It is time to give some love to the vast Sagebrush Sea that dominates the western landscape between the Sierras and the Rockies. For too long, federal conservation policy has favored “scenic” mountains, verdant forests, rushing streams, and procreant wetlands. Even the hotter, drier Sonoran and Mojave deserts enjoy more protection than shrubsteppe. Despite its size, the Sagebrush Sea remains the least known and least conserved landscape in the American West.
We need a new federal conservation vision that provides long-term protection for the Sagebrush Sea for the benefit of native flora and fauna and the people who live there. The Obama Administration should use the occasion of the recent listing decision for greater sage-grouse to designate a new system of sagebrush reserves on public land.
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 landscape, 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 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. It serves as 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.
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.
Unfortunately, much of the Sagebrush Sea has suffered 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.
Despite majority public ownership, the Sagebrush Sea is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. 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 3 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.
Mismanagement of this ecosystem has taken its toll: last March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that sage-grouse, the emblematic ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea, should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. A proverbial canary in the coal mine, the grouse is an indicator of ecosystem health and an umbrella species for more than 600 other sensitive sagebrush species.
Experts agree that sage-grouse and other sagebrush species cannot be recovered without protecting large expanses of sagebrush steppe. The Department of Interior just released new maps identifying the most important areas in the Sagebrush Sea for sage-grouse and other sensitive wildlife. Key areas include the Hart Mountain/Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge ecoregion, the Owyhee Desert in north-central Nevada, and public lands adjacent to Charles M. Russell and Arapaho national wildlife refuges.
The Obama Administration has options for designating sagebrush reserves. The Bureau of Land Management could administratively designate conservation areas, the Secretary of Interior could order the creation of new wildlife refuges on public land, or President Obama could proclaim new monuments in the Sagebrush Sea. Or the federal government could do all three. It doesn’t matter how reserves are created or what they are called, so long as they protect sage-grouse and other wildlife.
The envisioned system of sagebrush reserves should 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. The Obama Administration has both the legal authority and ecological mandate to designate reserves now.
Mark Salvo is Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians.