The Sagebrush Sea is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, notwithstanding its immense size. Historically maligned and misunderstood, we recognize the value of sagebrush steppe and believe it deserves the same protection typically reserved for other, more “scenic” landscapes. Our plan is simple: conserve sagebrush species and protect their habitat. Our Sagebrush Sea Campaign has endeavored since 1999 to protect the emblematic sage-grouse and other imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act. Our dogged commitment to the task has caught the attention of the Obama Administration, providing Guardians an entrée to pursue the next step in our plan: permanently protecting sagebrush habitat in a system of sagebrush reserves.
Understanding the Sagebrush Sea
The Sagebrush Sea is our own Serengeti, the seemingly endless rangelands that fill expansive basins and cover the vast plateaus of the Intermountain West. While often portrayed as hot, barren, dusty desert, healthy sagebrush steppe is, in fact, a colorful and complex ecosystem where sagebrush grows in delicate balance with other shrubs, trees, bunchgrasses and wildflowers. The landscape is replete with lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, alkali flats, salt flats, dunes, volcanic rock formations and mountain ranges.
This rich topographical and biological mosaic supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. The Sagebrush Sea is vital habitat for the charismatic sage-grouse, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn, and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The landscape is a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for big game. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush steppe. More than 1,250 insect species have been identified on a single tract of sagebrush in Idaho.
Unfortunately, much of the Sagebrush Sea suffers from a tragedy of the commons. Accessible, irrigable, and rich in minerals, the Sagebrush Sea has been a working landscape since ranchers, miners and homesteaders first laid claim to it 200 years ago. Millions of acres have been lost to agriculture and development. Remaining sagebrush habitat is fragmented and degraded by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.
Protecting Sagebrush Sea Species
The Sagebrush Sea is home to four imperiled western grouse: the greater sage-grouse, Gunnison sage-grouse, Mono Basin sage-grouse, and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. Each is an indicator of ecosystem health. Populations of all four have suffered precipitous declines, and two have been reduced to less than 10 percent of their historic range. WildEarth Guardians is working to protect these and other sagebrush species under the Endangered Species Act. Listing would not only help these species avoid extinction, but help shape current and future management of the Sagebrush Sea. Land uses shown to harm listed species, including oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, and off-road vehicle use, could be curtailed or eliminated in occupied habitat.
Designating Sagebrush Sea Reserves
Most of the Sagebrush Sea is publicly owned, mostly managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A number of the fastest growing communities in the Interior West—the fastest growing region of the country—are in the Sagebrush Sea. BLM lands are increasingly important for their provision of water and other ecosystem services, recreational opportunities, and cherished moments of solitude for millions of Americans.
Despite majority public ownership, private industry dominates much of the Sagebrush Sea. Current policies prioritize resource extraction over conservation and nonconsumptive uses. The BLM routinely permits harmful gas and oil drilling, livestock grazing and off-road vehicle use on millions of acres of sagebrush steppe. Meanwhile, only three percent of the landscape benefits from some level of federal protection. Very little sagebrush habitat is protected as wilderness, national wildlife refuges, national parks, national conservation areas, or national monuments.
WildEarth Guardians is pursuing a new conservation vision for the Sagebrush Sea. We propose that the federal government designate a system of reserves to protect sagebrush habitat for the benefit of native flora and fauna and the people who live there. The system would be managed to conserve and restore ecologically functioning sagebrush steppe and associated watersheds, with a full complement of native species. Since sagebrush species are negatively affected by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, and other land uses, they would be prohibited or restricted in designated reserves. The reserves must be of sufficient size to withstand the effects of climate change, and the new system should include habitat corridors to facilitate migration, dispersal and gene flow.
No other western landscape is more deserving or has waited longer for protection than the Sagebrush Sea. While designating a system of sagebrush reserves is not a trivial political commitment, postponing action will only make conserving this landscape, recovering these species, and restoring these watersheds even more difficult.
Take Action Today
Safeguard the Sage Grouse
Tell Congress: Say no to using sage grouse to give away our public lands
Stop Attacks on Rare Native Wildlife
Join us in defending the Endangered Species Act! Tell your Congressional representatives and President Trump that playing politics with extinction is unacceptable.
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