New report offers path forward for interagency efforts to revive the West’s disappearing sagebrush ecosystem 

Location of Core Sagebrush Areas, Growth Opportunity Areas, and Other Rangeland Areas identified within the sagebrush biome of the United States of America, By: Doherty et al., 2022.

A report published today by a team of scientists from a dozen organizations provides a product designed to boost efforts by land and wildlife managers to restore and conserve the imperiled sagebrush ecosystem across the full extent of its range, which covers more than 165 million acres.

The report’s approach, known as the Sagebrush Conservation Design, provides a roadmap for addressing threats to sagebrush by facilitating cooperative conversations that enable stakeholders to work together. The sheer size of rangeland the new design covers – 13 western states – is unmatched to date by previous efforts.

To develop this report, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies brought together 21 leading scientists with diverse backgrounds and expertise from 12 different federal and state agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations.

“We are committed to working with stakeholders to find solutions that improve habitat, stop the decline and help people maintain quality of life and livelihoods,” said Tony Wasley, Director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife and Chair of the WAFWA Sagebrush Executive Oversight Committee. “Implementing a strategic, landscape-scale approach will require an unprecedented degree of collaboration. The Sagebrush Conservation Design gives us the tools we need to do exactly that.”

Sagebrush, home to more than 350 species of conservation concern, is being threatened and degraded by invasive annual grasses, wildfire, expanding conifers, climate change and human development. Despite increased investments into the sagebrush ecosystem in recent years, the report found an average of 1.3 million acres of sagebrush have been lost or degraded each year over the last 20 years.

“The Sagebrush Conservation Design allows for targeted conservation and monitoring and helps managers and landowners focus finite resources on protecting functioning habitat,” said Anne Kinsinger, Associate Director for Ecosystems at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report’s innovative approach is based on remotely sensed data which was used to assess sagebrush habitats across its range, assigning areas to categories according to the status of the sagebrush and perennial grasses. Areas with intact sagebrush and perennial grasses are labeled Core Sagebrush Areas.

The design calls for a ‘Defend and Grow the Core’ approach, flipping the script by focusing first on these intact Core Sagebrush Areas that are of immediate high value to wildlife, and then growing them by working outward to more degraded areas rather than addressing the worst areas first. Core areas have the potential to provide anchor points and are most likely to maintain their condition as high-quality habitat. These are supplemented by Growth Opportunity Areas, which provide opportunities for improving habitat, but are lower priority given the presence of landscape-scale threats where restoration investments may be necessary.

The report also found that the identified threats to sagebrush habitats are complex, landscape-scale problems, such as invasive annual grasses, wildfire, conifer encroachment, climate change, and a range of other human modifications.  These complex problems impact livestock forage, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and other critical ecosystem services provided by sagebrush landscapes.

“The Sagebrush Conservation Design provides a framework for engaging in collaborative conservation on a landscape scale,” stated Matt Hogan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director for the Mountain-Prairie Region. “It not only provides a roadmap for conservation but will facilitate conversations about shared goals and values among a wide array of stakeholders so that we can work collectively to achieve conservation success.”

The Sagebrush Conservation Design can inform landscape-scale decisions and provides a starting place for incorporating the local stakeholder input and knowledge necessary to implement site-specific management strategies.

Caption: Location of Core Sagebrush Areas, Growth Opportunity Areas, and Other Rangeland Areas identified within the sagebrush biome of the United States of America, By: Doherty et al., 2022.