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Desert Basins: Protecting Biodiversity in an Arid Landscape

A science-based approach helps Wyoming’s driest landscapes.

Nothing says Wyoming like big, open sagebrush country. Wyoming’s desert basins sweep across one-third of the state. These landscapes contain some of the largest expanses of sagebrush remaining in the western United States. These are harsh lands of severe weather, high elevations, vast spaces and few trees.

Because desert basins cover gently rolling sagebrush rangeland, it’s easy to fall into a false sense that this is an empty or biologically-dull place. In fact, two thirds of the rare plants native to Wyoming are found here.

A Land of Extremes
A desert in Wyoming? Many people are surprised that Wyoming is home to a desert. In fact, these are the driest areas in the state. Precipitation is typically 6-10” a year (areas with less than 10” of rainfall annually are considered deserts). The weather here is extreme. Temperatures range from bitter cold to extremely hot in the summer, with freezing possible anytime of year.

Life in an Arid Landscape
Desert basins are home to a wide variety of plants and animals that eek out a life in this high, dry country. Neotropical migrant birds, rare plants, several rare or endangered fish species, sage grouse, and pronghorn have adapted to living in a harsh land.

Life is changing in Wyoming’s desert basins. Perhaps no species is more definitive of this sagebrush landscape than the sage grouse. As its name suggests, the sage grouse is entirely dependent on healthy sagebrush habitat, which was once abundant throughout the West. But this species has experienced range-wide population declines and faces an uncertain future. Invasive species, altered fire regimes, energy extraction and fragmentation all have taken a toll on this classic bird of the high desert.

Sage grouse are an “umbrella” species, meaning that they require large areas of habitat. By protecting their habitat on a larger scale, other species, such as ferruginous hawks, black-footed ferrets and pronghorn benefit as well.

The Limits of Water
In this dry country, water imposes strong limits. Running throughout the desert basins, however, are arteries of life-blood in the form of riparian corridors. Fed by hundreds of small streams, these waterways are a surprise in the dry desert. Vegetated by several cottonwood species, willow and alder thickets, and occasionally boxelder, these corridors provide abundant food, physical shelter, and life-giving water to dozens of species of wildlife and neotropical migrant birds.

Desert Dunes
An outstanding feature of Wyoming’s desert basins are long, linear ridges of sand dunes, some running 100 miles or more. The dunes may be either actively moving as winds deposit and rearrange the sand, or stabilized by the growth of plants. Ponds frequently occur between the dunes. Plant life on the dunes may be quite specific to these harsh locations and may include blowout grass, Indian ricegrass, sandhillmuhly and others.

What the Conservancy is Doing

  • The Conservancy has embarked on a science-based project to inform off-site mitigation decisions for biological impacts to the desert basins. Armed with our scientific planning process, we are providing tools to British Petroleum (BP) and the Jonah Interagency Mitigation and Reclamation Office to help achieve lasting conservation results in this unique landscape.
  • Located in northwest Wyoming, the Conservancy’s Heart Mountain Ranch hosts a revolving “bank” of grazing lands for local ranchers, providing relief pastures when ranchers choose to employ conservation tools on regular grazing lands.

Priority Actions and Sites
In order to most effectively leverage limited conservation resources, the Conservancy is focusing its efforts on key conservation areas within Wyoming’s desert basins. Some examples:

  • Sweetwater River
    The Sweetwater River is one of Wyoming’s most extensive and intact high desert rivers. The Conservancy works here to better manage livestock grazing in riparian corridors and encourage native plant growth.
  • Greybull River Basin
    The Greybull River Basin contains critical wildlife winter ranges, and habitat for
    sage grouse. Here, the Conservancy collaborates with a landowner group involved in activities such as invasive tamarisk removal, prescribed burning and innovative grazing strategies.