On the plains of the American West, the lives of two organisms are intricately intertwined. One of them is a spiky, speckled bird; the other is a resilient little shrub.
The bird is the Greater Sage-Grouse, and it takes center stage in a new documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for PBS's Nature series. The documentarians explore the backdrop that dictates this bird’s life: the sagebrush that stretches across large parts of seven states, including Wyoming, Nevada, and Oregon. Colloquially, this region is known as “The Big Empty,” which hardly does it justice, says Marc Dantzker, a biologist and filmmaker from Cornell and producer of the documentary. “The place needs a PR agent,” he says. “But it also has a star, which is [the Greater Sage-Grouse].”
The filmmakers spent three years gathering footage in Wyoming to reveal how the grouse interacts with the steppe. Sagebrush is important at every stage of the bird’s life. Primarily, it’s a source of food and shelter. Females camouflage their eggs in sagebrush thickets. And when females gather to nest, groups of males congregate in places called leks for spectacular courtship displays of their ruffled plumage—“like the birds-of-paradise of America,” says Dantzker. “Males only lek in big numbers where the sagebrush is strong.”
Once this habitat spanned 62 million hectares. But now just more than half of it remains. Agriculture, invasive species, and development have edged out these native plants, and the sagebrush is increasingly fragmented by oil and gas development. Decades of change have caused as much as a 99 percent drop in the Greater Sage-Grouse population, from 16 million a century ago to an estimated 200,000 today.
Even as conservationists await a decision, due in September, on whether the bird will be federally listed as an endangered species, they’ve set to work protecting what’s left of the population and the sagebrush. By focusing on the swiftly disappearing habitat, the documentary makes clear the enormous importance of these efforts.
Flora and fauna
The Greater Sage-Grouse needs a lot of real estate, which is why it’s so important that local ranchers are partnering with conservation groups and federal agencies to maintain open stretches of brush for the birds. One pioneering group is the Sage Grouse Initiative, which has joined forces with Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative to protect more land. Special agreements called conservation easements, in which ranchers receive payments in return for keeping their property intact, are used as bargaining chips. In some instances, it’s a statewide effort; other times it’s the work of the federal government. In March ranchers in Oregon signed a deal with the Interior Department that would protect four million acres of sagebrush habitat in the central and southeastern parts of the state.
Fires—mainly caused by lightning strikes—pose one of the greatest threats to sagebrush habitat, especially in the Great Basin region. In 2012 alone, 2.7 million acres of sagebrush went up in flames. This is a serious problem for sagebrush, which doesn’t regenerate after it burns. In March the Interior Department announced the launch of a new strategy for reducing, suppressing, and controlling fire in sagebrush habitat, which they’ll test this summer. As part of that effort, the agency has committed $4 million to supressing wildfires in Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Idaho.
Some of that funding will be used to rid at-risk areas of cheatgrass, an invasive plant that dries out early on in the season, providing fuel for fires. In Nevada and Idaho, clearance projects will remove vegetation alongside roads to stop the spread of prairie fires. Replanting programs will also help to restore some of the damaged sagebrush.
Bringing back the brush
Greater Sage-Grouse rely on sagebrush for food, too. “Grouse are one of the only animals that can eat sagebrush. They eat it all year round,” Dantzker says. “In the wintertime it’s all there is.”
In parts of its range, sagebrush is being outcompeted by invading trees like junipers. In Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the sagebrush is being squeezed out by nonnative grasses and agriculture. But rehabilitators are helping sagebrush come back by removing invasives and doing proactive planting. With funding and support from groups like the Sage Grouse Initiative and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, conservationists are collecting seeds from the plains, cultivating sagebrush plants in nurseries, and replanting key grouse habitat.
Still, sagebrush is essentially the interior West’s version of old-growth forest. “We need to get better at [reseeding], but we also really need to protect the habitat, because we’re not going to regrow it on a large scale anytime soon,” Dantzker says.
With the documentary, Dantzker wants to challenge the perception that the sagebrush represents a wasteland, devoid of life and undeserving of public attention. “Our goal was to add value to a place that’s very easy to overlook,” he says. “Our goal is to say there is something here, and it’s something that we should take great pride in protecting.”
* * *
The Sagebrush Sea premiered on PBS's Nature on May 20. Watch the full episode at pbs.org.