Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sagebrush: A Western Legacy

By Lisa Eller, director of communications

Standing in a two-acre plot of land at the Idaho Botanical Garden, botanist Ann DeBolt points to a handful of sagebrush plants that reach the height of her knees. While pulling weeds — cheatgrass and cereal rye — Ann tells us she's constantly battling these invasive plants. The sagebrush are not as big as they could be at three years old, mainly because they are struggling to compete, she explains.

And as she goes on to describe the challenges of restoration, I start to imagine that plot as a tiny piece of a vast landscape and I begin to grasp the monumental task we face in protecting and restoring the sagebrush steppe ecosystem across Idaho and the rest of the Great Basin.

Pioneers Landscape © ComDesigns/TNC

This is just one of the many eye-opening moments I have had since starting the Idaho Master Naturalist program in January. The program aims to create a well-educated group of volunteers. For a minimal cost, participants meet every week over five months and learn about a number of natural resource topics. Participants agree to share their new knowledge working as volunteers at the Foothills Learning Center, the Idaho Botanical Garden and other locations around Boise.

The experience has deepened my understanding and appreciation for the work of my colleagues at the Conservancy and other groups dedicated to conserving, preserving, protecting and studying our natural environment in Idaho.

During the lesson with Ann, she also showed us an area near the greenhouse where she is propagating native plants from seed the garden collects, to support the Bureau of Land Management's rangeland restoration efforts. Master naturalists have assisted with this effort since the program began in Boise.

After the master naturalist lesson, I make a point to visit with our Director of Science, Dr. Bob Unnasch, who has dedicated part of his career with the Conservancy to figuring out ways to save the sagebrush steppe we have left and to restore what we have lost.

“What are we going to do? How do you stay optimistic?” I ask.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he replies. “But a monoculture of cheatgrass is something I will not accept.”

We laugh.

Note: Historical conditions are what we believe the conditions were prior to the introduction of livestock, cheatgrass, and other annual grasses. Fire return intervals are thought to have been between 150 and 350 years. In this calculation a fire return interval of 200 years is used. 

Source: Bob Unnasch, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho 

The rapid loss of sagebrush steppe seems overwhelming at times, especially during fire season — 2,720,761 acres have burned in Owyhee and Twin Falls Counties since 1984.  

But we remain optimistic and we move forward, supporting policy, conducting restoration and turning to science for options. This past year, our team in Idaho has dedicated much of their time to conserving the sagebrush steppe:

Our Director of Government Relations, Will Whelan, was a key member of Idaho's Sage Grouse Task Force, advocating for the state's investment in long-term and short-term solutions to the threats facing the grouse and the habitat.  

Sage Grouse © Bob Griffith

Art Talsma, our director of stewardship and restoration, has spent the past several years collaborating with landowners and land managers to restore sagebrush steppe in the Owyhee Canyonlands, an area that contains some of the most intact sagebrush ecosystems in Idaho.

Bob, along with Nathan Welch, our spatial analyst, have spent a good part of the last six months immersed in a project to model fire across the northern Great Basin. Their goal is to create a tool that land managers can use to create strategic fuel-breaks that can help stem the spread of the massive rangeland fires we have experienced in the last few years and to protect those remaining areas harboring the best and most important sagebrush steppe habitat.


Though much attention has been paid recently to the importance of sagebrush steppe (sometimes referred to as rangelands) to sage-grouse survival, it is important for so many other reasons, for both wildlife and people.

The sagebrush steppe is a uniquely Western landscape, an enduring feature of our natural and cultural heritage.

For some families, the sagebrush steppe is the place where generations have made their lives and earned their livelihoods. For some scientists, it is a place of study and a potential source for medicine.

For others, myself included, it is a place of beauty and serenity. Because sagebrush steppe attracts so much life, it truly enriches the countless hours we spend enjoying the outdoors. 

Rancher © ComDesigns/TNC