Idaho Ecosystems

Idaho Ecosystems Facts

Idaho Ecosystems ['ī-də-ˌhō ] [ˌē-kō-sis-təmz]

All the living and nonliving things in Idaho functioning together as a unit.

Idaho Ecosystems

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.

Diagram of the different eco systems in Idaho
Courtesy of Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission

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.

Aspen forest
Image courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

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 Panhandle national forest

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.


Blackfoot river wildlife management area
Image courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

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 for 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.

Curlew grasslands
Curlew grasslands

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 waterfowl. Check out a list by Idaho Fish and Game.

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


Image courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

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.

Great basin desert

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.


Fort Boise Wetlands
Image courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

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, and waterfowl 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.

Pend Oreille wetlands
Image courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

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.

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.

Top 10 Questions

January 2016

Thanks to Thanks to Rosemary Smith, professor of biology, Idaho State University; and Leif Tapanila, director, Idaho Museum of Natural History for their answers. for the answers.

  1. What is an ecosystem?

    An ecosystem is all of the living and nonliving organisms that interact with one another in a specific location. There are many kinds of ecosystems, and they do not have distinct borders. (From Amber at White Pine Elementary School in Boise)

  2. Does Idaho have more than three ecosystems?

    Yes, Idaho has more than three ecosystems. If we look at it from the top to the bottom, we go from the alpine ecosystem, down to forested ecosystems, then through the grassland and desert ecosystems. Finally, at the very low points, Idaho has watery riparian ecosystems. (From Hannah at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  3. How do the different Idaho ecosystems work together?

    All ecosystems on Earth work together because there is a finite amount of things like carbon, nitrogen and water. There is a constant exchange of all the different chemicals that are needed to support life. This exchange occurs between living and nonliving organisms. Every ecosystem has molecules that are constantly changing from one form to another, between living and nonliving forms. This happens across ecosystems as each system has no borders, and they are constantly changing and interacting with one another. (From Rebecca at Galileo Stem Academy in Eagle)

  4. What does inland wetland mean?

    An inland wetland is any ecosystem that's not next to the ocean. So, inland wetlands are fresh water ecosystems like river systems or lakes. (From John via the Internet)

  5. What kind of plants are in the wetland?

    There are hundreds of species of plants that live in wetlands. Ones that are more familiar are cattails, willows, bulrushes, sedges, mosses and ferns. (From Elizabeth at Jefferson Elementary School in Boise

  6. How did the deserts get created?

    A desert is all about water. If you don't get a lot of rain or snow, then it's really dry. That's what a desert is. Here in Idaho, we live in a desert. It's a very, very dry place. Animals and plants adapt as they learn how to live here. To add to that, there is something called a "rain shadow." Idaho is in the rain shadow of the coastal mountains that are in Washington and Oregon. So, water falls here. As you may know, the western regions of Washington and Oregon can be very rainy places. However, on the eastern side of their mountain ranges, it is very dry because the rain has already fallen. As the clouds approach Idaho, they usually hold much less water and that's one reason why it is usually dry. Then, as those same clouds reach the Idaho mountains, they will produce rain. So, our mountains and our coniferous forests are supported by a little more rain. Then Montana and Wyoming get the dry side of Idaho's mountains. (From Evan at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  7. I know that there are different types of forests, so I am curious if there different types of deserts?

    Absolutely, there are different kinds of deserts! Part of it is related to the amount of water that the area gets. However, different kinds of deserts come from different parts of the world. The area's climate, temperature and moisture content affect the type of desert that exists. Some famous deserts in North America are the Sonoran Desert and the Great Basin Desert. In other parts of the world, we have the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and the Saharan Desert in Northern Africa. The largest deserts in the world are actually at the North Pole and the South Pole where it is quite cold. (From Micah at Jefferson Elementary School in Boise)

  8. What is an invasive plant?

    An invasive plant is a plant that is not native to its region. It has a tendency to spread rapidly, so it has a lot of seeds, and is able to live, especially, in disturbed habitats. Usually it causes some kind of negative economic affect or detrimental damage to humans themselves or to their livelihoods. One example is that invasive plants can be harmful to agriculture. (From Clay at White Pine Elementary School in Boise)

  9. Where are most invasive plant species located, and how can we stop them from spreading?

    Some of the most invasive plants that you have probably seen are thistles, cheat grass, and knapweed. These are some of the plants that are especially associated with agricultural lands, the lands where we grow our food. A couple of ways we can control them is by making sure they don't get there in the first place. If they do, we can simply remove them by pulling them out, or we can use chemicals to kill them. (From Justin at White Pine Elementary School in Boise)

  10. Where is the bottom of the food chain?

    The bottom of the food chain is probably the most important piece of the food chain. Organisms are there, mostly plants. They are going to take carbon from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and they use sunlight. These organisms form the basis of the food chain because these molecules are the molecules that all other organisms need to survive. This is our food. Plants would be the base of the food chain. (From Max at Galileo Stem Academy in Eagle)