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Focal Species Case Study: The Columbia Plateau Ecoregion

The Washington ground squirrel, a focal species for the Columbia Plateau, is a candidate for the Endangered Species list. Credit: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife
The Washington ground squirrel, a focal species for the Columbia Plateau, is a candidate for the Endangered Species list. Credit: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

As the Service introduces a surrogate species approach to landscape conservation, it helps to look at how this concept has already been applied successfully. In the Pacific Northwest, recent efforts by the Arid Lands Initiative, a diverse partnership of public, private and tribal interests, and the associated Washington Connected Landscapes Project present a case study of how a set of focal or representative species can be assembled and used to put Strategic Habitat Conservation into practice.

The Arid Lands Initiative (ALI) is a diverse group representing public, private, and tribal interests (including the Service) working together to conserve and restore a viable, well connected ecosystem in eastern Washington’s arid lands – including the related freshwater habitats that sustain native plant and animal populations and support local communities with compatible economic development.

The ALI relies heavily on information and decision-support tools created by the Washington Connected Landscapes Project, which is led by the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group (composed of governmental and non-governmental technical experts). Karl Halupka, a biologist with the Central Washington Field Office in Wenatchee, Washington, represents the Service on the Working Group’s core team.

In 2010, the Washington Connected Landscapes Project produced a statewide analysis that described broad patterns in the connections between various ecosystems for Washington State and neighboring areas in British Columbia, Idaho, and Oregon. This statewide analysis highlighted the Columbia Plateau as an ecoregion where native vegetation communities were severely fragmented, thus hindering the movement and adaptation of plants and animals. The project then completed a more detailed and comprehensive connectivity analysis for the Columbia Plateau (which occupies Eastern Washington, North Central Oregon, and a small portion of Central Idaho).

The Columbia Plateau is dominated by the Columbia River and its tributaries and is bordered by the Cascade Range and the Rocky and Blue Mountains. A complex geologic history of volcanic activity, glaciations, and glacial floods has created a landscape of glacial deposits, coulees, channeled scablands, and rolling areas of deep soil. The semi-arid climate of the Columbia Plateau supports native shrub-steppe vegetation as well as other drought-tolerant plant communities. The impact of human activity is high here: more than half of the shrub-steppe has been converted to agriculture while other areas have been altered by development and infrastructure. The remaining native habitat is often fragmented and on shallower soils less amenable to agriculture. Hydroelectric energy production is important to the area’s economy, and in recent years wind energy production has become more common. A substantial number of Washington’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need are found here.

The Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group (composed of governmental and non-governmental technical experts) leads the landscapes project, and In conducting their analysis, the Working Group decided to look at connectivity both through the lens of landscape integrity (identifying connections between areas of relatively low human disturbance) and through the lens of focal species. Karl Halupka, a biologist with the Central Washington Field Office in Wenatchee, Washington, represents the Service on the working group’s core team. He noted that the group initially struggled with the question of whether the focal species approach was warranted. "We ultimately decided to use both approaches, largely because in our statewide analysis we found the landscape integrity and focal species approaches were complementary, and I just find it easier to talk about connectivity in terms of specific species’ needs rather than the lack of human disturbance."

The Columbia Plateau is dominated by the Columbia River and its tributaries, and is bordered by the Cascade Range and the Rocky and Blue Mountains. A complex geologic history of volcanic activity, glaciations and glacial floods has created a landscape of glacial deposits, coulees, channeled scablands and rolling areas of deep soil. The semi-arid climate of the Columbia Plateau supports native shrub-steppe vegetation as well as other drought-tolerant plant communities. The impact of human activity is high here: More than half of the shrub-steppe has been converted to agriculture while other areas have been altered by development and infrastructure. The remaining native habitat is often fragmented and on shallower soils less amenable to agriculture. Hydroelectric energy production is important to the area’s economy, and in recent years wind energy production has become more common. A substantial number of Washington’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need are found here.

The decision to pursue a focal species approach brought with it the challenging task of selecting focal species. The process began by assembling a vertebrate species database that included information from a variety of sources on conservation status and risks related to loss of habitat connectivity. This initial list included consideration of special factors such as species vulnerability to wind energy development. Similarly, a list of vegetation types was developed for the ecoregion. A focal species subgroup, with lots of help from species expert panels, then applied a series of analytical filters to narrow the initial list of candidate focal species based on criteria such as representation of the Columbia Plateau’s vegetation types, representation of key threats (e.g., climate change), ability to serve as an "umbrella" for other candidates, and information availability.

Ultimately, 11 focal species were selected:

  • sharp tailed grouse,
  • greater sage-grouse,
  • black-tailed jackrabbit,
  • white-tailed jackrabbit,
  • Townsend’s ground-squirrel,
  • Washington ground squirrel,
  • least chipmunk,
  • mule deer,
  • Western rattlesnake,
  • beaver,
  • tiger salamander.

Modeling habitat connectivity based on these focal species considered factors such as resistance (how hard it is for the species to move across the landscape), habitat value (reflecting habitat suitability for the species across the landscape), habitat concentration areas (where suitable habitat for the species is most dense), and linkage networks (habitat concentration areas and the linkages connecting them, following paths of least resistance for the species between neighboring habitat areas).

Once the working group modeled habitat connectivity using both the landscape integrity and focal species frameworks, similar patterns emerged. The resulting maps helped create an initial vision for a connected Columbia Plateau in Washington and recommendations for maintaining and restoring connectivity to achieve this vision. This vision with common conservation objectives will guide future conservation efforts by the Service (e.g., Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program projects) and other Arid Lands Initiative ALI partners. Monitoring and other field data, a key part of SHC, will help validate and adapt use of the connectivity framework.

For more information about the Columbia Plateau Ecoregion focal species and habitat connectivity analysis, the Working Group’s February 2012 report can be found on-line at www.waconnected.org/wp-content/themes/whcwg/docs/WHCWG_ColumbiaPlateauEcoregion_2012.pdf

Paul Heimowitz, Vicki Finn and Karl Halupka, USFWS Pacific Region

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Last updated: November 8, 2012

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