The Sagebrush Steppe
A state known for its lush, green forests and plentiful rainfall, Oregon is also home to a less-celebrated but equally important 24,000 square miles of high desert. Yes, 25 percent of the state is an arid sagebrush steppe, an ecosystem where there is little rain, harsh winters and few trees.
This unique habitat defines "the West" as we know it: rugged, sturdy, vast and open. At one time, the sagebrush landscape covered 240,000 square miles across 11 western United States. It was known as the "sagebrush sea." Today, only 56 percent of the habitat remains.
With the decrease in sagebrush habitat, came a sharp decline in many species that call this landscape home, including the sage grouse—an iconic bird of the West.
The Nature Conservancy is working hard to protect the sage grouse by improving and expanding current conservation efforts across the sagebrush steppe. Sage grouse need sagebrush, and if we restore it, they will return.
Restoring sagebrush habitat is not only about protecting an iconic bird. It's also about protecting families and communities across the West. Introduced non-native grasses increase the size and frequency of wildfires, but sagebrush is very susceptible to fire. In 2014, Oregon saw 623,000 acres of sagebrush habitat burn in wildfires.
It's also in our best financial interest to improve sagebrush restoration efforts. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent to restore sagebrush habitat with a very low success rate.
The Nature Conservancy is working with the US Department of Agriculture and other partners to turn this success rate on its head. We are using innovative science to introduce new sagebrush planting methods. One example of this innovative thinking is using industrial grade pasta machines to create "ravioli" filled with sagebrush seeds. These "ravioli" provide a microclimate for the seeds that improves germination rates and gives them "power in numbers" to push through dry, hard soil.
This work is just hitting the ground in Oregon, but Conservancy staff and partners are already looking at ways they can expand these efforts across the globe in places with similar challenges.
We're quite proud of our Freaks of Nature in Burns, OR. Honestly, who looks at a pasta machine and thinks "sagebrush seed raviolis"?! Their innovative ideas are not possible without your support. Thank you.
Sage grouse populations have declined 80% across its historic range in the western United States.
The range of sage grouse today covers 186 million acres in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. However, 3/4 of the birds inhabit just 27% of the range.
In a lab experiment, surfactant coating bluebunch wheatgrass improved seedling emergence by 3 times.
Invasive grasses are the root of a vicious cycle across Oregon’s deserts: they’re more susceptible to fire, they burn and regenerate ten-fold. 623,000 acres of sagebrush burned in wildfires in 2014.
The Sagebrush Steppe
Oregon's high desert—or sagebrush steppe—is one of the last remaining strongholds of a highly imperiled ecosystem. Once disrupted by fragmentation, invasive species and uncharacteristic fire, sagebrush habitats can be permanently damaged. Our goal is to improve restoration practices to native sagebrush species can out-compete non-native grasses and reduce the risk of these uncharacteristic fires.
"My family did the classic, tourist road trips when I was young, and that was my first exposure to deserts," says Garth Fuller, the Conservancy's Eastern Oregon Conservation Director. Fuller applies his lifelong love of deserts while overseeing the Conservancy's sagebrush habitat and sage-grouse conservation efforts, where he works with partners such as the Department of the Interior.
The Sage Grouse
At particular risk is the desert's most iconic species, the greater sage-grouse. Populations of the greater sage grouse have declined 80% across its historic range in the western United States. We're hopeful that through improved habitat restoration techniques, the bird will make a strong comeback.
Using a pasta machine from Italy, The Nature Conservancy and its partners have discovered an innovative way to restore sagebrush habitat. The pasta machine is used to create sagebrush "seed pillows." These pillows provide seedlings more desirable conditions to germinate, ultimately improving sagebrush restoration efforts. Current research shows these technologies improve seedling survival by as much as 70% in "real-life" scenarios where barriers to seedling establishment are most severe.
We're partnering with researchers like Matt Madsen, former USDA staffer, to improve sagebrush restoration efforts across Oregon's deserts. One method being used includes applying surfactant to native grass seeds, which allows water to more easily penetrate the soil and aid in seedling survival.
Our efforts to restore sagebrush habitat—and increase sage-grouse populations—would not be possible without collaboration. We're working with public and private landowners, government officials and researchers across the field to advance conservation. We believe together we can do big things.