The Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) works tirelessly to educate all people about the Shrub-Steppe ecosystem found in Central Washington. As such, KEEN pursues a policy of science-based outreach programs based on threats to this habitat. This policy inspires me to continue to educate people about matters that may have a profound impact on our bioregion.

Ecologist Robert Paine, who coined the term “keystone species” in the 1960s, observed the importance of such species in a study of starfish along the rocky Pacific coastline in Washington State. The starfish fed on mussels, which kept the mussel population in check and allowed many other species to thrive.

Once the starfish were gone, almost half of other species gradually vanished, causing the collapse of the entire ecosystem. With this finding, Paine discovered that some species have a larger effect on their environment than other species, regardless of their numbers. Such species are called “keystone species. The importance of keystone species lies in the way they affect other organisms in the ecosystem. According to Paine’s description, their presence is crucial for maintaining numbers and diversity of other species, which makes their role exceptional in the ecosystem.

The removal of a keystone species from an ecosystem triggers numerous negative changes, most of which were not originally envisioned. One well-documented case of such a chain of events was eliminating wolves from the Western United States at the beginning of the last century. The negative effect on the West’s biodiversity was so profound that authorities have taken steps to introduce this keystone predator back into the Western United States, including Central Washington.

Another example of a keystone in Central Washington is the Grizzly Bear. The main reason why grizzlies are on the list of keystone animals is because they enrich the forest floor with nutrients from salmon carcasses. When bears feed on salmon, they often drag fish deep into the forest. Leftover carcasses from their feeding bring nutrients back from the Ocean and fertilize the forests and support growth of strong/healthy trees (see books like, Salmon in the Trees by Amy Gulick).

Contrary to their reputation as a fearsome predator, the role of grizzlies in their ecosystem is more of a gardener. When digging for roots and bulbs to eat, bears turn over large areas of soil in mountainous terrain. This aerates soils and mixes in organic material, enhancing growth of many different wildflowers. Additionally, numerous seeds of berries and pine nuts get distributed through their feces.

Not everyone supports the concept of Keystone Species. “The introduction of grizzly bears into the North Cascades will directly affect the people and the communities I represent,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse (Republican from Central Washington’s 4th District). “I oppose this proposal because I believe introducing an apex predator to the area will threaten the families, wildlife and livestock of North Central Washington.”

The last example of a Keystone Species in Central Washington is the beaver. Beavers were hunted to extinction for their fur and to prevent the alteration of the landscape, because they can quickly divert or block streams. While in the past this behavior was considered harmful, we know now that by building natural dams on rivers and creating wetlands, beavers provide habitat for other wildlife and ideal spawning grounds for numerous species of fish like Bull Trout and salmon.

Beaver dams have been shown to be essential for healthy salmon populations by trapping fine sediment, letting only clean water pass through, which creates ideal conditions for salmon reproduction.

The service beavers do for the environment does not end with providing suitable habitat to other species. It is also the creation of wetlands that has an incredible value. Wetlands play a critical role in filtering out pollutants and more effectively sequester carbon than do forests.

Clearly, the science of keystone species is well established and loss of these species in the shrub steppe of Central Washington needs to be addressed in a cohesive manner, especially in light of the demise of salmon runs in Central Washington Rivers.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Draft North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement is currently open for comment through Oct. 24, 2019. The public is invited to view the Draft EIS and make comments online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=44144 . Written comments will be accepted by mail to: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284.

I exhort all like-minded people to get involved with KEEN’s ongoing efforts to build the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center at Helen McCabe State Park located about .7 miles South of Ellensburg on the Yakima Canyon Road, State Route No. 821. Contact us at kittitasee@gmail.com or via social media.

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