TWIN FALLS, ID – Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today joined Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Steve Ellis, U.S. Senators Mike Crapo and James Risch, local stakeholders and ranchers to see first-hand efforts to conserve the sagebrush habitat that supports wildlife, outdoor recreation and other economic activity throughout the West.
Jewell, Ellis and Crapo toured the Browns Bench/China Mountain region of southern Idaho and some areas that were devastated by the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire. Burning more than 600,000 acres, much of it important habitat for the greater sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, the fire was the largest rangeland fire since 1910. Federal, state and local partners are working to restore the area by reseeding sagebrush, combatting cheatgrass and other invasive species, and altering fire regimes and creating fire breaks to limit the damage from future fires.
“Fires are burning longer, hotter and faster, and it’s one of the reasons that we've seen the range of sagebrush habitat cut by more than half,” said Jewell. “The partnerships in Idaho to bring this key American landscape back are models of what we need to conserve and restore sagebrush habitat that is so important to wildlife and the Western economy.”
The support of landowners is a key element in a joint effort by the federal government and western states to develop and implement a landscape-level conservation plan for the greater sage-grouse before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to make a decision whether to propose the bird for Endangered Species Act protection in 2015.
The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species, sharing the sagebrush with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and golden eagles. While roughly 64 percent of the sage-grouse’s 165 million acres of occupied range is on federally managed lands, private lands are critical for the species, often including limited and vitally important riparian and wet-meadow habitat.
Following the 2007 fire, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management worked with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Regional Office in 2008 to implement a mechanical sagebrush planting project. The project supplemented aerial sagebrush seeding to increase plant density in an area important for sage-grouse breeding. About 15,000 seedlings were planted using a tree planter over an area of about 160 acres.
“Our goal is to work with natural resource managers across boundaries to ensure the success of this critical work,” BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis said. “Ultimately, we want healthy, functioning sagebrush plant communities that support all sagebrush wildlife species. Areas affected by wildfire, like what we see here, are of key importance.”
The restoration effort is one of a number of partnerships in Idaho and across the West to conserve and restore the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.
Three years ago, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and western governors formed the Sage- Grouse Task Force to develop a cooperative approach to conserving imperiled sagebrush landscape in the face of threats such as fire and invasive species, expanding development and habitat fragmentation.
Last month, Jewell toured a 35,000-acre project conducted jointly by the BLM and the State of Oregon to restore sagebrush habitat degraded by invasive juniper trees in Oregon’s Lake County. Supported by a wide cross section of federal and state agencies and local landowners, the project involves juniper cutting and thinning, along with infrastructure improvements designed to improve habitat for sage-grouse brood-rearing and foraging.
Earlier this year, Jewell visited the Bord Gulch Ranch in Craig, Colorado to meet with private landowners and local officials on sage-grouse conservation efforts in the region. Exemplifying this effort is the Sage-Grouse Initiative, a program funded by the National Resources Conservation Service, which has enrolled nearly 1,000 ranchers in conservation programs that have protected more than 3.8 million acres of sagebrush habitat.
In June, BLM Director Neil Kornze hosted a conference that brought together numerous federal and state partners to look at how organizations across the west can better address rangeland fire restoration, including ensuring we have the tools, science and seeds needed to be successful. The conference encouraged the development of a forthcoming multi-agency seed strategy to better align and integrate rangeland restoration efforts at the federal, state and local levels.
Greater sage-grouse once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West, but the bird, known for its flamboyant mating ritual, has lost more than half of its habitat since then. Settlers reported that millions of birds once took to the skies; current estimates place population numbers at between 200,000 and 500,000 birds. The species now occurs in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.More information on the greater sage-grouse and the ongoing, collaborative work to conserve the sagebrush landscape is available at http://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/.
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