As the Labor Day weekend came to a close earlier this year, eastern Washington state burned with an intensity never before seen. Across the Columbia River Basin, east of the Cascades, at least 80 fires raged, devastating communities, farmland, and vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. Carried by high winds, one blaze, possibly sparked by downed power lines, scorched more area in 24 hours than had burned in the previous 12 fire seasons in the entire state—approximately 330,000 acres. 

Michael Schroeder, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, witnessed the destruction firsthand as the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires in Douglas County and others in the state burned an estimated 700,000 acres of forest and sagebrush steppe, predominantly in eastern Washington. It was a worrisome loss of habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse, an imperiled species whose smallest and most vulnerable populations live in Washington and totaled only around 700 birds as of 2019. Only about 8 percent of the bird’s historical habitat in the state remained before the fires slashed it further. “For the largest sage-grouse population in Washington—probably 90 percent of birds live in that population—more than half of it was affected by the wildfires,” Schroeder says.

While it’s too early to know the fires’ direct impact on sage-grouse numbers, the toll they took on the bird’s habitat was so drastic that, last month, biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended uplisting the species from threatened to endangered status in the state. Kim Thorburn, a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, says she's seen the state’s decline in sage-grouse go from bad to worse in the past three decades, despite recovery plans and coordinated efforts to increase the bird’s population. Thorburn and other commission members will review the recommendation next year. Uplisting the bird wouldn’t add many new protections at the state level, but the change could send a signal that the species needs federal wildlife managers to intervene. “The idea of uplisting strengthens the argument of, ‘Here’s a bird that's in trouble, and maybe it should be listed federally,’” she says. 

Across the West, the 2020 wildfire season, which typically spans August to November, has been one of the most destructive on record, with nearly 8 million acres of land burnt or still burning. Wildfires in recent years have increased in intensity, largely from the consequences of past fire suppression efforts, compounding into powerful infernos known as megafires. These fierce, massive blazes have burned large swaths of forest and grassland habitats, including an estimated 700,000 acres of sagebrush across seven states. For an already at-risk species like the Greater Sage-Grouse, increasingly dangerous fire seasons present a dire threat to their survival.

Fire is particularly devastating in the sagebrush sea. Sagebrush burns like gasoline, and fire fronts move across the rangeland with ferocious speed. Strong winds regularly carry ignition well beyond burn sites, even across bodies of water. Scorched earth replaces food sources and habitats in an instant. Wildfires now pose one of the greatest threats to the sagebrush ecosystem, which has faced a steady decline in extent over the past century due to human habitation and energy development. 

Schroeder, who has worked in sage-grouse management in Washington for nearly 30 years, has watched as the fires have grown in intensity and destroyed sagebrush habitat at an alarming rate. “In a pristine environment, these areas are not unaccustomed to occasional fires,” Schroeder says. “The issue isn’t the area having burned, the issue is the frequency and the extent of these fires.”

Pearl Hill fire moving towards Mansfield, Washington, September 8th, 2020. Photo: Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman Review/AP

As with other wildfires across the West, experts point to rising temperatures and drier conditions related to climate change as major drivers of these sagebrush fires. “Overriding on a lot of this stuff is gonna be climate,” Schroeder says. 

But one factor that has made fires especially calamitous in sagebrush country is the spread of invasive cheatgrass. The plant ignites easily and has overrun the sagebrush steppe, says Michele Crist, a landscape ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management. “We have this non-native invasive grass that comes into these systems, that then dries out very early in the season and provides a continuous dry fuel that allows fires to burn through these systems much faster,” she says. This creates a dangerous cycle: Once fires wipe out the sagebrush, which can take decades to grow back, cheatgrass rapidly replaces the native plants, spreading tinder across the landscape for still more sagebrush-devouring blazes.

Recent wildfire data shows the magnitude of the threat wildfires pose to the fragile ecosystem. After more than 100 years of shrinkage from human settlement, sagebrush habitats have seen their most devastating losses in the 21st century; between 2014 and 2018, an estimated 9 million acres of sage-grouse habitat burned with little chance to become inhabitable again in the near term. “Fire has added an almost unrecoverable threat to sage-grouse,” Thornburn says.

The Greater Sage-Grouse’s precipitous declines in recent decades almost caused the bird to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. That fate was avoided when state and federal agencies, conservation groups, private landowners, and industry interests partnered together for a historic agreement to save the bird and its habitat. The coordinated effort, however, was quickly undermined by the Trump administration before the plan had enough time to make any significant progress. The five-year anniversary of the agreement, which occurred this past September, was supposed to include a progress review to inform future conservation strategies and benchmarks. That didn’t happen

Now some sage-grouse populations are showing declines that plunge deeper than the cycles of boom and bust typical of the species, raising concerns for the sagebrush habitat as a whole. Experts now see a listing under the federal Endangered Species Act as increasingly probable. “The sage-grouse really is a flagship species, because its health really captures the overall health of the sagebrush ecosystem,” says Daly Edmunds, director of policy outreach for Audubon Rockies. “If grouse aren’t doing well, that’s indicative of the ecosystem not doing well.”

With Joe Biden winning the presidential election earlier this month, the birds and their home turf could soon gain some relief. Biden has said he would end new leases for oil and gas development on government land, where fossil-fuel deposits often overlap with prime sage-grouse habitat. Regardless, if wildfires continue to worsen across the sagebrush sea, the species could soon face a perilous uphill road to recovery, even in states where the birds are far more numerous than in Washington, according to Schroeder. If that happens, he says, “all bets are off.”

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