Gunnison sage grouse Profile view of the highly imperiled, Gunnison sage grouse, whose habitat is the sagebrush shrublands along the Gunnison river in western Colorado. © Lance Beeny

Stories in Oregon

Break Through

How Innovation and a Pasta Maker are Restoring the Sagebrush Sea

On Oregon's arid sagebrush steppe, there is little rain, harsh winters and few trees. The sagebrush habitat that once covered this 24,000 square miles of high desert is rapidly declining, threatening the endangered sage grouse and increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Efforts to restore sagebrush populations and balance to this delicate ecosystem have been largely unsuccessful until now. 

Break Through We're using innovative science—and a pasta maker—to introduce a new sagebrush planting method across Oregon deserts.

Losing Ground

A male sage grouse puffs his chest out repeatedly as he struts across the prairie. He’s looking for a mate. He may also be looking for suitable place to live—his sagebrush habitat has been in fast decline. Only 56 percent of the sagebrush steppe, a landscape that once covered 240,000 square miles across 11 western states, remains today. With populations of sage grouse declining by 80 percent, this iconic and beautiful bird is losing ground.

The introduction of non-native grasses to the sagebrush steppe are partly to blame. Sagebrush is naturally susceptible to fire and while fire keeps an ecosystem healthy, non-native grasses increase the size and frequency of those wildfires. Once disrupted by fragmentation, invasive species and uncharacteristic fire, sagebrush habitats can be permanently damaged. In 2014, Oregon saw 623,000 acres of sagebrush habitat burn in wildfires, putting not only sage grouse but people’s homes and communities at risk.

If we keep losing acres of rangeland every year to invasive species, we're going to get to the point where we turn a corner and can't get it back.

The Science of Pasta

To restore the landscape, we need to plant more sagebrush. The problem is that conditions are so arid and inhospitable that most planting methods fail. To improve success rates, we looked to science for ways to improve germination rates in the dry, hard desert soil.

Our scientists knew that we needed to provide nutrients and moisture to give seeds a fair start and that’s when we got the idea to use a pasta machine from Italy to create seed pockets. Little, moisture-rich “raviolis” protect the seeds while providing a microclimate that improves germination rates and gives them "power in numbers" to push through the most arid of landscapes.

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.

Working Together

We're also partnering with researchers on other restoration methods such as 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 would not be possible without collaboration. We're working with public and private landowners, government officials and researchers across the field to give sagebrush and sage grouse a fighting chance.

Male sage grouse on lek ground
Male sage grouse on lek ground A male sage grouse gathers at lek grounds in the hopes of winning a mate. © Joe Kiesecki

Watch the Sage Grouse Cam.

As sage brush disappears, so does the sage grouse. Sage grouse populations have declined 80% across its historic range in the western United States. We are fortunate to have eyes on a few of the endangered birds when they visit their "lek" grounds to display their best moves in hopes of winning a mate.

lek, from the Swedish word for "play," is an aggregation of male animals who gather to compete for a mate using grand dances or displays. Each spring, from April to June, male sage grouse strut their stuff on lek grounds to win a female's attention.