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Natural Resources & Energy

Wildfires Could Decimate Sage Grouse In Coming Decades

Jeannie Stafford / USFWS

A new scientific study suggests as wildfires become more frequent, sage grouse populations in the West will decline because of a loss of habitat. 

The study was published in the scientific journal PNAS and shows that if sagebrush continues to burn at the rate it has in recent decades, sage grouse populations will be halved in 30 years. 

U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Researcher Peter Coates said fires burn up sage brush the bird needs for food and shelter, replacing it with invasive cheat grass, which is more likely to burn. Coates said climate change exacerbates the problem with its wild swings of wet and dry seasons.

"There’s so much habitat lost due to that fire and replacement with invasive cheat grass that sage grouse can’t reap the benefits of precipitation,” Coates said.

Coates added that’s especially a problem in lower elevation states, like Nevada, where the study was conducted. He said, right now, Wyoming doesn’t have as much cheat grass.

“If, in fact, Wyoming does experience some warming,” he said, “then as it moves north, then it’s a possibility that there will be quite a bit more cheat grass invasion.”

Coates said the best way to combat the loss of sage brush is to aggressively replant it after a wildfire burns through.

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