Character of the Intermountain West

The Intermountain West (IW) features striking physical, biological, and geopolitical diversity across its 486 million acres. The region climbs from the lowest point on the North American continent to over 50 of the tallest peaks in North America. These elevation gradients, along with wild extremes of temperature and precipitation, have stratified the landscape into an ecological mosaic featuring three major biomes, parts of 10 different North American Bird Conservation Regions, and 23 distinct ecoregions. 

Though the majority (57%) of our region is covered by dry desert with low-growing shrubs, such as sagebrush-steppe, it also features thick layers of snow-covered peaks, pristine alpine lakes, subalpine meadows, forested slopes, dense conifer forests, rolling plains, wet meadows, and cottonwood-lined riparian corridors.


Naturally, this biodiversity supports an impressive assemblage of wildlife, including continentally significant populations of waterfowl, shorebirds, wetland birds, and grassland birds. See these birds and their habitat in this photo gallery.

The IW is important to a wide variety of birds at various stages of their life cycle:

  • The region’s limited wet areas—high mountain lakes, large salt lakes, wet meadows, marshes, playas, rivers, and fresh and brackish wetlands—serve as biannual “oases” for migrating birds and host roughly 40 waterbird species, including many or most of the world’s California Gulls, Eared Grebes, and White-faced Ibises.  Some of these wet areas are critical to the survival of entire species (e.g., American Avocet).
  • The region’s upland areas—such as sagebrush-steppe, grasslands, pinyon juniper, and coniferous forest — provide critical breeding habitat for several species in decline such as Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Pinyon Jay, and Grace’s Warbler.
  • The IW forms a key migration corridor from Mexico to Canada for shorebirds and waterfowl. More than 1 million breeding shorebirds utilize this corridor each spring and fall. The IW contains two of the most important migration stopover areas for waterfowl in North America: Southern Oregon-Northeastern California (SONEC) and the Great Salt Lake. SONEC supports approximately 80 percent of Pacific Flyway dabbling ducks for an average of 22 days during spring migration.

A unique interplay between people and wildlife exists in the IW, one that our conservation partners understand and appreciate every day.  More than 70% of the IWJV is under public or tribal ownership, while the remaining 141 million acres are privately owned by residents, farmers, ranchers, or corporations.  The working landscapes of the West have played a critical role in keeping wildlife values intact over the last century, and they’ve also had their share of impact due to unsustainable use.  However, competing demands for water in support of agriculture, development, and recreation pose significant threats to bird populations. Therefore, wetland-reliant species using this region must be highly adaptable to constantly changing habitat conditions and depend on a landscape-scale association of wetlands to meet their habitat requirements.

Fortunately, the extraordinary wildlife populations found here in the IW have inspired a community land ethic that recognizes the vital link between the ranching lifestyle and natural resource stewardship and conservation. From this awareness, and from the partnerships it has inspired, a unique recipe for habitat conservation has evolved. While habitat loss is a daily threat requiring significant strategy and investment, progress is being made.

We and our partners are grateful for the opportunity to live and work in this spectacular region and invite you to become part of our conservation network.

Character of the Intermountain West

Chapter 2 of the IWJV 2013 Implementation Plan characterizes the IWJV Landscape