The sagebrush landscape has long been valued by humans; first by the Native Americans, who lived off the resources in this vast landscape, then the European colonizers, who established large-scale livestock operations. Local economies throughout the West are supported by the many unique aspects of the sagebrush landscape.
“Sagebrush country is [the] quintessential West,” says Michael Thabault, assistant regional director of ecological services for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Colorado. “When you watch ‘True Grit’ and see Rooster Cogburn riding his horse, he’s riding through sagebrush. It’s a core value of the American West.”
One iconic resident of the sagebrush landscape is the greater sage-grouse, a large, ground-dwelling bird that is almost completely reliant on sagebrush. Competing demands on the sagebrush habitat, ranging from agricultural, ranching, energy, mineral, urban, and recreational development to drought, invasive species, and wildfires have degraded and fragmented the landscape. The result is a long-term population decline of the bird and the loss of 50 percent of sagebrush habitat.
Thabault is one of the many USFWS managers who helped decide whether to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. “We knew there were U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists working on sagebrush landscape science and we had to make a decision,” Thabault said. “We worked on bringing the USGS and others in the science community together to leverage efforts and not duplicate them.”
The USGS was at the forefront of piecing together the puzzle that is the sagebrush landscape. Scientists assembled years of research to focus on how wildfire and habitat fragmentation affect greater sage-grouse populations, develop mitigation strategies, forecast distributions of sagebrush in the face of climate change, describe rangeland fire frequency and size, evaluate the effectiveness of restoration techniques, and develop conservation and restoration strategies to benefit the greater sage-grouse.
“USGS research efforts have helped support the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decisions regarding the conservation of the greater sage-grouse and its habitat," said Steve Small, BLM division chief for fish and wildlife conservation. "The BLM's land-use plans are based on the best available science, [which] was provided, in part, by the USGS.”
Using the best available scientific information, and considering ongoing key conservation efforts, the USFWS decided that the sage-grouse does not face the risk of extinction and did not list the bird as an endangered species.
“Whatever decision the USFWS was to make about the sage-grouse needed to be a solid decision with scientific underpinnings,” said Thabault. “Stakeholders and agencies needed to be involved so that they could own the results. It was a pretty unique situation because of the size, scope, and social and political situations.”
The looming decision galvanized the large and diverse group of State, Federal, and private partners to work towards the common goal of reducing or eliminating threats to the greater sage-grouse while maintaining economic development potential. The result is a landmark greater sage-grouse conservation effort that shares information and ideas among scientists, managers, ranchers, policymakers, industry, and U.S. citizens. The conservation effort delivers landscape-scale management strategies that address the bird’s habitat needs while helping maintain a way of life in the rural West.
Today, sagebrush covers 173 million acres across 11 States and two Canadian Provinces. Roughly half of that range is managed by two Federal agencies, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, who work with several partners to develop and establish plans and strategies to conserve this essential, treasured habitat.
The USGS continues research efforts to support ongoing management and conservation plans. USGS science is needed to understand and improve the effectiveness of efforts to conserve and manage sage-grouse populations and sagebrush habitat. It is also critical in precluding the need for a future listing of the greater sage-grouse.
For more information, contact Anne Kinsinger, USGS Associate Director for Ecosystems, at email@example.com.
Read more stories about USGS science in action.
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