Conservation

Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative

The sagebrush landscape has long epitomized the American West. But this unique habitat, home to scores of plants and animals, including the Greater Sage-Grouse, is rapidly disappearing.
Conservation

Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative

The sagebrush landscape has long epitomized the American West. But this unique habitat, home to scores of plants and animals, including the Greater Sage-Grouse, is rapidly disappearing.
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One Bird, 11 States, 165 Million Acres—

How Audubon Rockies Helped Protect the Sagebrush’s Most Iconic Resident.

About Greater Sage-Grouse & the Efforts to Protect Them

6 Ways to help Sage-grouse right now. 

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has recognized that Greater sage-grouse are challenged since 1954.  However, it wasn’t until recently that land managers across the species’ range have truly begun to address the threats to grouse.  Unprecedented actions are being taken by private landowners, states, and federal agencies to avoid the necessity of federal protection for sage-grouse that would be associated with a listing under the Endangered Species Act.  Because sage-grouse declines stem from loss and fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe, recovery strategies by land managers are focused on protecting and even improving what is left.

Greater Sage-grouse are referred to as an umbrella species, a recognition they’ve held since 2001 (Rich and Altman 2001).  Their habitat needs, for large amounts of healthy sagebrush, overlap with many other species that are dependent on the sagebrush landscape. Throughout their life cycle, sage-grouse rely on sagebrush for food and shelter – nesting under the sagebrush canopy, their young foraging among the plants, and the plant itself providing food for the bird during the fall and winter.

Benefits to other species 

Photo: Gerrett Vyn

The sagebrush steppe serves as a nursery for a wide range of wildlife species.  It is frequently referenced that 350+ other wildlife species also depend on sagebrush habitat.  In Wyoming (which holds the largest percentage of the bird and sagebrush habitat), where there has been extensive research, the number is even higher.  In Cowboy Country, the sagebrush ecosystems provides habitat to nearly 450 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish – many of which are recognized as non-game species (WGFD). Furthermore, approximately 6% of these are sagebrush-associated species that are identified by the state as being Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) – “whose conservation status warrants increased management attention, and funding, as well as consideration in conservation, land use, and development planning” (WGFD 2010).

GSG Lek Photo: Dave Showalter

About the Sagebrush Ecosystem

The sagebrush ecosystem is found across much of western North America.  Historically, this iconic landscape stretched across roughly 153 million acres.  Today only about 106 million acres of sagebrush steppe remains, making it one of the most imperiled ecosystems in America.  An ecosystem that may appear to be void of life to the casual observer is actually rich in wildlife.  However, actions taken over the past two centuries have resulted in this landscape becoming increasingly fragmented and of lower quality. 

Threats to the sagebrush habitat and impacts to the West’s wildlife

Threats to this landscape include habitat loss and fragmentation due to:

  • increase in wildfire cycles,
  • expansion on native conifers and exotic annual grasses (i.e. cheatgrass),
  • conversion of sagebrush habitats for agriculture,
  • persistent and increasing demand for energy resources,
  • and expanding urban developments.

Loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats can have a particularly acute impact on wildlife because in the arid West, food, cover and water resources are distributed unequally across the landscape. This characteristic of sagebrush habitat means many sagebrush dependent wildlife species have evolved to require very large areas of intact habitat to meet their seasonal and annual resource need. 

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How you can help, right now