SAGEBRUSH FLAT WILDLIFE AREA, Douglas County — It is a sound like something from the beginning of the world, that begins in the darkness just before dawn. Sage grouse, intent on attracting the interest of a mate, have begun to dance.
Their call at first light is a sound of the wild in the shrubsteppe of Central Washington, a landscape of sagebrush, flowers and native grasses precious and rare — now much more so since the wildfires of 2020.
Of the 802,000 acres that burned in Washington in 2020, some 725,000 were scorched within the boundaries of the Columbia plateau, including around 600,000 acres of shrubsteppe habitat — an area nearly three times the size of Mount Rainier National Park. That was a lot to burn in a landscape already reduced by half from the original 10 million or so acres in Washington, lost in conversion to farmland and development.
The acreage that just burned isn’t “lost” in the same sense as ground permanently converted to other uses. It will recover, in different ways and in different places over time. Just what that recovery looks like is something the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is still working to understand.
But what is beyond doubt is that the fires that wrought so much destruction and suffering for people also were punishing for wildlife — and apocalyptic for already rare species.
Wildlife managers estimate the population of 775 sage grouse in 2020 is now reduced to 699 birds, and 500 in three years would not be surprising — a dangerously low population. Sharp-tailed grouse numbered about 870 in 2020 and now are down by nearly a quarter to 660.
Department biologists confirmed a minimum of 164 pygmy rabbits in Washington 2020, but the fires burned through the area occupied by 70 of those rabbits — a 43% loss.
The Cold Springs fire started near Omak on Sept. 6. A 1-year-old child died in that fire, which burned 189,923 acres. The fire was determined to be human-caused, but is still under investigation. Then, on Sept. 7, winds pushed the fire in Okanogan County into Douglas County, burning some 30 miles, all the way to Highway 2. Combined, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires burned 337,000 acres.
This is country that knows fire. But not fire so hot it destroys plants deep into the subsoil over hundreds of thousands of acres — and jumps not only fire breaks, but a half-mile of the Columbia River, to keep right on burning. Then, after the fire, came more wind, scouring the soil from burned roots. Then came a punishing spring drought — the fourth driest spring on record.
Wildlife and conservation experts now confront what in some places were burned over moonscapes, bereft even of common animals that had enlivened the land.
In parts of the Douglas County Wildlife Area Complex, outside Bridgeport, after the fires there were no white-tailed jack rabbits, no badgers. And so many dead porcupines. They climbed trees, trying to get away from the fire. Then the trees burned.
Jon Gallie, pygmy rabbit biologist for the WDFW, returned after the fires to the location of the enclosure where he and other department staff were raising pygmy rabbits for release to the wild. He hoped, that as in previous fires, the animals had toughed it out in their burrows as the fire danced past.
Not this time. The rabbits had asphyxiated as the fire in its fury devoured oxygen from the atmosphere.
“There was nothing but ash and dust,” Gallie said. “No movement, no footprints. There was no chance anything survived.”
Dan Peterson, manager for the Douglas County Wildlife Area Complex, remembered being in his house in Bridgeport, Douglas County, the night the fires were burning.
“I thought, ‘There goes 20 years of work,'” he said.
Wade Troutman’s family came to this wide open landscape four generations ago. Born on the family ranch named Open Heart for the shape of its heirloom cattle brand, he never left. Even after the fires, he still doesn’t want to live anywhere but on the family ranch.
He likes the peace and the quiet, and the agrarian culture of a place where people take care of the land and one another. It’s changing here, as everywhere. But this is still a place where, when people see smoke, they run to the fire. To help.
“That’s your neighbor,” Troutman said.
He’s seen fire all his life, Troutman said. But nothing like the freak east wind that Labor Day weekend, that turned the blaze into a blast furnace. “It rolled through here like an atomic bomb went off,” Troutman said. “Everything was on fire.”
He fought the fire until there was nothing left — not even his house. Not far from where he spoke, tulips bloomed next to a car melted to the chassis.
The first days after the fire were a fog of dislocation. “I like my breakfast. I don’t have any frying pan. Or spatula. I don’t have nothing to cook it on. It goes on like that forever,” Troutman said. He is starting completely over, at 70, he said.
Troutman said he feels for the animals he has so long enjoyed living with, and feels a kinship with their struggle. Burned out of his home, he is now living in a travel trailer. “By God, it’s tough, and this wildlife is in the same predicament,” Troutman said.
“The sage grouse numbers were not great to begin with. A hundred years ago, there was probably somewhere else to go when they came back after a fire. Just like I need a house, they need habitat.”
Now, right as the land and all who rely on it need to heal, comes this cruel spring drought. “There is no damn rain, no damn rain,” Troutman said. “It just slows everything down.”
