To those who have witnessed it firsthand, the vast open expanses of the American West are simply unforgettable. The empty rolling landscapes which characterize this region are typically dominated by stands of sagebrush, dotting nearly every hillside as they bleed into the distant horizon. It seems incomprehensible that these ecosystems – so numerous and so expansive – could ever be in jeopardy. But the reality is that sagebrush ecosystems are dwindling rapidly, as well as the plants and animals which rely on them, and they may ultimately collapse unless proactive measures are taken to mitigate the damage.
Not long ago, sagebrush ecosystems blanketed over 150 million acres across the western United States. To put that number in perspective, the State of Colorado spans about 66 million acres – approximately how many acres of sagebrush habitat have been lost over time. Human development, wildfires and the introduction of invasive weeds and non-native grasses have decimated these high-desert environments over time, slowly but irreparably changing the character of the American West. Many areas that were once sagebrush strongholds have become fragmented and unable to support healthy wildlife populations. And as is always the case in nature, the decline of one species can have ripple effects throughout the food chain, potentially disrupting the delicate balance of the surrounding ecosystem.
With a Colorado-sized block of sagebrush ecosystem now gone, over 350 plant and animal species – including grouse, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and many others – are at risk of displacement as their native habitat shrinks. Some sagebrush-dependent species even face extinction in the face of changing times.
Greater Sage-grouse, unique to this part of the world and found exclusively in these ecosystems, are reliant on large intact blocks of sagebrush to provide food, cover, and nesting grounds. They are known to shy away from areas with noise pollution and human activity. The Greater Sage-grouse population has diminished so rapidly that they have been designated as a “Species of Special Concern” by the state of Colorado and are currently a candidate species under the federal Endangered Species Act, which has major implications not only for the birds, but also for the way land is managed throughout the Western states. Click the video below to learn more about Greater Sage-grouse and their fight for survival.
Video: Pew Charitable Trust
Despite the alarming decline in sagebrush habitat across the West, there is still hope for these imperiled ecosystems. Disturbed sagebrush habitat can be reestablished after several decades of sound land management practices. It typically takes between 30 and 50 years to restore the native grasses and forbs that underlie sagebrush environments and allow them to take hold. But in order to successfully combat habitat loss, a proactive approach to sagebrush conservation needs to take place on both public and private lands.
Yampa Valley Land Trust has long recognized the value in safeguarding these delicate environments. Under the banner of the “Rio Blanco Sage Grouse Conservation Initiative,” YVLT worked with landowners in Rio Blanco County to permanently conserve over 15,000 acres of grouse habitat. Meanwhile, in South Routt County, YVLT is currently finalizing two new conservation projects which will preserve another 1,500 acres of land providing habitat for grouse, elk, mule deer, and other iconic species of Northwest Colorado. Additional conservation efforts in Jackson County have secured more than 1,700 acres of sagebrush ecosystems and wetlands which are utilized by many of this region’s resident wildlife species.
Many thanks to conservation-minded landowners, YVLT supporters and YVLT’s funding partners which allowed these projects to come to fruition: Great Outdoors Colorado, Routt County through its voter-approved Purchase of Development Rights Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
It is a long road ahead for Greater Sage-grouse and their shrinking sagebrush worlds. Conservation projects at the local, state, and federal level will help to stabilize the alarming rate of sagebrush degradation, but reversing the trend will require time, resources, and dedication. The fate of Greater Sage-grouse and other sage-dependent species hangs in the balance; if we fail to act meaningfully in bringing tangible changes to this landscape, they may be relegated to a distant memory.
Support YVLT and support land conservation in Northwest Colorado – for the Grouse, other species and for us! Together we have made a huge difference across this region, but there is still so much work to be done: