Shrub-steppe

A shrub-steppe plant community as it once was in western Walla Walla County. This photo was taken in southern Malheur County, Oregon, last week.

Can you believe that May 2021 is upon us and the spring season is well established?

April brought vastly different weather nearly every few days, from downright chilly, cold nights to very warm summer-like days at times.

Despite all this varied weather and wildly unpredictable temperatures, nature chugs on in its quest to meet its one goal for the season and that is the strong drive to procreate and renew populations to survive the approaching seasons of stress and hardship that the long hot days and heat of summer brings and the cold, unpredictable weather with short days and long nights of winter.

As life on earth faces continued weather pattern shifts with more powerful storms, droughts, floods and what I call weather insecurity overall, nature keeps attempting to adapt to these never-experienced weather events.

Trying to survive despite the huge challenges that are arising is the ability for many native species to keep adapting.

One of these massive challenges for native wildlife is the ongoing and increasing spread of highly invasive species of plants and animals that are not native to southeast Washington or Walla Walla County.

In this column, we will look at the high value of native plant communities which most of us call wildlife habitat, and the fragmentation of this irreplaceable natural resource.

Here in Walla Walla County, we have many drastically different types of wildlife habitat due to topography, precipitation rates and soil types.

Soils determine the native plant communities and the species diversity within those plant communities. These plants determine the insect diversity which in turn allows for specific bird, amphibian, reptile and mammal species on any one site.

Each of these species of animals requires a habitat type which allows it to survive, as each species has adapted to extremely specific requirements that must be met to match its own physiology.

For instance, you will never see a mallard duck perched on a power line in the middle of a vast wheat field.

Walla Walla County is 1,260 square miles, and roughly 79% of this county has been taken for our human use as farms, roads, urban areas, railroads, airports, sewage ponds and golf courses.

All these many hundreds of thousands of acres are largely lost to native wildlife with little or no habitat value for native wildlife in the form of desperately needed habitat just to sustain what little wildlife is still here.

All these animals fit a specific niche in order to survive, and that niche is its habitat.

As I look around, what I see in this county is degraded and fragmented wildlife habitat.

Some animal species have learned to adapt to what we humans have determined to fit our sense of useful habitat for our use, like lawns, ornamental trees and the use of lots of pavement and concrete along with the use of herbicides and other poisons to destroy and manipulate those animals we are uncomfortable with, are ignorant of, or we deem as vermin.

Animals like starlings, house sparrows, crows and a few robins have learned to survive despite us on our terms.

Most native wildlife cannot survive on our lawns and roads, and simply will not do so.

The good news is that we have an opportunity to create wildlife habitat on our private lands now.

Habitat is not only about game species, but rather all native wildlife that face severe habitat shortages.

There is a notion in ecology that there are indicator species that relay a message about the health of the habitat that we have left in place.

So, I would urge all of us to do our part for native wildlife and provide habitat — weed-free habitat, not scab land of little use or value, but area restoration like all those Ag folks that voluntarily restored river and stream buffers to provide outstanding habitat over the long term under several USDA programs in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Many like to fish and hunt, and see it as a right, but without habitat, so what.

In Washington State, 79%-80% of the citizens do not fish or hunt, but really enjoy hiking, photography, camping, birding, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, ATVing, rafting and all kinds of outdoor activities that are largely non-consumptive activities in wildlife habitat.

Why should 20% of the citizens provide the meager funds for habitat support?

So, to cover the cost of habitat restoration, some other means of habitat-sustaining revenue must be raised for meaningful habitat restoration, support and defense.

So many habitat sites are used by the irresponsible as dump sites for their trash, and criminal activity like poaching.

If, in fact, we as Americans enjoy and find rest and relaxation in nature amid wildlife habitat, we must all protect and care for it.

Remember, life is good!

Bret Rankin can be reached at bretrankin@wwub.com or 509-526-8316.

Bret Rankin graduated from Western Washington University, and after reporting and editing at several newspapers in western Washington, he joined the Union-Bulletin in 1999 as a sports reporter/copy editor. He has been sports editor since 2010.