Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured southern Oregon’s high desert Thursday. The trip focused on efforts to conserve greater sage grouse.
The birds live in sagebrush country. But their habitat is shrinking in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and other states – because of people, wildfires, and invasive species. The birds don’t like fragmented habitat and need wide-open spaces.
Across the West sage grouse have lost about half of their habitat, said Tim Griffiths, the national coordinator for the Sage Grouse Initiative.
“In Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, you have a lot of encroaching conifer trees, where we’ve kept fire out for a hundred years, Griffiths said in an earlier interview. “Those trees march out on the arid, desert environment and fragment the landscape that way.”
In other parts of the West, including Eastern Washington, Griffith said there have been “wholesale conversion of historic native range for wholesale crop production.”
Invasive juniper trees have been crowding out sage grouse habitat southern Oregon. Jewell toured an area where ranchers and conservationists have tested different ways to remove encroaching juniper trees. Jewell says they’ve learned it’s best to remove juniper trees before they crowd out too much land.
“You can remove the trees, and that will help the landscapes for about 50 years. If you wait until the juniper encroaches, you’re talking 100 to 150 years for the sagebrush to recover,” she said in an interview.
Jewell said sage grouse can’t wait that long for better habitat.
Ranchers and conservationists have been working together across the West to help save the sage grouse in 11 Western states. Conservationists say work to improve sage grouse habitat will also help out other species living in shrub steppe habitat, like mule deer.
“There is no question that this effort is a wave of the future because we’re not looking at a specific species, we’re looking at a landscape. We’re not looking at one particular region, we’re looking at large ecoregions,” Jewell said. “This is a model that can be followed, and I’d say what’s happening in Oregon is a model within a model.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide next year whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.
Image courtesy H&N/ Sage Grouse Initiative