Federal agencies announce new strategy for conserving iconic habitat
A new U.S. Geological Survey report shows that half of the original sagebrush ecosystem has been lost at a rate of approximately 1.3 million acres each year in the last two decades.
The sagebrush ecosystem is the largest terrestrial biome in the Lower 48 at over 165 million acres spanning 13 Western states. It is home, of course, to the iconic greater sage grouse, a species that has driven unprecedented collaboration between state and federal managers for multiple decades, and yet sage grouse populations continue to decline.
Sagebrush habitat also supports ranching, an important sector of the Western economy, and 350 species besides sage grouse. Many of these—like mule deer, pronghorn, and other grouse species—are important to sportsmen and sportswomen. In fact, the rapid decline of this ecosystem should resonate with anyone seeking hunting opportunities across the West, not just grouse hunters. Here’s just one example of the impact on big game in Southern Oregon.
The report finds that the decline in sagebrush habitat is both ecosystem- and human-driven. Causes include events like more frequent and intense wildfires, the spread of invasive annual grasses that fill in after fires have passed through, and the encroachment of conifers into the shrub-steppe landscape, which reduces the amount of forage available to support wildlife. But a quarter of the impact on the ecosystem is attributed to urban development, suburban sprawl, and energy extraction—all activities that reduce the quality of habitat.
Significantly, the report also maps out 33 million acres of remaining high-quality, intact sagebrush habitat, termed “core areas.” And the authors suggest that the highest priority for preventing future declines to the ecosystem, as a whole, is to invest in the conservation and preservation of this remaining 33 million acres.
Continued efforts to prevent degradation, whether from the spread of invasive weeds or human development, in these core areas will slow habitat declines at a broad scale and should be the top priority. But the report also calls for revamping another 84 million acres termed “growth opportunity areas”—lower quality habitat that the researchers say could be restored to higher functionality through revegetation, conifer removal, spraying of weeds, and other activities to bolster core habitat.
Investing in these tactics that keep the remaining high-quality habitat intact and functional, and improve marginal habitat to a high quality, will be most effective at reducing the ecosystem’s overall decline.
These findings are somewhat of a game changer, because up to now, state, federal, and local agencies and nonprofits have targeted restoration of the most degraded lands in the hopes of retaining more sagebrush. But the success rates of restoring low-quality sagebrush vary. By recommending the maintenance of core habitat first, this report sets a new standard by which investments can be made in conservation and restoration to make a difference across a large swath of the American West.
These recommendations come at a critical time: Federal agencies are now deciding how to spend once-in-a-generation investments in infrastructure and climate change solutions, and efforts to maintain sagebrush habitats and support increased biodiversity and resiliency fit the bill. Congress is also debating additional proposals that would support local investment in restoration of sagebrush and grassland habitats, like the North American Grasslands Act.
The time is now to increase investment in conservation and restoration actions, and the need is great. This report demonstrates how such investments can have a real and meaningful impact on a vast ecosystem that provides for so many species and is such an integral part of Western life.
Learn more about the impact on sage grouse by watching this excellent Eastmans’ film and taking action using TRCP’s simple advocacy tools.