In the wee hours of the morning, you drive deep into the sage-steppe. Perched on a hillside, binoculars in hand, each breath you take sends soft clouds of vapor rising into the darkness. Every inhale is washed in the cleansing scent of sage as the hills awaken around you. Softly at first, but gradually getting louder, you begin to hear it; the strange popped-champagne-bottle sound of a male sage grouse.
As the sky shifts from indigo to lavender, a dozen or so of them dance in front of you. They strut and fan their spiky tails on “leks,” or breeding grounds. Occasionally, two males battle each other with their wings. Lurking nearby, a few hens watch the dancers, as they will for many mornings in spring before choosing a mate.
You’re witnessing an ancient ritual. Both the Greater and Gunnison Sage Grouse always return to the same breeding grounds year after year. Grouse are certainly one of the most iconic sage-steppe residents, but more than 350 plant and wildlife species also depend upon this kind of habitat to flourish.
Healthy sagebrush-steppe habitat begins underground with the roots of the native plant species that hold this landscape together. Conserving our native roots helps wildlife and rural communities.
Good for the bird, good for the herd
The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), led by the USDA-NRCS, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of the NRCS’s Working Lands For Wildlife effort. Since 2010, SGI has partnered with more than 2,100 ranchers to conserve more than eight million acres of sagebrush. To help sage grouse, ranchers actively manage for healthy, abundant native plant communities. In turn, these management practices provide better feed for livestock while improving the soil below their hooves.
When native plant communities are diverse and strong, they are better poised to out-compete invasive weeds like cheatgrass. Cheatgrass doubles the risk of wildfire, degrading sage grouse habitat and decreasing forage for wildlife and cattle.
SGI works with ranchers and other partners to:
- Implement prescribed grazing strategies to promote plant health and productivity by adjusting timing, intensity and duration of livestock use based on plant needs.
- Remove encroaching conifers to prevent the loss of native understory shrubs, grasses and forbs that would have otherwise been crowded out.
- Control weeds and seed new plants to restore healthy plant communities on degraded land.
- Secure conservation easements to permanently protect intact native range.
- Restore streams and wet meadows to retain limited water on dry lands longer.
An upside-down forest
On the sage-steppe, most of the plant matter grows below your feet. A healthy sagebrush plant community includes shrubs (like sagebrush), grasses (like bluebunch wheatgrass and Sandberg bluegrass) and forbs (like lupine, maiden blue-eyed Mary, and buckwheat). Scientists lump individual plant species into ‘functional/structural groups’ based on features they have in common, such as their shape above and below ground and how long they live.
Each type of plant uses a different strategy to take advantage of niches and resources on the sagebrush sea. For example, annual plants that live only one year “get rich quick” by putting their energy into producing seeds instead of well-developed roots. Perennial plants that come up every year are “long-term investors” that put down deeper roots, allowing them to ride out drought years. Hunt to Eat has Western Roots tees that show off native root systems in the West.
Plant roots provide organic matter at a variety of depths, which helps feed billions of soil organisms and assists in essential water and nutrient cycling that drives land productivity. For instance, some species, like lupine, fix nitrogen in the soil which in turn nourishes other plants.
Why roots matter
Healthy soil literally provides the foundation for all life in the sagebrush ecosystem. Diverse native plants put down roots that protect our precious soils, help the land retain water, and support critical ecological functions and resilient landscapes. Maintaining healthy roots and intact working rangelands also provides a nature-based solution to climate change, locking carbon deep within the soil.
The western United States’ sagebrush sea is under increasing pressure from extended droughts, large wildfires, and exotic weed invasions that threaten both wildlife and rural ways of life. Luckily, promoting healthy and diverse native plant communities with strong root systems provides a buffer against these threats. Diverse native plant communities protect against erosion, store more water, and foster healthy soil which sustains wildlife and rural economies, and pays dividends for current and future generations.
To learn more about the Sage Grouse Initiative, sustainable agriculture, and sage-steppe ecosystems, check out SGI’s website. Their new paradigm for conserving at-risk wildlife and ecosystems works through voluntary cooperation, incentives, cutting-edge science, and community support. Together, we will conserve our native roots.
Gabby Zaldumbide is the editor of Hunt to Eat Magazine and H2E's online editorial. She resides in Colorado and has been hunting and fishing for over three years. Gabby has an undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology, a master's in public land management, and a PhD in loving her pets.