The most commonly seen large mammal at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon is the mule deer, which congregates where grasses and shrubs dominate. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)
The “sagebrush sea” is synonymous with the iconic wide-open landscapes of the American West.
This drab, gray-green member of the sunflower family was once ubiquitous across much of Idaho. What may look like a lifeless desert actually supports over 350 plant and animal species.
A common phrase often uttered by developers, farmers, hunters and even land management agencies was: “It’s just sagebrush.” Yet some of our favorite animals to observe and pursue in Idaho, like mule deer, pronghorn and elk, depend on sagebrush habitats for sustenance, shelter and survival either seasonally or year-round. Sagebrush obligates such as sage grouse, pygmy rabbit and Brewer’s sparrow are completely reliant on the plant itself to maintain their existence.
Nearly half of the 500,000 square miles of Western sagebrush habitat has been lost to invasive species, development and increased wildfire. Sagebrush has adapted to periodic wildfires every 50-150 years, depending on the species and environment.
Non-native annual grasses like cheatgrass and medusahead rye often dominate sagebrush habitat post-fire. These continuous, flashy fuels have increased fire frequency to every 3-5 years in certain fire prone areas, such as the Interstate 84 corridor. Along with the loss of sagebrush comes the replacement of a diverse community of grasses, forbs and other important shrubs, such as antelope bitterbrush.
Grassland habitats like sagebrush are economically important as well. Many of Idaho’s rural communities rely on healthy, productive sagebrush habitats to support diverse economies dependent on agriculture, recreation and tourism. Ranching operations in Idaho often rely on private and public rangelands to provide valuable forage and summer range.
Lost habitat to wildlife also translates to reduced opportunities for producers dependent on the productivity of the very same landscapes.
A group of leading conservation organizations, including Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the National Wildlife Federation and the Idaho Wildlife Foundation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Izaak Walton League and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, have drafted a plan that brings together all those who rely on these landscapes to conserve them for future generations, while also providing economic opportunities for ranchers, farmers and outdoor recreation.
This plan, the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, or NAGCA, would fund the restoration and conservation of grassland habitat such as Idaho’s sage steppe and create a program to work with ranchers and private landowners to create economic and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Idaho ranchers and those who work the land have been stewards of these habitats for generations, and any successful conservation plan must rely on their knowledge and experience. The grasslands conservation act would create grants to provide landowners voluntary, flexible economic incentives and opportunities to help improve and conserve our disappearing grasslands. Conservation priorities could include restoring native grasses, controlling invasive species, utilizing prescribed fire and employing other management practices, like reducing cheatgrass spread and all its connected problems. They would be entirely voluntary and would assist ranchers and landowners in expanding conservation strategies that they already are practicing.
The North American Grasslands Conservation Act would also create new economic opportunities across Idaho by funding jobs, improving habitat for grassland species including game birds and mule deer and providing the spaces, education and strong wildlife populations that draw people to our state for hunting and outdoor recreation.
Bipartisan members in the U.S. House and Senate agree that there is a need to restore and protect this important habitat and are working on legislation to achieve this goal. Idaho’s congressional delegation should join these lawmakers and prioritize the introduction and advancement of North American Grasslands Conservation Act in 2021.
Together we can ensure that those endless horizon lines of sage don’t become a distant memory.
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