pygmy rabbit recovery program led by WDFW.

CNW staff and volunteers joined WDFW in several survey efforts and participated in captive counts. Staff also helped build a new breeding enclosure, participated in live-trapping and vaccination efforts, and are now providing cameras to monitor pygmy rabbits and their predators with support from a local school group.

Monitoring efforts will continue in 2022. WDFW and Conservation Northwest are always looking for volunteers to help with these efforts. If interested, please contact SHP staff, Jordan Ryckman.

Engaging Students in Conservation

Oroville High School students finish the last few of hundreds of Big Sagebrush planted on the Figlinski property to enhance the diversity of wildlife habitat available. Photo: Keith Watson

In the Fall of 2021, we began a monthly field-based learning component to the high school Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math Program in Okanogan County, WA. Students were able to experience nature and get hands-on scientific experience. They learned several scientific protocols through wildlife habitat surveys and analyzing water quality data using a variety of methods and equipment. These experiences are designed to showcase that good-paying, meaningful careers in conservation are viable locally.

These students also participated in native seed gathering and post-fire restoration projects. The Sagelands Heritage Program was able to facilitate planting over 2,500 big sagebrush plants at three sites within the Colville Confederated Tribal Reservation. This included plantings on the Figlinski Ranch, identified as a route for wildlife to migrate between the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies. Through an immense effort by our organization and its supporters, in 2021, this unique property was acquired from the family that homesteaded it.

In October, Conservation Northwest was able to protect this 9,000+ acre ranch from development by immediately transferring ownership to the Colville Confederated Tribes. This land, once removed from the reservation in the nineteenth century, has officially returned to tribal ownership and now will be managed to benefit wildlife habitat. The ranch is the linchpin property in the east-west habitat corridor linking the Cascade Mountains to the Kettle River Mountain Range (and the Rockies beyond) for carnivores like lynx and wolverines.



sunrise in the shrub-steppe