What’s at Stake
Shrub-steppe is an iconic habitat of the western United States. The shrubs, forbs, and grasses that define it make up a seemingly vast and open landscape that encompasses seven states. From eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and into western Wyoming and Colorado, the sweeping landscape is described by some as the “sagebrush sea.”
Shrub-steppe once covered over 10 million acres in the Columbia Plateau, representing the northwestern edge of the roughly 247 million acres that covered the West. Today, just 20% of Washington’s shrub-steppe remains, and many of these areas are fragmented, degraded and at risk. The invasion of annual grasses, accelerated rangeland fire, and changes in climate conditions have created a feedback loop that is driving the rapid loss of shrub steppe in Washington and across the West. Although fire is a natural part of shrub steppe ecosystems, accelerated wildfire cycles driven by invasive cheatgrass have reduced fire intervals from every 30-100 years to every 5 -15 years. Sagebrush can’t recover in such a short time, and we’re seeing large tracts of intact habitat – and associated wildlife - being lost to invasive grasses and fire.
For birds like the Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Sparrow, there is no place else to go. Sagebrush obligate species rely on sagebrush and the native plants and bunchgrasses that once flourished for food, nesting habitat, and cover. Across the American West, more than 3.65 million acres of Greater Sage-grouse habitat have burned over the past three years alone (2018-2020) and in 2020, rangeland fire burned nearly 800,000 of sagebrush habitat in Washington, including critical breeding grounds for sagebrush birds.
Communities at Risk
More fires mean increased challenges for local communities. This is especially true when it comes to the health of farmworkers and other people whose jobs must be performed outside. As fires become more frequent and more intense, problems stemming from heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation are made worse. Fire also threatens cultural and natural resources on ceded and unceded tribal lands, threatening tribal community members’ ability to fish, hunt, and gather in all usual and accustomed areas.
Audubon and our partners at the Arid Lands Initiative are working to ensure that post-fire rehabilitation needs are being met in priority areas and that we’re tackling the problem at its root. We helped pass a critical budget proviso in the 2021 legislature to support the financial resources and capacity for post-fire landscape rehabilitation and the development of a collaborative, landscape-level strategy for fire resilience. We continue to help lead the way in protecting this beloved landscape by promoting science-based approaches for landscape management and fire resilience, and partnering with our local chapters to advance solutions at the state and local level.
Learn more about the fire-invasive grasses cycle threatening shrub-steppe birds and habitat by viewing the videos in this article. Please join us in our work to protect healthy sagebrush habitat and the birds and people that depend on them by joining our network.