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Sage Grouse: Investing in a Shared Future

Sage grouse_USFWSPhoto courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

I was born and raised on the East Coast.  I make my life here and it is where I will spend the rest of my days.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit the wild reaches of our nation, from Yellowstone to the Arctic, the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades, and I appreciate the need to keep them wild.  For me however, landscapes where people are part of the natural fabric – the fields and woodlands of our nation – will always resonate with me the loudest because they have the warmth of home.

Maybe that is why of all the Western landscapes I have visited, the one I am the most drawn to is the vast Sagebrush Sea.  Stretching from the Western Dakotas, across the Rockies to the Eastern edge of the Sierras and Columbia River Drainage, it  is a land where family ranches support world class big game populations like elk and mule deer; a place where renewable energy development exists side-by-side with pronghorn ; a region that helps feed America, that lights our cities and powers our manufacturing; where jobs are being created while at the same time supporting over 1500 species of plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else in the world. A region where balance is crucial to maintaining the land’s productivity and abundance.

Over the last several decades, the balance so crucial to America’s Sagebrush Sea has begun to be lost. Poorly planned development, unsustainable land use practices, the spread of invasive species and catastrophic wildfire have caused the Sagebrush Sea to shrink as much as 50%. The proverbial “canary in the coal mine” of this loss is the Greater Sage Grouse, now a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

A once abundant and still valuable game bird, Greater Sage Grouse have declined as much as 93% from historic levels.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a final determination whether or not to manage the species under the Endangered Species Act by 2015. To save the bird before it must be listed, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service have all launched initiatives to conserve Greater Sage Grouse on lands they and their clients manage. 

Working with the support of Sierra Club and other conservation groups, state and local agencies and individual landowners, the agencies have collectively embarked on the largest land management planning exercise in American history. Once successful, this monumental effort to conserve wildlife will also support sustainable economic opportunities in rural communities by helping set the course for America’s new energy future, enhancing abilities to prevent and protect against catastrophic wildfires, and improving range conditions for livestock.

The efforts of the Bureau of land Management and Forest Service are expected to result in the improvement of over 100 federal land use plans across eight states while the NRCS endeavor has already helped support the good stewardship of hundreds of family ranches covering hundreds of thousands of acres. This work will not only help people and sage grouse, but also other wildlife like bighorn sheep . It will also forge a new model of conservation that stewards whole landscapes through engagement, collaboration, cooperation, and pro-active management.

While the support for this work is widespread, Congress, unfortunately, remains uncommitted.  Farm Bill programs that are the basis for NRCS’s sage grouse work with family ranchers were deeply cut by the U.S. Senate. The House now has an opportunity to increase that funding and support America’s rural communities and wildlife.  Both chambers also should approve the President’s $15 million request for the sage grouse work of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.  When they do they will be sending a clear signal in support of restoring the balance between people and wildlife in the West, and declaring that it is worth investing in our shared future.

 -- By Catherine Semcer



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