Sagebrush Steppe Ecosystem

Greater Sage-Grouse. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon

Sagebrush Country: A Landscape Under Threat  

The sagebrush steppe ecosystem is home to more than 350 species of conservation concern, and provides services and benefits to millions of people. As North America’s largest ecosystem, it spans 14 states and three Canadian province. The Greater Sage-Grouse, a sagebrush-obligate species, is completely dependent on large tracts of healthy sagebrush habitat for its survival. This unique-looking bird known for its spiked plumage and courtship dance, continues to gain national attention as it reflects the precipitous decline of this iconic western landscape.  

A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), found that Greater Sage-Grouse populations have dropped more than 80 percent range-wide since 1965, with a 37 percent decline since 2002. Spurred by a dramatic loss of more than half of its landscape, these declines are much bigger than one bird. The other wildlife, plants, communities and ranchers who call this place home are also threatened by degradation of this landscape, especially the continued march of invasive species and the increasing frequency of larger and hotter wildfires across these rangelands.  

Additional publications have looked at the health of the sagebrush ecosystem, all indicating alarming trends. A multi-agency study published in 2022 reported that intact, functioning sagebrush habitat is declining at a rate of 1.3 million acres a year. 

How Audubon is Answering the Sage-Grouse’s Call  

Audubon’s Public Lands team and field offices led by Audubon Rockies and Audubon Washington continue to take action in partnership with our membership and other NGOs to find pragmatic solutions that balance the needs of people and birds. Multi-state conservation plans for Greater Sage-Grouse were put in place in 2015 after a historic science-based, landscape-scale collaborative effort that brought together citizens, industry, state and federal agencies, and NGOs. But since then, the future of the bird and its home have become victim to ever-changing national politics.  

In 2010, in response to a petition, a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that Endangered Species Act protection was warranted because (1) loss or fragmentation of sagebrush habitat and (2) inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms. However, the species was placed in protective uncertainty by being designated a “Candidate Species”. In response to a court order to find a meaningful resolution, the largest landscape-level conservation effort in U.S. history was initiated. 

Between 2011-2015, stakeholders from across the country came together in good faith efforts to try and find solutions that could stem the Greater Sage-Grouse's decline and ultimately avoid necessity of federally protecting the species under the Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration attempted to weaken the federal plan’s protections for the bird’s habitat, despite strong opposition from Audubon and its members. The courts ultimately blocked these rollbacks.  

In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management announced its commitment to reversing the long-term downward trends in sage-grouse populations and habitats. This launched a formal review of the 2015 plans – to ensure consideration of the latest science and the changes to the habitat brought by drought and fire (caused by invasive annual grasses). Audubon is working with its partners to make sure this review by the Bureau of Land Management is based on new science and growing climate change concerns. 

Facing Today’s Threats: Wildfires

A 2021 report from federal and state conservation agencies examined a wide range of threats to the sagebrush ecosystem that have resulted in the staggering loss of wildlife habitat. Among those threats were wildfires, which have raged larger, hotter, and more frequent due to the spread of invasive grasses, often called cheatgrass. Between 2000 and 2018 wildfires have burned more than 15 million acres of sagebrush habitat (approximately the size of West Virginia), on public land alone.  

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“IIJA”) and the Inflation Reduction Act offer real hope for the bird and sagebrush country. The Department of the Interior, specifically the BLM and USFWS, are expected to receive hundreds of millions of dollars for ecosystem restoration and wildlife risk reductions. Not only will these efforts help control the invasive grasses which overtake native sagebrush they will also create new local jobs across these rural Western communities.  

Follow the adventures of Rocky the Burrowing Owl, as she takes young naturalists on a tour of sagebrush country.