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Saving the Sagebrush Sea: An Imperiled Western Legacy

Nearly 350 plant and animal species depend on sagebrush habitat for their survival.


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Historic effort to protect greater sage-grouse

Aaron Kindle, July 31, 2015

Image: Creative Commons

When I was a young boy, I often traveled with my father across the Red Desert of Wyoming during his field work. The sage sea rolled endlessly in front of our eyes while the sights, sounds, and smells captured my imagination and my heart. I knew even then that these places were not something everyone got to experience and that even fewer truly appreciated them.

The broad, austere sage steppe is often thought of as the big empty, where nothing is.
Fortunately for the more than 350 wildlife species that call these sagelands home, nothing could be further from the truth.

For sportsmen and women, the sagelands have taken on increasing importance in recent years. These areas are critical to the lives of numerous game species, the stage for our most cherished adventures and ground zero in the battle that will determine the fate of the greater sage-grouse.

We travel these lands hoping to find that elusive muley buck; we scour these lands for antler sheds during the spring; we take our families here to enjoy the intoxicating smell of the sage after a rain shower. We also live and work nearby and understand all too well that making a living in the rural West is different from the rest of the country.

Mule deer
Image: iStock

Unfortunately, we are also firsthand witnesses to a landscape, and a species, in trouble. Overgrazing, mining, housing developments and widespread energy development are removing and degrading the sagelands at a rapid pace and pushing the iconic sage-grouse close to being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would bring wide-ranging restrictions and threaten the diverse partnerships that have formed across the West seeking to collaboratively save the bird.

Sportsmen overwhelmingly agree that sage-grouse need to be protected, but the means to that end is all over the map. The BLM, the agency in charge of most of the sagelands across the west, has the unenviable task of protecting the landscape that supports the sage-grouse in the face of a never-ending onslaught of development pressure, increased usage, and political winds that shift almost daily. Something must be done and the BLM has to do it. Otherwise, the ESA listing will come and we’ll all be scrambling to decipher what it all means and how we’ll ever get back to the west we know and love.

The BLM recently offered us a lifeline. We now have a blueprint for how to protect the bird, prevent an ESA listing, and perhaps bring this bird back to healthy, huntable levels. Their new plan protects the most critical areas such as leks and production and lays out a strategy to prevent and mitigate damage from wildfires and invasive species.

Sportsmen and women should get behind this far-reaching plan, behind the concept that we have an obligation to ensure the future of this bird and the uniquely American landscape they call home, and behind the future of conservation in the West. To do this we’ll need to support the BLM, advocate for the bird and its habitat, and spend our time having the hard conversations about how to live and work more responsibly in a world where we’ve pushed a symbol of the wild to the brink of existence.