Grasslands

Grassland landscape in Malheur, Oregon. Photo by Kirk Gooding.

Grassland habitats are found throughout much of North America. They vary widely in structure, characteristics, and diversity but are typically defined as land dominated by grasses and/or forbs. In Oregon and Washington, grassland habitats occur on both sides of the Cascade Mountains, from sea-level coastal bluffs to montane meadows.

Grasslands are one of the most imperiled habitats in the western United States. In Oregon, 50 to 90 percent of grasslands have been lost, depending on the ecoregion. In Washington’s Puget Lowlands, less than 10 percent of grasslands and savannas are thought to remain. The lowlands and valleys have seen the greatest losses of native grasslands due to urbanization, agriculture, invasive species introduction, and encroachment of shrubs and trees due to fire suppression.

One-third of North America’s grassland bird species are on the 2016 State of the Birds Watch List, a list of species most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. Species such as the Baird’s Sparrow that breed in the Great Plains of Canada and the U.S. and winter in the Chihuahuan grasslands of Mexico have declined by nearly 70% since 1970. North American grassland species that nest outside of the Great Plains have declined by 33% in the same time period.

Burrowing Owls are found in grassland habitats typically east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. They can be fairly easy to spot since they hunt on the ground during the day. Burrowing Owl populations have declined by 35% across North America since the 1970s, largely due to habitat loss, reduction of prey, and reduced availability of nesting burrows; Burrowing Owls do not dig their own burrows but depend on burrows created by other species such as badgers.  Photo by Jim Livaudais.

Explore interactive Burrowing Owl data from eBird.

While there are many approaches to wildlife conservation, the Oregon-Washington Partners in Flight Conservation Strategy for Landbirds in Lowlands and Valleys of Western Oregon and Washington emphasizes “focal species” and draws attention to habitat attributes most important in a functioning grassland ecosystem. Focal species are highly associated with particular habitat features or conditions. By managing for these focal species, other species with similar habitat needs may also be conserved.

In the United States, 85% of grasslands are on privately owned land. Several conservation programs work with ranchers and farmers to sustain both livelihoods and healthy habitats for birds. Private landowners can take action to help maintain a healthy ecosystem by planting native grasses and wildflowers, reducing disturbances such as mowing and spraying during the breeding season, and limiting herbicide use. Learn more ways to create optimal grassland bird habitat in The Willamette Valley Landowner’s Guide to Creating Habitat for Grassland Birds.

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Grasslands support more than birds!

Check out this companion article featuring the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, an endangered species of Pacific Northwest grasslands. Photo by Ted Thomas, USFWS (Flickr).

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Read more about conservation and management issues affecting grassland habitats in Oregon and Washington:

Citizen Science in the Grasslands: 

eBird NW Articles: