On the edge of the Sagebrush Sea

On the edge of the Sagebrush Sea

Conservation Northwest / Mar 29, 2018 / Connecting Habitat, Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Sagelands, Wildlife Crossings

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

Perspectives after a trip to Eastern Washington’s sagelands

By Chase Gunnell, Communications Director

Vital habitat for sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and dozens of other bird and animal species, the Sagebrush Sea is a sprawling shrub-steppe ecosystem stretching from the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Wyoming through the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah north to eastern Washington and Oregon.

A sign warns upland bird hunters to look out for endangered sharp-tail grouse. Though common in other states, in Washington sharp-tails are threatened and only present in a few areas of Okanogan and Douglas counties. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Anchored by sagebrush, a plant described as “old growth in miniature” due to it’s age and importance for a myriad of other species, this landscape is also home to vibrant communities, farming and ranching, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

At it’s northernmost extent in the Okanogan Country of Washington and extreme southern British Columbia, the Sagebrush Sea sprawls off the Waterville Plateau and narrows to a few finger valleys separating the North Cascades from the Okanogan Highlands and Greater Rocky Mountains.

Core winter range for mule deer and home to endangered grouse, pronghorn and other threatened species, development and highways bring additional fragmentation to this already bottlenecked landscape. And climate change puts increased importance on the ability of animals like Canada lynx to move through this “connected backbone”.

Through the Working for Wildlife Initiative and our new Sagelands Heritage Program, Conservation Northwest is working with partners including the Mule Deer Foundation, Colville Confederated Tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to preserve remaining habitat and working lands here, and to reconnect key corridors through wildlife crossings and other programs.

Highway 97 cuts through the Okanogan Valley near Carter Mountain Wildlife Area. More than 350 mule deer a year are killed in this stretch of highway. Photo: CHase Gunnell

I was lucky to spend the last few days touring these sites with our Sagelands Program Lead Jay Kehne and videographer Ted Grudowski. On top of a chance to stretch my legs in one of my favorite parts of the Northwest, it was a neat reminder of how strategic investment in local places can yield big conservation results across enormous landscapes.

I’m looking forward to spending more time working on behalf of the people, wildlife and natural heritage of the Sagelands in the coming year as Conservation Northwest expands our work and partnerships in this amazing landscape.

Check out some more photos from my trip below!


visit our webpages for more details on our new Sagelands Heritage Program and our work for Okanogan wildlife crossings.
Mule deer in Douglas County, Washington. Sage brush provides vital habitat for these native deer, sheltering them from winter winds and summer sun. Bitterbrush and sage also provide food when most vegetation is covered in snow. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Sagebrush steppe in Douglas County, Washington near the mouth of the Okanogan River. Photo Chase Gunnell
The lower Okanogan Valley and Okanogan River. Photo Chase Gunnell
Moses Coulee, a key habitat corridor connecting sagelands in Central Washington with the Waterville Plateau and Okanogan Valley to the north. Photo: Chase Gunnell