Greater sage-grouse in a field at dawn. Photo by Steve Fairbairn, USFWS.
BY ERIN MCDUFF
The distinctive greater sage-grouse, with its spiked tail and memorable courtship display with male birds inflating their yellow neck sacs, is a ground-dwelling bird that lives in the sagebrush ecosystem in the western United States and portions of Canada. Its population is in decline due to habitat loss, and the greater sage-grouse is recognized as a sensitive species. It is also an indicator for the overall health of the complex, fragile sagebrush ecosystem.
Spanning over 175 million acres, sagebrush country contains biological, cultural, and economic resources of national significance. It is home to more than 350 species across the West, including pronghorn, elk, and mule deer, along with the greater sage-grouse. America’s sagebrush ecosystem is the largest contiguous ecotype in the United States, comprising one-third of the land mass of the lower 48 states.
Over the past century, this ecosystem has been profoundly altered as western juniper has dramatically expanded its range across the landscape. Greater Sage-grouse in particular do not respond well to the spread of juniper. The tree’s removal has been shown to help greater sage-grouse populations increase.
A robust collaboration among federal, state, and local entities in the Bruneau and Owyhee areas of Idaho is doing just that. This landscape-scale project is working toward shared conservation stewardship of sagebrush steppe habitat. Of the 1.67 million acres included in the conservation project, encroaching juniper will be removed across 617,000 acres to create a more resilient landscape, promote plant diversity, and benefit greater sage-grouse. This work is also helping to reduce the risk of severe wildfires.
The Bruneau-Owyhee Greater Sage-grouse Habitat Project was designed in collaboration with the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation, Department of Fish and Game, and Department of Lands; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service; and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
To date, 75,000 acres of lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management have been treated in the project area focused on juniper removal. Through a combination of lopping and scattering to remove the upward-facing branches of downed trees and increase the decomposition rate, along with hand and machine piling of hazardous vegetation for burning, the encroaching juniper is being removed, helping to restore the local ecosystem and make it more resilient to wildfires.
Through a collaborative process and annual monitoring, Interior and its partners are managing the project using the adaptive management process. Annually, the partners review work on the ground and discuss the goals and outcomes of those activities. By providing a continuous feedback loop regarding the success of the treatments, this methodology allows adjustments and fine-tuning to better meet overall objectives.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a historic increase in funding for wildland fire management, including an additional $878 million over five years for the Interior Department to improve ecosystem health and remove fuel for wildfires. With $667,000 in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding, the Bureau of Land Management will be able to treat an additional 20,000 acres for this project in 2022 alone.
This work will complement the nearly 100,000 acres of treatments conducted by Interior’s partners on non-federal lands in the project area since 2010.
The Bruneau-Owyhee Greater Sage-grouse Habitat Project supports the Department of the Interior's priority of investing in America's infrastructure through ecosystem restoration by advancing restoration work for the conservation of at-risk and listed species while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improving firefighter safety.
This project also reflects a wider effort by the Interior Department to restore and preserve the sagebrush ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it will fund more than 40 projects across western states to combat invasive grasses and wildfire, reduce encroaching conifers, safeguard precious water resources, and promote community economic stability through a more than $9 million investment under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
This project in Idaho represents an outstanding example of federal, state, and local agencies working together to achieve shared conservation stewardship by improving and maintaining sagebrush steppe habitat to benefit local wildlife and improve wildfire resiliency.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.