Saving the Shrub-Steppe – a Virtual Science Night Presentation

What is shrub-steppe? Where did it come from? Why is it worth saving? How can you help save it?

As part of a Virtual Science night with Science Education and Exploration, Cy Philbrick, CCC’s Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, sought to answer these questions and more. Check it out!


What you missed

Sadly, the introduction to the presentation has been cut off. Here’s a brief summary of what you missed:

  • Shrub-steppe means a combination of shrubs (a variety of shrubs and other flowering plants) and grasslands.
  • Shrub-steppe is the largest type of natural grassland in North America.
  • Two geological episodes — basalt flows and the Ice Age Floods — help explain the Northwestern make-up of shrub-steppe.
  • Between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago, ice sheets melted and a series of cataclysmic floods poured over eastern and central Washington, scouring the land. Plants filled in much of those flooded areas. Those plants were and are adapted to an arid climate, as well as cold winters and hot summers.
  • Best evidence suggests that Native American peoples have lived in and stewarded Northwest shrub-steppe lands for the last 10,000 years.
  • The arrival of colonial Americans changed everything. In central and eastern Washington, irrigated farmland and other development wiped out the majority of shrub-steppe habitat. Across the West, we now have about one quarter to one third of the shrub-steppe that we had before colonial settlement.


Fact-checks, and responses to questions

  • In the Question and Answer period, there was a question about whether or not cattle harm shrub-steppe. Cy suggested that they do, when they occupy and graze land at over certain numbers.  To give a more specific answer: A number of studies have suggested that light to moderate grazing (relative terms, but typically meaning less than 60% land utilization) has little to no effect on a variety of ecological traits (West 1993, Courtois et al. 2004, Johnson et al. 2011, Davies et al. 2014, Peek 2014, Davies et al. 2018). If done lightly and well, grazing can have positive ecological impacts. This U.S. Fish and Wildlife site offers an informative summary of the costs and benefits of good grazing versus bad grazing.
  • For the question about existing climate coalitions, Cy mentioned 350.0rg and Citizens Climate Lobby. He wishes that he also mentioned the Washington Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a statewide coalition that works to find equitable solutions to the climate crisis.
  • Cy didn’t know whether or not prickly pear cactus (opuntia species) were native to the Northwest. Indeed, they are! Columbia prickly pear (opuntia columbiana) and brittle prickly pear (opuntia fragilis) are both beautiful and amazingly well-adapted plants.




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