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Hanford Site Ecology

The Hanford Site was established in central Washington in the early 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. For 50 years, plutonium for nuclear weapons was created and refined at Hanford. For both security and public safety, access was limited and a large buffer zone was maintained around the production facilities. Reactor operations for plutonium production between 1943 and 1989 resulted in hundreds of waste sites, burial grounds, and excess facilities; the United States Department of Energy is working to cleanup these areas. Because of security measures associated with production and cleanup, the Hanford Site has become a center of biological diversity in Washington State. The site consists of 1517 square kilometers or 586 square miles of habitat largely undisturbed by human activity. This habitat supports an abundance of native wildlife and plant communities including some species that are hard to find anywhere else.

There is a special research project devoted to monitoring the status and condition of biological resources on the Hanford Site called The Ecological Monitoring and Compliance Project (EMC). The information collected by this project is used to identify sensitive habitats and species and assure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements for natural resources and environmental monitoring now that the Hanford Site is being cleaned-up

The Hanford Site lies within the shrub-steppe ecosystem. It is arid with relatively low plant and animal productivity compared with some natural communities. This is attributed to the low annual precipitation (~6 in or 16 cm), drought-like summers, and the occasionally very cold winters.

In brief*:

  • Over 240 species of plants have been identified within the Hanford Site. Sagebrush, bluebunch wheatgrass, rabbitbrush, Sandberg's bluegrass, cheatgrass, and bitterbrush are some of the dominant plant species present.
  • The site is home to more than 100 rare plant populations of 32 different taxa. These population include taxa listed by the Washington Natural Heritage Program as Endangered, Threatened, or Sensitive within Washington State. Six of the 32 taxa include 2 endemic species, Erigonum codium and Lesquerella tuplashensis.
  • A diverse group of invertebrates live here including insects, arachnids, mollusks, crustaceans, and both parasitic and non-parasitic worms. There are over 300 species of terrestrial and aquatic insects and it is easy to spot grasshoppers, darkling beetles and butterflies. Less conspicuous invertebrates include nocturnal arachnids like solpugids and scorpions, and invertebrates like slugs that seek refuge underground or under plant materials to keep from drying out in the open air.
  • About 16 species of reptiles and amphibians have been observed on the Site. Side-blotched lizards are the most common lizard, while horned lizards and sagebrush lizards are more difficult to spot. Gopher snakes, racers, garter snakes and Pacific rattlesnakes have different survival strategies and habitat needs and all are able to find a home here. Amphibians, including Woodhouse's toads, Great Basin spadefoots and American bullfrogs are restricted to wetter areas on the Hanford Site because they need water to breed.
  • Over 125 bird species have been identified on the Hanford Site, with horned larks and western meadowlarks being the most common nesting species. Rarer birds like sage sparrows, burrowing owls, long-billed curlews and ferruginous hawks also nest here. The area is located within the Pacific Flyway and the Columbia River serves as a major resting area for migrating waterfowl.
  • Approximately 30 mammal species have been identified on the Hanford Site. Most are small and nocturnal. Of these, the Great Basin pocket mouse is most abundant. Larger mammals include jack rabbits, badgers, coyotes, mule deer, and elk. Seven bat species are included in the total mammal species count.

* Reference materials include Cushing, C.E. (ed.). 1991. Characterization of the Hanford Site and Environs. PNL-7668. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland Washington.


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