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Photo Credit: BLM Wyoming

The Sagebrush Sea – home to imperiled sage grouse

Safeguard the Sagebrush Sea
Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada exists a vast legacy of still wild lands: the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem. Large expanses of sagebrush define this ecosystem, distinguishing it from the grasslands of the Great Plains and the hot deserts of the Southwest. The Sagebrush Sea is also known for its most famous denizen, the sage grouse, a dancing bird that depends on sagebrush for survival.

One of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America, the Sagebrush Sea is threatened by oil and gas development and livestock grazing and accompanying increasingly destructive wildfire. Though most of the Sagebrush Sea is public land, it is not remotely adequately protected. And without protection, this unique landscape and the sage grouse that call it home could disappear in our lifetime.

We’ve already devoted more than a decade to conserving the Sagebrush Sea, beginning in 2003 when we sought to protect the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. By pushing for federal protections for the sage grouse, and especially protective buffers around their nests, we can protect the Sagebrush Sea as well. The Obama administration’s efforts to protect grouse fell short and the Trump administration is busily undermining even those weak safeguards.

Threats to the Sagebrush Sea

Oil and Gas Drilling

Sage grouse are negatively affected by oil and gas development, especially in or near their breeding, nesting, or brooding habitat.

Livestock Grazing

More than 99 percent of remaining sagebrush steppe is or was impacted by livestock. Livestock trample vegetation; damage the soil; spread invasive weeds, resulting in more intense wildfire; pollute water; and deprive wildlife of food and shelter.

Wildfires

A deadly combination of fire suppression; grazing; the spread of invasive plants like cheatgrass, caused by livestock grazing; and climate change means more devastating wildfires. Sagebrush is very slow-growing, and sage grouse and other wildlife may not use burned sagebrush steppe for decades after these fires.

Roads

Less than five percent of the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem is more than 1.6 miles from a road. Sage grouse are killed in collisions with vehicles and may be affected by roads up to more than four miles away.

Invasive Weeds

Cheatgrass, a non-native, flammable weed spread by domestic livestock, destroys native sagebrush steppe, increases the likelihood and spread of wildfire, and takes over burned habitat.

Habitat Destruction for Human Development

A number of the fastest-growing communities in the Interior West—itself the fastest-growing region of the country—are in the Sagebrush Sea. When sagebrush ecosystems are converted to housing developments or agriculture, their habitat values for sage grouse are lost.

Watch a Sage Grouse on a Lek

In early spring, male sage grouse congregate on “leks”—ancestral strutting grounds—and engage in elaborate courtship rituals to attract a mate.

The Sage Grouse

There are a variety of grouse species and subspecies that inhabit the American West. Umbrella and indicator species for Western grasslands and deserts, sage grouse offer insight into the health of entire ecosystems.

Greater sage grouse

A classic indicator species, the greater sage grouse is the foremost ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem. These fascinating birds are famous for their mating rituals, which appear as an elaborate dance.

Gunnison sage grouse

Recognized as a separate species in 2000, the Gunnison sage grouse is federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Seven isolated populations, one in Southeastern Utah and seven in Southwestern Colorado, remain.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

The smallest and rarest of the six species of grouse in North America, it now exists in less than 10 percent of its historic range.

Lesser prairie chicken

Myriad destructive land uses have slashed lesser prairie chicken populations by more than 90 percent. We are working to gain ESA protections for these rare dancing birds.

Mono Basin sage grouse

A subpopulation of greater sage grouse that occur on the southern border of California and Nevada. Geneticists have discovered that Mono Basin sage grouse are genetically distinct from other sage grouse.

Guardians Voices: Sage Grouse Stories

Watch this series of three-minute films telling the stories of people who, in their roles or careers, are guardians of the critically imperiled greater sage grouse.

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