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Jury still out on success of sagebrush protections

Photo Courtesy of Keith Penner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Sage Grouse in Cokeville National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Courtesy of Keith Penner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Sage Grouse in Cokeville National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Fifty years ago, sagebrush in the West seemed endless, inexhaustible … and worthless. Land managers and landowners did not conserve sagebrush; they were asked to remove it.

Until, that is, land managers realized that sagebrush actually hosted a diverse variety of life. The abundant greater sage-grouse was disappearing, along with 350 other sage species, from mule deer to pygmy rabbits.

Management shifted from sagebrush eradication to sagebrush conservation. But while it was straightforward to eliminate sage, a reversal was more difficult.

To halt declines of grouse — and avert a listing under the Endangered Species Act — state and federal agencies worked together on science and actions to benefit grouse. As a result, one year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a landmark decision not to list sage grouse as an endangered species.

But a year later many are wondering: Are these plans working?

The most honest answer is we don’t know yet — this play is still under construction. Act 2, if you will.

After all, the federal and state plans for sage grouse are “just” a hypothesis — an untested belief — the scientific community is in the process of testing. Given sage grouse populations cycle up and down over five or more years, it will be awhile before we have a definitive answer.

What can be answered, though, is whether federal and state agencies are changing how they do business to support sagebrush.

Specifically, are they:

▪ Protecting big chunks of existing healthy sagebrush and promoting well-managed rangelands?

▪ Implementing innovative, large-scale methods to restore degraded sagebrush?

▪ Preventing the spread of fire-causing cheatgrass and other invasive grasses?

▪ Monitoring to measure progress?

Federal agencies are working on all four points. But these plans are so new that field offices of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages a majority of federal lands, has struggled to understand and implement them, and staff training is necessary.

For example, one BLM guideline directs new oil and gas development outside of healthy sagebrush areas. But how do we manage oil and gas leases signed before these new guidelines were installed? If developments for these leases in healthy sagebrush go forward in a business-as-usual fashion, they will undermine grouse conservation.

Another major challenge — and opportunity — is restoring millions of acres of degraded sagebrush. Some new restoration techniques showcase American ingenuity, such as air-dropping seed pellets, mixed in an Italian pasta maker, that doubles the survival rate of sagebrush seedlings.

Ranchers are also crucial partners. Managed well, their ranchlands provide habitat for cattle, grouse and other wildlife. Federal projects such as the Sage Grouse Initiative are providing support for best practices that help working ranches.

Everybody loves easy answers, but the truth is we’ve lost over half of the West’s sagebrush.

Today we are writing a new story for the sage, one that hopefully helps both people and wildlife thrive. Through 10 years of collective effort we have brought the sagebrush sea back into our consciousness, but nothing short of continued progress on all these fronts will yield success.

Holly Copeland is a conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

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