Idaho ranks 14th in size among the other 49 states in the United States. 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 at Pend Oreille, a remnant of early volcanic activity where astronauts trained at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and acres and acres of pristine protected wilderness.
Idaho's land can be divided into four distinct 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 constitute some of Idaho's wetland areas, but ponds and swampland also add to Idaho's diversity.
Here is a great diagram to help you see how these ecosystems sit in relation to altitude.
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 region. 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 or birch trees.
Idaho is host to 13 National Forests. Visit the USDA forest site to learn more about our forests.
Look at some of the plants and animals in Idaho forests.
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 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 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.
Check out these pictures of Idaho Grassland plants and animals.
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 rabbit brush 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.
Look at these Idaho Desert plants and animals.
Idaho is famous for its many beautiful lakes which are used for boating and fishing recreation. Nearly 75% of Idaho's wildlife depends upon wetlands in some form. Wetlands include all of Idaho's rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, and swamps - yes swamps. Click here for maps of Idaho's 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 in that they clean Idaho's water and filter out dirt and pollutants.
Learn more about Idaho Wetland plants and animals.