In an effort to keep the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) off the endangered species list the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) sees habitat conservation as the key, this means preserving the sage-steppe ecosystem in order to keep their numbers up. Sage brush is the dominant species in the sage-steppe ecosystem and is the most widespread vegetation in the intermountain lowlands of the western United States. However, this ecosystem is one of the most imperiled on the continent due to lax protections and degradation.
Sagebrush is a long-lived shrub, specimens have been found aged to 150 years. A vibrant sage-steppe ecosystem will have various plants at all different age classes, along with a diverse understory of forbs and grasses which provide forage for many reliant species including: myriad species of songbirds, pygmy rabbits, sagebrush lizards, mule deer, elk and pronghorn. While this diversity may not be a match for that of the rainforest, numerous animals, such as the greater sage-grouse, are found only within this ecosystems.
Sage-steppe grasslands are now a cornerstone of the western ranching industry and many surrounding rural communities rely on seasonal economic boosts from tourists and hunters. However, this seemingly monotonous, empty wasteland has been supporting human life since it was colonized by Native Americans over 10,000 years ago. Sagebrush is extremely resistant to environmental extremes like drought, but once killed through fire or converted into agricultural land, it can take decades for the plant to re-establish itself.
These ecosystems are also under threat from urban and suburban sprawl, oil and gas drilling, wind farm construction and invasive species. Land in the its eastern range is especially desirable for wind farm development while invasive plants like juniper and cheatgrass pressure sagebrush in the west. The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) partnering with private landowners, mainly ranchers, are collaborating to develop restoration and conservation strategies based on a foundation of stewardship. The main tenets of their plan includes strategic conifer removal, well-placed conservation easements, customized grazing plans and fence marking. For more information on their efforts visit http://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/our-work/proactive-conservation/.