The Window for Saving the Sagebrush Ecosystem is Rapidly Closing

A health report for a vast western landscape finds alarming habitat loss but offers a strategy for saving what remains.
A male Greater Sage-Grouse with a spiky, fanned tail stands in a field of sagebrush habitat with an out of focus pronghorn behind him.
Greater Sage-Grouse and pronghorn are among the species that require healthy sagebrush habitat. Photo: Gerrit Vyn

Added together, the swaths of sagebrush habitat that the West has lost since 2001 would cover half of Utah. This embattled ecosystem’s decline is an old story, but new evidence of the scale and pace of its destruction has conservationists questioning how much longer it can function as habitat for more than 350 plant and animal species.

A multi-agency study published in 2022—the fullest health assessment to date for the largest biome in the contiguous United States—found that 1.3 million acres of sagebrush are vanishing each year. At that rate, the remaining healthy habitat will be gone around midcentury.

“The most recent science has shown us what a serious situation we’re in,” says Daly Edmunds, policy and outreach director for Audubon Rockies. “We’re really at a critical point in determining what the West looks like.” 

The spicy scent of sagebrush once perfumed some 300 million acres from California to North Dakota, anchoring an intricate network of life. Creatures like Greater Sage-Grouse, Sagebrush Sparrow, pronghorn, and pygmy rabbit can’t live without these fragrant shrubs. But today less than half the landscape’s original vastness endures—a staggering loss driven, directly and indirectly, by human activity. Sage-grouse populations, an indicator of ecosystem integrity­­, have plummeted by 43 percent in just the past two decades.

“When you think about what the landscape was, that’s where it’s really dire. We’ll never get back to that extent,” says Matt Cahill, The Nature Conservancy’s Sagebrush Sea program director. “But what remains, the places that are here today, are the places that could persevere through all of that incredible upheaval.” There’s still a chance to save those places, he says, but their survival so far is no guarantee that they’ll persist much longer without help. 

The recent study analyzed 250 million acres of the sagebrush biome and categorized it based on the habitat’s health. As of 2020, the findings show that territory included: more than 33 million acres of “core sagebrush areas” that remain intact and can still be preserved; 84 million acres of “growth opportunity areas” that are somewhat impaired but can be targeted for restoration; and 127 million acres of “other rangeland areas” that are too degraded to function as habitat. From 2001 to 2020, around 27 million acres transitioned from the two healthier categories into the most degraded, where restoration, while theoretically possible, would be such a heavy lift that it might not be practical. 

During that 20 year period, invasive grasses, such as cheatgrass, and the immense, increasingly frequent wildfires they fuel combined to devour more habitat than any other factor, the study found. Contrary to popular perception, in the first two decades of this century most blazes in the western Lower 48 were not forest fires; the majority occurred in non-forested landscapes, including sagebrush rangelands, where they tended to be larger than fires in wooded areas. That’s due in large part to cheatgrass, which dies in early summer, blanketing the arid landscape in tinder. After a fire reaches into sagebrush habitat, cheatgrass quickly takes over the burned area, outcompeting the slow-growing shrubs and other natives. Then the stage is set for still more fires in a relentless cycle that is chewing up habitat at a frightening rate. 

But the devastating cheatgrass-wildfire combo is only the most prominent of many hazards. “There are other threats that are catching up very quickly,” says Shawn Espinosa, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist. “I’ve seen this landscape in Nevada change dramatically from 30 years ago.” Mining, energy production, conifers edging into open rangeland, overgrazing by cattle and feral horses, droughts exacerbated by climate change—together­­, these pressures are overwhelming the ecosystem. 

Although the trends are alarming­, experts remain warily optimistic­. “There’s never been so much interest in this landscape. There’s never been the same level of attention from the federal government, in a coordinated way,” Cahill says. “The system itself is not doing well, but the chance for us to stem that tide is probably as good as it’s ever been.”

