Soldiers and sagebrush; a trip to the Yakima Training Center
ConservationNWAdmin / Nov 06, 2019 / Connecting Habitat, Sagelands
A military training ground between Ellensburg and Yakima contains some of the best shrub-steppe habitat in the state.
BY Jay Kehne, Sagelands Program Lead and Rose Piccinini, Sagelands Contractor
In central Washington lies a vast landscape with some of the most prime shrub-steppe habitat in the state. Its northern border is drawn by I-90, to the west is I-82 and the iconic Yakima River Canyon, and its eastern edge consists of the Columbia River Breaks, where sagelands tumble towards the big river.
The area is critical habitat for sage grouse and dozens of other bird species, as well as important winter range for elk and mule deer. Pronghorn antelope will call it home in the years ahead as they recover after reintroduction efforts on the nearby Yakama Nation.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of contiguous shrub-steppe habitat like this is rare anywhere in the American West, but especially so in central Washington’s Columbia Basin, where availability of water led to widespread conversion of native wildlands into orchards and agriculture. But this is no national park, monument or wildlife refuge; it’s an active military training ground.
In the 1940s the U.S. Army recognized the need for a training facility in the Pacific Northwest. Through land leases and purchase agreements, the training area, now known as the Yakima Training Center (YTC), grew to more than 320,000 acres or 511 square miles—making it one of the largest areas of undeveloped shrub-steppe in the state.
Given the location and size of the YTC, we’ve identified it as one of the key habitat linkages in the “Connected Backbone” of our Sagelands Heritage Program. Running north-south east of the Cascade Mountains, this linkage extends from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills, connecting from there to the broader sagelands of eastern Oregon and the Great Basin.
The Connected Backbone provides critical habitat for a variety of shrub-steppe species, and as a landscape-scale connectivity corridor, it’s increasingly vital for wildlife as the climate changes and habitat loss escalates in nearby areas.
To understand more about how the massive YTC fits into the Connected Backbone, and how this big block of sagelands habitat is managed, we joined Colin Leingang, the Training Center’s Wildlife Program Manager, for a tour. Our hope was to identify ways for Conservation Northwest and the Army to work together to advance mutual goals for wildlife, habitat and people.
It was a warm, late summer day when we met with Leingang to tour the south end of the YTC. Naturally, conversations initially centered on soldiers, munitions and general facility logistics, since it was all so new to us. As we drove down the well-maintained road heading east, we started looking closer at what we had come to discuss—habitat, and lots of it.
At first we were surprised to see the amazing scale and variety of native plant species, but it soon became clear that Leingang and the YTC command took their stewardship of this land as seriously as any other duty. There were creek bottoms thick with basin wildrye and scattered with willows, birch and cottonwood trees. We startled a group of mule deer as we walked up a rise. Raptors soared above us and a family of northern harriers took flight from the trees as we neared.
Approximately 300 species of wildlife inhabit the arid shrub-steppe region of the Columbia Basin. On the YTC, there are about 246 of those species. Elk occupy areas to the north, primarily during winter, both resident and migratory mule deer herds call the Center home, and a sizeable population of sage grouse listed as Threatened under Washington’s Endangered Species Act still exists here. There are also short-eared and burrowing owls, badgers, both species of jackrabbits, coyotes and countless other smaller animals.
As we traveled, Leingang pointed out multiple burned areas in different stages of succession. Some of the fires were relatively recent and others were from previous years. Here, the complex logistics of fighting wildland fires is compounded with the logistics of military training, fire containment regulations and response priorities.
Fire effects shrub-steppe landscapes differently than it does forest ecosystems, and arid lands can take decades to recover. Given the nature of the military training here, much of which involves artillery and firearms that can accidentally start fires, we were both expecting to see a fire-affected wasteland in different stages of recovery. We were very happy to be wrong on this front. Yes, there were areas where fire was having a big impact on the habitat, but that wasn’t the whole story.
We saw some areas that were nearly pristine—where bluebunch wheatgrass was thriving, the presence of weeds was minimal, livestock grazing hadn’t occurred in 30 years, and the cryptogrammic crust (fragile soil composed of multiple organisms that reduces erosion and moisture loss) was still intact.
Not only are these patches of high-quality habitat picture perfect, but they’re also refuges for wildlife and a source of native plant seeds for surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, the opposite also existed. There were areas that had such a high burn frequency that shrubs had been completely eliminated, even down to the seed source. This makes it challenging to restore these areas, as it’s difficult to get seeds or plugs (small rooted plants) to survive in these arid conditions.
Near the Columbia River, the topography changes and the conditions become harsher. The vegetation here is dry and less than optimal. Negative impacts from fires seem to increase in these areas, where regeneration takes longer and the landscape is dominated by cheatgrass and other invasive species. Careful work will be needed here to reduce the impacts of fire, restore native plants and improve wildlife habitat, without encumbering the Training Center’s mission.
Finding win-win solutions
Much of the activity on the YTC involves small arms training, which can create fire starts. This means fires on this landscape are inevitable, and when they do happen, they need to be contained as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, all training maneuvers on the Center have an immediate response plan and are prepared to respond quickly and put out fires they start. In addition, the YTC has its own well-equipped fire department versed in attacking the close to 300 fire starts that occur each year. Most are put out with only a few acres burned. But some have been harder to contain and left thousands of acres burned.
It is difficult to put restraints on military training, but it was exciting to see firsthand the Army’s commitment to preserving wildlife and habitat on the YTC. And there may be methods that can help everyone meet their goals.
Maneuvers could be required to stop when wind or temperatures exceed threshold levels, training only in cooler morning hours, and only shooting live ammunition into previously-burned, “blackened” areas during risky fire conditions. Strategic fire department presence during “live fire” training could also improve containment and response time.
With some proactive measures such as these, this landscape can provide even healthier wildlife habitat while also meeting the needs of military service members.
It was reassuring to see that though conservation is not the sole purpose of the YTC, keeping these vast shrub-steppe hills open for training maneuvers has also kept them free of development and fragmentation, and has shown that wildlife thrive if they have the habitat they need.
We want to thank Mr. Leingang for hosting us, and the Army and YTC Command for being thoughtful stewards of such an incredible piece of shrub-steppe habitat.
Through our Sagelands Heritage Program, we’re looking forward to building constructive relationships with the staff of the YTC, partnering in the protection and restoration of central Washington’s sagelands.
LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR SAGELANDS HERITAGE PROGRAM, AND CHECK OUT OUR NEW INTERACTIVE SAGELANDS STORY MAP!