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Feds invest $50 million in sagebrush ecosystem as threats mount

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners discuss sagebrush restoration projects on a ranch in Sublette County, Wyoming.
Mike Disney
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners discuss sagebrush restoration projects on a ranch in Sublette County, Wyoming.

Mark Twain called it “the forest in exquisite miniature.” The boundless skies and green shrubs that define sagebrush country cover a third of the landmass in the Lower 48, from the Dakotas to Oregon and Nevada. The sagebrush ecosystem is a critical environment for hundreds of species and agricultural operations.

“It represents a Western way of life, and it's so vital to the health and economy and viability of these Western communities,” Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said last week.

Williams visited western Wyoming to highlight sagebrush restoration projects. The agency is using funds from last year's bipartisan infrastructure law to invest in the ecosystem throughout the region.

“It may not be perfect yet. But you are seeing improvements and that long term upward trajectory,” Williams said.

Sagebrush country is losing a million acres a year due to a variety of factors, including invasive species, development, harmful grazing practices and climate change. But the ecosystem is still thriving across parts of Wyoming, and Dave Kimble, a biologist for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, said preventative measures now could save money in the future in some of these “core” ecosystem areas.

“Southwest Wyoming is maybe the best example of [where] it's not too late,” Kimble said. “There's a lot that we can save, conserve, [and] restore. And it still makes a big difference for the wildlife that's there.”

Eight million people also live in a sagebrush ecosystem. Matt Kales is a coordinator for the Sagebrush Ecosystem Team at the agency, and he argues it’s an undervalued part of the American landscape.

“It is a unique ecosystem and is a national treasure,” Kales said. “It happens to be in the middle of the country. A lot of people call this flyover country, but people live, work, and play here and have for many, many thousands of years.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to spend $50 million over the next five years on restoration projects like habitat improvement and invasive species removal. A lot of these involve partnerships and grants with private and nonprofit landowners.

“These investments benefit wildlife, they benefit communities through sustainable agriculture,” Kales said. “They build climate resilience, and they really make these long-term strategic investments in the health of this land.”

More information on specific projects and an interactive map can be found here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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