Landscape showing a large patch of cheatgrass.
Highly flammable cheatgrass easily outcompetes slow-growing sagebrush after a fire, creating an ever-increasing need for habitat restoration. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

There’s also plenty of common ground for getting things done. If the cheatgrass crisis has a silver lining, it’s that nobody likes the stuff, says Ted Koch, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. That makes confronting it less controversial than, say, rounding up feral horses on public lands, or putting tougher limits on which land oil companies and others can develop. Not only highly invasive and highly combustible, it also makes lousy forage for livestock. “I’ve kicked dirt with a lot of ranchers, and they don’t want cheatgrass either,” Koch says. 

Moreover, ecologists and conservationists continue to learn and develop new techniques for reclaiming areas overrun by cheatgrass or otherwise degraded, says Sarah Kulpa, a botanist and restoration ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Scientists have come to better appreciate the importance of planting sagebrush that’s adapted to local conditions, for example, and have improved success with other native plants by coating their seeds—with protective layers ranging from clay to chili peppers—before planting.

But the scale of the challenge is daunting, Kulpa says. Some 96 million acres of sagebrush are moderately or highly threatened by cheatgrass, and there’s nowhere near enough native seed to go around. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the locally adapted native plant seeds needed for ecological restoration are often difficult if not impossible to source. “We’re at a bottleneck,” Kulpa says. “We need to prioritize the development of a native seed supply by investing in collection, research, commercial-scale production, seed cleaning, seed storage.” 

Since capacity for restoring sagebrush habitat is limited, many experts—and the 2022 study—call for a “defend the core, grow the core” strategy. It’s a natural impulse to focus on fixing what’s broken, but land managers should instead prioritize safeguarding still-healthy habitat and strategically restoring growth opportunity areas, says Megan Creutzburg, an Oregon State University ecologist and co-author of the study. “There are places that are so tough to work, where we don’t have the technology or the tools to bring them back,” she says. “The danger is taking our eye off the ball, continuing to chase the emergency-level management of these really impacted areas instead of focusing on core areas and adjacent areas.”

How fully that strategy takes root will depend largely on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees more sagebrush habitat than any other entity. The BLM is now drafting a sweeping update to Greater Sage-Grouse management plans that will guide land use and restoration across 67 million acres. 

Expected to be open to public comment this summer, the revisions will be informed by a slew of recent science, including the findings of the 2022 study, which offer a road map to conservation priorities: 118 million acres of habitat that can still be protected or readily rehabilitated. “It’s just been a firehose for folks, going from very little known about the sagebrush ecosystem to just this explosion of science, data, tools, technology,” Creutzburg says. 

The goal is to stave off an endangered species listing for sage-grouse and help the whole biome rebound. The FWS determined in 2015 that the Greater Sage-Grouse didn’t merit listing because of the conservation measures contained in earlier versions of the BLM’s plans. But the Trump administration significantly weakened habitat protections in those plans, and experts say the species is in worse shape today than it was then. Further complicating things, the FWS remains prohibited from listing the species, thanks to language that Republicans in Congress added to a federal spending bill in 2014, which conservation groups have been trying to pry out of the law ever since.

Koch says he believes the Greater Sage-Grouse will need endangered species status before long, and he describes the ongoing prohibition on listing as an attempt to sweep a problem under the rug. But he’s less concerned about whether the bird is listed than he is about the larger trends driving its decline. “Doing business as usual makes me pessimistic,” he says. “What gives me hope is the idea of lead agencies like the BLM managing creatively and aggressively. These plan revisions are the BLM’s opportunity to do exactly that.”

What’s more, during the past two years Congress has approved funding at an unprecedented scale to step up restoration efforts. In November, for instance, the FWS announced $10 million in sagebrush-rehab funding through a 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law

Still, advocates stress that this beleaguered ecosystem needs sustained investment, not a one-time cash infusion. “We’re talking about more like billions of dollars to change the course of this tanker,” Espinosa says. 

Ultimately, saving the sagebrush and all it supports will take not just money, but also a massive, coordinated effort by restoration crews and ranchers, state and federal land managers, and local leaders. And time is running out.

A version of this story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue as “Last Best Hope.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.