As we move into the dry summer months the threat of fire looms over the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, an area covering 14 states and three Canadian provinces. This western landscape – the backdrop of many iconic cowboy movies - is home to recreation, hunting, grazing, various industries, and more than 350 species of conservation concern. Among these is the Greater Sage-Grouse, a long relied upon indicator species that has been in serious decline across its 11-state range.
Just last year, two pivotal reports were released that grabbed the attention of elected officials and land managers, raising concern about the future of this biologically important ecosystem and the risk of an Endangered Species Act listing. The first, 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.
More troubling news came in a report from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), which coordinated with the USGS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to examine 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. 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 2021 passage of the bipartisan funding bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“IIJA”), offers real hope for the bird and sagebrush country. The Department of the Interior, specifically the BLM and USFWS, received hundreds of millions of dollars for ecosystem restoration and wildlife risk reductions. Western Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have recognized the opportunity presented by this funding source, coming together to ask Department of the Interior leadership to invest IIJA money into the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.
Their letter highlights the increasing awareness of the need to restore this landscape and prevent more devastating wildfires. Also, the IIJA funding could create local jobs to spur this conservation effort, building more robust local rural economies with new opportunities in restoration and fire prevention. These efforts will be essential in order to control invasive species like cheatgrass, which overtake native sagebrush and have exacerbated fire risks across the region and strained local resources.
Audubon and partners from other conservation organizations are echoing the call from these Members of Congress and urging the administration to direct these investments to the future of this critical landscape. Working with States, Tribal Nations, and local communities to realize a better future for sagebrush country will also benefit the bird and the wide range of other wildlife that depend on a healthy sagebrush country.
Multi-state conservation plans for Greater Sage-Grouse were put in place in 2015 after a historic science-based, landscape-scale collaborative effort. In 2019, the Trump administration attempted to weaken the plan’s protections for the bird’s habitat, despite strong opposition from Audubon and its members. The courts ultimately blocked these rollbacks. Last year, the Bureau of Land Management announced it would reinstate the historic plans established in 2015 by stakeholders from across the West.
In February, Audubon alongside other groups, submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management asking the agency to review these plans based on new science and growing climate change concerns. More than 20,000 Audubon members submitted their own comments to the agency.
As the manager of the majority of the bird’s habitat, the outcome of the BLM plans and financial resources dedicated to improving the health of sagebrush country will play an important role in determining the bird’s future. As an indicator species, improving the future for Greater Sage-Grouse populations also means realizing a better outcome for North America’s largest ecosystem, and all that depend on it.