Opportunities and Challenges in Sagebrush Conservation Documented in Series of Reports

Opportunities and Challenges in Sagebrush Conservation Documented in Series of Reports

Over the past month, a series of reports have documented challenges in the efforts to conserve sagebrush and sage grouse, as well as offered specific recommendations to address these challenges. In mid-March, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)—in cooperation with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—released a strategy for conserving sagebrush ecosystems in the West. Later in March, a USGS report was released that outlined an estimated 80% range-wide decline of greater sage-grouse since 1965 and a nearly 40% decline since 2002. Finally, in early April the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) released new frameworks for conservation of working rangelands to help address large-scale threats in sagebrush and grassland ecosystems in the West.

Sagebrush habitat

WAFWA Sagebrush Conservation Strategy

The WAFWA “Sagebrush Conservation Strategy—Challenges to Sagebrush Conservation” was developed through the engagement of a team of 94 scientists and specialists from 34 federal and state agencies, universities and non-governmental organizations that evaluated the growing threats to the sagebrush biome. According to the Executive Summary, sagebrush now occupies less than 55% of its historical extent, and more than 350 species of plants and animals associated with sagebrush are considered species of conservation concern.

“In order to effectively counter challenges, we first have to understand them,” said Director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife and Chairman of the Sagebrush Executive Oversight Committee coordinated by WAFWA Tony Wasley. “This report gives us a clearer understanding of these threats as well as how to restore degraded sagebrush rangelands and communicate the need for conservation to the public. It’s clear while we individually are winning many battles, we are at risk of collectively losing the war to conserve sagebrush, particularly with regard to fire and cheatgrass.”

The strategy provides an overview and assessment of the challenges facing land managers and landowners in conserving sagebrush ecosystems. The report is organized into three parts, the first outlining the importance of the sagebrush biome to people and wildlife, the second describing change agents in the sagebrush biome, and the third provides an overview of the current conservation paradigm and conservation needs for sagebrush. A webinar held on March 30 allowed report leaders to outline Part 1 of the strategy and to answer questions about the science included within.

“The bottom line is, sage-grouse conservation efforts are a great start, but we can’t just assume that these alone are going to take care of mule deer migration routes, wintering areas, pygmy rabbits, pronghorn, or human needs from these landscapes,” said Tom Remington, the report’s lead editor and WAFWA coordinator of this project. “There are many examples where state, federal or private efforts are successfully addressing these challenges collaboratively. We can conserve the sagebrush biome if we coordinate our actions to emulate these and scale them up.”

Greater Sage-Grouse Declines

At the end of March, USGS released another report that documents a much steeper decline in greater sage-grouse numbers than previously thought. The USGS report on greater sage-grouse represents the most comprehensive analysis of sage grouse populations and documents range-wide declines, though notes that rates of decline vary regionally. USGS scientists and Colorado State University researchers collaborated with WAFWA, individual state agencies, and the BLM to compile data and create a database of greater sage-grouse breeding grounds. The information in the database allowed the researchers to assess past and current population trends throughout the range. According to the report, the rate of decline increased in western portions of the range, particularly in the Great Basin, but was less severe in eastern areas. Only western Wyoming has had a relatively stable population recently.

“The fact that sage grouse populations are trending even further in the wrong direction should be taken very seriously by hunters, conservationists, wildlife managers, and all citizens of the American West,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). “There is no question that this deeper range-wide loss of birds is indicative of the continued loss and degradation of habitat, and stakeholders at every level need to regroup fast to determine a path forward that creates lasting conservation impacts for these iconic game birds.”

The USGS report can help evaluate the effectiveness of sage grouse conservation efforts and assess the primary factors leading to habitat loss and population change. The research helped to identify the most at-risk lek sites, with the greatest risk often being at the periphery of the species’ range. In addition to the population assessment, the researchers developed a “Targeted Annual Warning System” to alert managers when population trends begin to decline or have diverged from regional trends.

“The framework we developed will help biologists and managers make timely decisions based on annual monitoring information,” said Peter Coates, USGS scientist and lead author of the report. “This will allow them to address local issues before they have significant impacts on the population.”

The report documenting sage grouse declines directly connects with the WAFWA Sagebrush Conservation Strategy that highlights the key threats to the species and the sagebrush biome. Ed Arnett, TRCP’s chief scientist summarized many of these threats in a recent article. “This is an opportunity, if we view it as such,” Arnett writes. “We need Congress, federal and state agencies, and the private sector to make the necessary investments in conservation and restoration that will reap many rewards for all stakeholders in the future.”

NRCS Western Working Lands for Wildlife Frameworks

The focus on western lands conservation continued on April 6 as the NRCS Western Working Lands for Wildlife team released frameworks to support conservation efforts in the Great Plains and sagebrush biome. The frameworks target the most severe and large-scale threats across the West including woody encroachment, land-use conversion, exotic annual grass invasion, and riparian and wet meadow degradation. According to the agency, the frameworks will help guide voluntary conservation efforts over the next five years and will help direct USDA actions in the region. The effort builds on the past achievements of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sage Grouse Initiatives.

“America’s iconic rangelands support ranchers and rural communities, provide wildlife habitat, and store carbon,” said Gloria Montaño Greene, USDA deputy undersecretary for food production and conservation. “Under these new frameworks, NRCS and grassroots partners will defend intact grasslands, reduce vulnerability to future threats and conserve the last remaining rangeland regions west of the Mississippi River. They provide a common vision and coordination to address resource concerns and ecosystem threats across state boundaries, and new scientific tools now provide unprecedented opportunities to develop strategic approaches to combat these issues, especially when combined with on-the-ground landowner and rancher expertise.”

Staff from NRCS provided more detailed information and answered questions about the frameworks during a webinar on April 8. The recorded presentation and links to the framework reports are available for viewing online.

Photo Credit
Jennifer Strickland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
April 15, 2021