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Idaho Ecosystems: Facts


Idaho ranks 14th in size among the other 49 states in the U.S. It is a diverse state of scenic lakes and mountains covering 83,574 square miles. Idaho's northern panhandle is 45 miles (72 km) in width and the state widens to 310 miles (499 km) in the southern portion of the state. Idaho is well known for its recreational opportunities focusing on its geographical features; namely its rivers, lakes, mountains and ski resorts. Idaho boasts the deepest gorge in the United States found in Hells Canyon, a lake deep enough to navigate submarines in at Pend Oreille Lake, a remnant of early volcanic activity where astronauts trained at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and acres and acres of pristine protected wilderness land.

Idaho Water

Idaho's land can be divided into four individual ecosystems. Much of Idaho's land is covered in forests. Deserts, too, cover a great portion of Idaho's geography. Between the forests and the deserts lie the grasslands. Rivers and lakes make up some of Idaho's wetland areas, but ponds and swampland also add to Idaho's diversity.

Come with us as we investigate the four ecosystems of Idaho.



More than 60% of Idaho is covered in forestland. Idaho's forests are found in the mountain regions. These forests are largely conifers or pine trees. Idaho's state tree, the Western White Pine, is found in the forests of Northern Idaho. But a few deciduous trees can also be found in Idaho's forests such as aspen and birch trees.

Forests are found in high altitudes where snowpack and rain feeds the roots enough moisture to sustain these giant life forms. A 100 foot tall tree requires more than 11,000 gallons of water in one growing season. This water is recycled back into the environment when the tree releases oxygen and water vapor.

Idaho is host to 13 National Forests. To learn more about many of them and other National Forests throughout the U. S., visit the U.S Forest Service.

Check out this map from Idaho Forests which shows the distribution of Idaho's trees.

Who lives in Idaho's forests? Learn more about forest wildlife.

To learn more about forests around the world, see Science Trek's Forests, Wetlands, Desert.



Grasslands are areas where native grasses grow. They receive less rain than forested areas, but enough to grow a substantial crop of grass; about 27 inches of moisture per year. Most of Idaho's grassland is located in an area of Northern Idaho known as the Palouse. Bunchgrass, fescue, wheatgrass and camas grow there. Camas was a major food source to the Native Americans of that area. But this area has changed since settlers arrived and turned much of this land into farmland.

Grasslands are part of an area also called rangelands. The University of Idaho studies Idaho's rangelands and has developed some great teacher resources for the classroom.


Grasslands and forests can actually overlap as they do in the Curlew National Grassland. This area is in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in the southeastern corner of Idaho. Visit their site to learn more. The Curlew National Grasslands are home to a number of birds.

The Palouse Grasslands are occupied by big game animals, a variety of birds, small mammals and a number of water fowl. Check out a list by Idaho Fish and Game.

To learn more about grasslands, see Defenders of Wildlife Grassland Habitat Facts.


Idaho Desert

The deserts of Idaho receive less than 12 inches of rain per year. A good portion of southern Idaho is part of the Great Basin Desert which also covers parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

Idaho deserts are largely sagebrush covered with a few low lying grasses and other plants such as rabbitbrush and bitterbrush. Animals of the desert are mostly nocturnal, meaning that they do most of their hunting at night to conserve energy and to stay out of the hot sun. The deserts of Idaho are not always hot; in winter they can be very cold and even covered in snow. During the day, the few diurnal desert animals hide in the sagebrush or other plants and also use them for food.

The Great Basin Desert is found in the states of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon. Learn more about this amazing national treasure.


Learn about the animals of Idaho's deserts by visiting Idaho Fish and Game.

The Snake River runs right through Idaho's desert region. Visit National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to learn more.

To learn more about deserts around the world, see Science Trek's Forests, Wetlands, Desert.



Idaho is famous for its many beautiful lakes which are used for boating and fishing recreation. Lakes and rivers are essential to the life found in Idaho. But many parts of Idaho are covered in wetlands. Wetlands are generally thought of as areas where the soil is saturated from groundwater and surface water most of the yearlong and includes ponds, marshes, meadows, and swamps – yes swamps.

Wetlands are actually found within and bordering each of the other three ecosystems and are home to a variety of amphibians, fish, water fowl and even provide an occasional drink for deer or other mammals. Cattails, lilies, sedges, willows and cottonwood trees are just a few of the plants that inhabit Idaho's wetlands.

Wetlands are important to the health of our environment. They provide the water that all life needs to survive. But even the plants that live there provide a valuable resource because they clean Idaho's water and filter out dirt and pollutants.


Ponds can, over time, go through a process known as succession. When they fill with dried leaves, soil, dirt, and other matter, the water dries up. This may take a few years or a few hundred years. But when the water is gone, other forms of plant life begin to grow that would not grow in the overly wet soil that had been there before. So the pond changes forms – often from pond, to marsh, to meadow, to forest. Take a look at the description of pond succession offered by Missouri Botanical Garden.


Learn more about Idaho's wetlands here.

Idaho Fish and Game has a list of Idaho fish with diagrams so you can identify the fish you find

To learn more about wetlands around the world, see Science Trek's Forests, Wetlands, Desert. Science Trek's Rivers website might also be a place of interest in your study.

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