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David Willms: It’s time to restore the Sagebrush Steppe

Loss of the sagebrush ecosystem will be catastrophic to wildlife and the West’s economy.

This Aug. 15, 2019 photo shows a juniper tree cut down as part of a giant project to remove junipers encroaching on sagebrush habitat needed by imperiled sage grouse in southwestern Idaho. The Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat Project aims to remove junipers on 965 square miles (2,500 square kilometers) of state and federal land in Owyhee County. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

In March, government scientists released two sobering reports about the status of the sagebrush steppe — a 160-million-acre landscape covering portions of 14 western states.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, tens of millions of acres of sagebrush habitat have disappeared or been degraded in the past century, and sage grouse populations have sharply declined since 1966.

Sagebrush country — which was once synonymous with the robust spirit of the adventurous West — now occupies less than half of its historic range. Half of the remaining landscape is considered degraded, which puts the sage-grouse ecosystem, and the people and wildlife that rely upon it in jeopardy.

Rural communities across the West depend on the sagebrush steppe for ranching, hunting and other recreation, so when the landscape is at risk so too are those rural economies. Some 350 species of wildlife also make their home there – including elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep – and, of course, sage grouse. Many of these species have experienced concerning population declines because of habitat loss and degradation. A number of factors are to blame for this steep decline including invasive cheatgrass, encroaching juniper, wildfires, overabundant wild horses, conversion to cropland, mining and energy development.

Fire remains the most significant and pervasive threat to the sagebrush ecosystem. Fire is a normal and essential piece of healthy ecosystems. A changing climate coupled with the rapid spread of invasive species resulted in increased wildfires across the West, which burned more than 15 million acres of sagebrush habitat between 2000 and 2018. In the face of hotter and drier summers, fires have not only increased in size and severity, but the length of the fire season has increased by 134 percent.

Making matters worse, once sagebrush has burned, invasive species such as cheatgrass take over the landscape. These invasives burn hotter, faster and more frequently than native species, and prevent the re-establishment of native species — including sagebrush.

Mining and energy development also contribute to degradation of sagebrush country: 20% of habitat in the Rocky Mountain region is directly impacted by energy development. Conifer expansion, overabundance of wild horses and cropland conversion also play a role in eliminating, fragmenting or damaging the sagebrush ecosystem.

Given the complexity of factors causing these declines, reversing this trend is not going to be easy, but it is essential. Loss of the sagebrush ecosystem will be catastrophic, not only to hundreds of species that rely on the habitat, but also to local communities and economies that live in this landscape. For example, listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act could cost western states billions of dollars annually from things like ranching and extractive industries to outdoor recreation and renewable energy production.

Conserving and restoring this habitat will require the continued commitment of local, state and federal stakeholders. Only through proper conservation practices, and serious investment in restoration, can we ensure that this important habitat does not disappear entirely.

The National Wildlife Federation has proposed an ambitious $8.5 billion plan to restore these lands in order to reduce rangeland fires, control cheatgrass and invasive species, increase water resources and reverse the downward trajectory of sage grouse, pronghorn, and other wildlife populations. Such a restoration plan will also aid existing economies, and create tens of thousands of new jobs in areas that have been hardest hit by the economic downturn.

We urge Congress to include restoration funding for the sagebrush steppe in its natural infrastructure legislation. It will be a giant win for workers, for rural communities, for wildlife and for our Western way of life.

David Willms, senior director for western wildlife and conservation at the National Wildlife Federation

David Willms, senior director for western wildlife and conservation at the National Wildlife Federation.

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