The Great Basin Pinyon Juniper and Sagebrush vegetation communities are an often underappreciated ecosystem that harbors a miraculous suite of wildlife and wildland values. The prospective ESA listing of the Greater Sage grouse is an important effort that has elevated the profile of many sagebrush biome habitats and wildlife communities. When Sage grouse come to finally enjoy listing under the Endangered Species Act, a great many wildland and wildlife values will enjoy much needed regulatory protections, particularly sagebrush obligate species.
However, as is all-too-often the case with public land and wildlife management agencies, political and economic pressures drive managers to shift, rather than curtail, many of the impacts associated with economic activities onto peripheral habitats and wildlife communities that fall outside of myopically construed prescriptions to conserve isolated habitat-types.
Such is the case with industry and government administrative efforts to prevent Greater Sage grouse listing. Rather than curtail existing impacts to sagebrush habitats, administrative efforts seek to anthropogenically manicure peripheral habitats, particularly old-growth pinyon-juniper forests, in an effort to avoid necessary restraint in public lands ranching and other activities within habitats experiencing immediate particular pressures.
Candidly, there is a war on arid forest trees and denser sagebrush vegetation communities, habitats critical to the well being of myriad wildlife. Devastating deforestation and ecologically unjustifiably “treatment” projects are destroying arid pinyon-juniper and sagebrush communities of the interior West.
NRCS, BLM, the Forest Service and other agencies, awash in hundreds of millions of dollars in funds both for fire and sage-grouse “restoration” projects, are appropriating a great deal of those resources with little to no public accountability. Massive deforestation and sagebrush thinning is touted as a way to “save” sage-grouse from an Endangered Species Act listing.
Federal agencies are increasingly relying on “Ecosite” models as a basis for chaining, logging and herbiciding trees, and crushing, mowing, and roller-beating sagebrush, often followed by re-seeding with cultivars and exotics bred to enable heightened forage production for livestock.
Remote, biodiverse, beautiful wild landscapes are being targeted across the Great Basin. Ancient arid forests provide habitat for myriad native species – pinyon jay, northern goshawk, ferruginous hawk, and migratory songbirds. Likewise, sagebrush is being mowed, crushed, and destroyed. Pygmy rabbit habitats and, hypocritically, sage-grouse habitats are becoming further fragmented and irreversibly altered. WildLands Defense’s ongoing monitoring efforts have documented that the “treatment” aftermath also creates a hotter, drier, windier site where flammable invasive exotic grasses thrive, again illustrating the extent that these heavy-handed management activities are more often than not counter-productive when justified under “fuels reduction” pretenses. Likewise, the adverse impacts of these treatments are made worse by continuing livestock grazing disturbance. Both the treatment and grazing harms are further amplified by climate change.
The landscape is being “manicured” with an arsenal of heavy equipment that tears up watersheds, causes downstream sediment from eroding soil, and degrades water quality. Large dozer or tractor-pulled mowers, masticators, feller bunchers, and use of herbicides like Tebuthiuron that in reality promote cheatgrass and other weeds to thrive in their wake. Chain saws, and scorched earth prescribed fire often cause extensive collateral damage as well.
Politicians are shoveling funds at killing woody vegetation rather than limiting grazing and other disturbances in the sagebrush ecosystem. Pinyon-juniper and western juniper are being targeted given the lack of public attention and appreciation for their critical contribution to the myriad of wildlife species that depend on these communities.
Urgent attention is needed to push back against this hugely funded effort to avoid curtailing impacts by off-setting industrial activities onto lesser known ecosystem attributes. Such efforts must highlight the primary ecological problem plaguing sagegrouse populations across this landscape, which is domestic livestock grazing disturbance and damage to habitats.