Birds & Birding

The Sagebrush Sea: The “Land In Between” Finally Gets the Spotlight

This week PBS Nature airs The Sagebrush Sea, celebrating the often unappreciated sagebrush ecosystem and its inhabitants. Photo: © Scott Copeland

This week, PBS Nature airs The Sagebrush Sea, an exquisite film that offers an unprecedented glimpse into the complex and abundant life within the sage.

There are numerous natural history films on high-profile ecosystems like rainforest and tundra but strangely, sagebrush has been largely overlooked as an empty ecosystem located between lush and beautiful mountain ranges. It’s a perception that couldn’t be further from the truth given that approximately 350 species depend on sagebrush (Wisdom et al. 2005).

Filmed largely in Wyoming where nearly 40% of the sage-grouse population resides, the documentary features showy displays of male grouse as they compete for females at communal breeding sites called leks, the trials for a hen in raising a successful brood, migrating mule deer, and the rearing of a golden eagle chick.

This film comes at a crucial moment.

An ecological transformation has been taking place across western sage for centuries. Since the 1800s, we brought cattle and machinery for ranching, farming, and mining.

Through heavy prolonged grazing and the introduction of exotic annual grasses, we altered the natural balance between sage and the native bunchgrass and forb understory, and affected the fire regime (Davies et al. 2011, Boyd et al. 2014).

To satiate our thirst for energy, we drilled and fractured rock thousands of feet beneath the earth to release and burn the gas, and pump out oil, or mine for coal. The energy generated by wind, oil and gas and coal is consumed by populations reaching out to all coasts.

Flip on a light anywhere in the US and there is a reasonable likelihood that at least some of the electricity was produced from fuels or wind in the West.

As a result of our choices, native plants and animals of sagebrush ecosystems are largely in decline (Connelly and Braun 1997, Braun 1998, Sawyer et al. 2006, Davies 2011, Gilbert and Chalfoun 2011).

Sage-grouse, in particular, are dependent on sagebrush throughout their life cycle, and thrive in large, unfragmented expanses of sagebrush (Holloran and Anderson 2005).We know without question that grouse avoid habitats with increasing well density and roads, (Walker et al. 2007, Doherty et al. 2008, Carpenter et al. 2010) human activity (Dzialak et al. 2012) and are affected by increasing levels of noise (Blickley et al. 2012, Patricelli et al. 2013).

Due to estimated range wide declines of 60% (2% per year) since 1965 (Connelly et al. 2004), sage-grouse are now under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The potential listing decision has sparked a national debate on threatened species and how best to conserve them. Most states have crafted sage-grouse conservation strategies to prevent a listing.

While our collective effort to protect sage-grouse to date is laudable, millions of acres of sagebrush are already leased for oil and gas, and thus likely to see more fragmentation. And, while restoration efforts abound, the truth remains that restoration of sagebrush is extremely difficult, especially in the most arid regions. In some places it may not really be possible at all.

Sagebrush seedlings. Photo: © Casey Balthrop
Sagebrush seedlings. Photo: © Casey Balthrop

On the flip side, hope for the sagebrush ecosystem is everywhere.

Teams working on restoration have made intriguing progress, such as in Douglas, Wyoming where thousands of sagebrush plants have been patiently grown in greenhouses and planted in an effort to restore lands from a wildfire.

Regional planning efforts are underway throughout sage-grouse range, and where implemented have resulted in commitments by industry to do more to mitigate their impacts and to improve range conditions.

Strategic efforts by the Sage-Grouse Initiative are working to restore juniper encroached areas (Baruch-Mordo et al. 2013), improve grazing practices and secure conservation easements to benefit both grouse and mule deer (Copeland et al. 2014). All told, they’ve partnered with over one thousand ranchers and enhanced 4.4 million acres, an area that is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.

And finally, there is the promise of distributed solar energy as a truly transformative technology that can shift our need away from large-scale industrial energy to rooftop systems that provide the energy we need without fragmenting and polluting our remaining intact ecosystems. Stories emerge daily about companies and families large and small, including my own, reaping the economic benefits of solar.

My great hope is that this film will elevate the national conversation on the sagebrush ecosystem and that better understanding of what is at stake will motivate the public and our leaders to conserve the remaining intact sagebrush and to ensure that the best science is used to manage grazing and to guide restoration efforts.

Sage grouse display on their mating grounds. Photo: © Scott Copeland
Sage grouse display on their mating grounds. Photo: © Scott Copeland

We have arrived at a profound moment in the era of Western conservation. The test is whether we truly have the willpower to preserve the remnants of our natural heritage.

It will require cooperation, meaningful and open dialogue, acting in good faith, and hard choices. We must resist pressure to ignore leading science when it is not convenient.

We are amidst a shift in consciousness, “the great turning,” as ecologist Joanna Macy calls it. A new generation is ready to meet these challenges with new tools and to do things differently than in the past.

In that sense, the sage-grouse strutting in front of a well at the end of the film, if it knew, would have every reason to be hopeful for the future to come, as am I.

Holly Copeland

Holly Copeland has worked as a Conservation Scientist/Spatial Ecologist with the Wyoming Chapter of the Nature Conservancy for the past 17 years, where her research has focused on a range of Western conservation issues such as forecasting future impacts of energy development on wildlife, mitigation planning, climate change, and wetland and riparian health. More from Holly

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2 comments

  1. Thank you Holly for helping to make Sage Grouse known. I am amazed at how many people here in Idaho remark on a photo I post of a Sage Grouse that they have never seen one before, never heard of them etc..

  2. Remarkable footage from a harsh and beautiful landscape. I plan to visit one day and to be able to experience this place as it has always been.