Troutman waves away concern saying, “Oh, we’ll be fine,” — perhaps a habit among those who endure in this landscape, shaped by cataclysm since its beginning.
A rare, ancient habitat
Ancient floods and glaciers carved this land. It is too rocky to farm in many places, and the good ground mostly too small in area to bother grazing. Even after the arrival of settlers, much of this landscape was left to itself, as elsewhere farmers and ranchers established wheat farms and grazed horses, cattle and sheep.
The result, explains sage grouse expert and WDFW biologist Michael Schroeder, was that Douglas County was by 2020 still home to some of the finest shrubsteppe landscape left anywhere in western North America. Here remained a rugged, delicate beauty to be savored under open skies, accompanied by the song of meadowlarks. Some of the best of what was left of what had been a rolling inland sea of sere, sage green.
The plants of this now rare ecosystem are adapted to rainfall as scant as 6 inches a year, roasting sun and drying winds. Their stems and leaves are specially adapted to conserve moisture, and their root systems can pull water from down deep.
This landscape also is one of the last stands for some of the few species that can turn sagebrush into nutritious protein: the sage grouse, and the pygmy rabbit, native animals that have been part of this landscape for thousands of years.
As the shrubsteppe they depend on for food and cover has been lost to farming and grazing, both sage grouse and pygmy rabbit have declined in numbers. Losses that the WDFW among others, have been working to reverse by putting shrubsteppe into conservation, and even launching a breeding program to rebuild pygmy rabbit populations.
Now comes the sad but necessary task, still underway, of assessing the setbacks to those programs and the damage to state wildlife lands.
Peterson, the wildlife area manager, walked through water birch groves blackened by the fire. Some were resprouting at the base of their charred trunks. But what, he wondered out loud, would the sharp-tailed grouse that love to roost in these trees, eating seeds and buds, live on this coming winter? And what of the sage grouse now without sagebrush?
These were not losses state wildlife managers had confronted on this scale before.
A long, uncertain recovery
First light was just a smudge at dawn when Schroeder, the sage grouse expert, whispered in the still morning air, still cool and dewy from the night.
“Hear that?” Schroeder said. “They are here.”
What he had heard was a sound that is a signature of the West, a bubbling call made by strutting male sage grouse as they dance for a potential mate.
Tangerine and lemon streaked the sky as the growing light revealed sage grouse urgently pumping their chest up and down, as they pirouetted and paraded. They fanned their tails in a corona of spiky plumage meant to impress.
Theirs is a mating dance like none other, and sage grouse won’t dance just anywhere; they have parade grounds they return to year after year. As Schroeder watched through a telescope, he wondered aloud what will happen to the state’s sage grouse.
The birds weren’t killed outright by the fire; they likely flew miles away, Schroeder said. But they have come back to these places where they have always danced and nested. Theirs is a home they won’t leave, and so must start over. Like Troutman.
Schroeder expects sage grouse numbers will plummet at least at first in the years to come, as females forego nesting in favor of survival. Beyond that?
These birds have proven resilient, even learning to dance and eat in wheat fields. But what comes next is unknown. He hopes for a slow rebuilding — but this is a bird already isolated in a tiny breeding population. That adds to the risk of extinction.
Like Schroeder, Gallie is starting over with the task of rebuilding a population of an already rare animal. The fires wiped out a decade’s worth of infrastructure and work on behalf of pygmy rabbits, a state endangered species.
Gallie walked a remaining breeding enclosure in an unburned area, where adult pygmy rabbits produce young that WDFW staff release to the wild. The baby pygmy rabbits, just a few weeks old, were so small and so fast they were hard to spot in the sagebrush. For each brown, tiny-eared fuzz ball seen scooting to its burrow, Gallie figured there were 10 more not spotted.
No wonder, even the chunkiest adults are no bigger than an adult’s fist.
Hannah Anderson, wildlife diversity division manager for the WDFW, said she was grateful the Legislature stepped in this past session with nearly $4 million urgently needed to help fund restoration and recovery of the state’s shrubsteppe wild lands, and the rare animals that depend on them. Private landowners who lost so much in the fires also received some help for essentials such as restocking hay supplies.
But recovery will still be a long and slow process — with many unknowns.
On a recent spring day, Peterson, the wildlife area manager, looked over burned ground that the WDFW had replanted in the Bridgeport unit of the state Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area of Douglas County.
Dust puffed from behind his boots as he walked the charred ground. A few brave spears of grass shivered in a hard wind. Lupine was making a start, its purple flowers a jolt against the gray ground.
“I would be hesitant to use the word restore,” Peterson said of the work underway here. “When people talk about restoration, I say I can’t do in two years what nature took eons to create.”