SciSun: Where the Deer and the Antelope and the Sage Grouse play   Leave a comment

We’ve all heard the song ‘Home on the Range’ (that’s the one with all those Deer playing, and Buffalo roaming. They must have a great mobile plan). But what is this area where it seems everyone is living such fun and productive lives? It’s really one of the most challenging environments in North America – the sagebrush – steppe ecosystem found in eleven western states (and parts of Canada) east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; and west of the Rocky Mountains. Generally, the area that today is often called upon for oil drilling and mineral mining and wind farms, because, they say, no one else is using the land. Maybe some people never really listened to those song lyrics.

This sagebrush environment is easy to identify: It’s the wide, generally treeless areas of rolling hills and broad plains that seem to stretch forever; the land where it seems the scenery never changes and often little life is seen; the place that’s described in western movies as a ‘no mans land’. Despite its harsh appearance, the sage is actually rather fragile: An arid to semi-arid environment, the region is known for long, cold winters and hot dry summers – often with strong winds – and only a few inches of precipitation a year, most of that as snow. Yet even in these tough conditions, life thrives with 297 species of birds, 87 species of mammals, and 63 fish species calling the sagebrush ecosystem their home. But due to human activities – largely urban growth and energy development – much of this symbolically Western environment, one of the largest in North America, is declining and has been completely destroyed within much of its range, with millions of acres lost from just a century ago.

This is not a Greater Sage Grouse.  It's a Jackrabbit.  But he wants everyone to know he lives in the sage too and those Grouses shouldn't get all the fame and attention.  So there.

This is not a Greater Sage Grouse. It’s a Jackrabbit. But he wants everyone to know he lives in the sage too and those Grouses shouldn’t get all the fame and attention. So there.

While many unique and surprising plants and animals can be found in the sage, due to increasing pressures some of these are now threatened or endangered. The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), while under consideration, but not yet recognized as needing endangered protection, has recently become quite the spokes-bird for sagebrush habitat, and the hundreds of species that environment holds. Considered an umbrella species, this Grouse represents the other plants and animals that can also be safeguarded by the protection of just one key species. (This doesn’t mean the birds actually carry umbrellas. It doesn’t rain all that much in the sage. Although the cover would be handy for sun protection). Once numbering in the millions – from approximately 16 million individuals just 100 years ago to less than 500,000 today – the Sage Grouse helps demonstrate how fragile this ecosystem is, and that actions that effect one species – for the good, or the bad – can affect all that share the environment: Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana); Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis); Sage Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis); numerous types of grasses, shrubs and forbs are all “sagebrush obligate” species, meaning they require sagebrush for homes and food. These species, along with over 300 others – as well as five or more distinct species of sagebrush, itself – are all vital pieces of the complex web that connects each species to one another and to the environment as a whole.

And humans are also a part of this environment, again for the good, or the bad. From pre-history through Native cultures to recent farming and ranching, mankind has made a home in the sage-steppe and generally learned to live in relative harmony with the surrounding species. Only in the last 150 years or so have changes in production, the ever-increasing need for more and cheaper resources, and virtually unlimited growth of towns and cities forced changes to the sage that might be permanent, with approximately 50% of the environments historic 120 million acres possibly lost forever, and only an estimated 10% remaining as completely untouched. But in a remarkable partnership between Wyoming ranchers; the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS); and state and local officials, have reached an agreement to protect over 39,000 acres of public and private sagebrush-steppe environment – along with the Greater Sage Grouse and all other plants and animals that call the sage home – while allowing ranchers to use the land for limited livestock grazing through planned, responsible stewardship. While many of these ranchers have been working hard to protect and preserve the land for generations (remember, it’s their home, too!), only recently has a unique project – the Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA) – been established to allow government agencies to recognize and work with the ranchers in land protection and management. While much of the sage can never return to it’s original, native condition – and to some these are discouraging words – in fact this cooperative step shows with foresight and by looking for answers that benefit native species, the environment, livestock and man in the long term, rather than short-term wants or conveniences, this land can continue to be Home, on the range. And that’s something to sing about.

Michonne Says: To get from the rocks, where marmots live, to the brushysage you have to take a lot of steps. Sometimes as many as 100 steps, but it’s worth it because sometimes there are good flowers to eat. And that’s why the men call it sage-stepps.

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