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Feds announce $10.5 million to preserve sagebrush ecosystems at a gathering on Wind River Reservation

Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Siva Sundaresan (second from left) with Eastern Shoshone Tribal Chairman John St. Clair (center) and other representatives from the agency and Shoshone and Arapahoe Fish & Game at the announcement for the $10.5 million investment in the region's sagebrush ecosystem on September 12th.

Sagebrush ecosystem conservation just got another big boost thanks to the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Amidst a field of sagebrush at the Washakie Reservoir on the Wind River Reservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Deputy Director Siva Sundaresan announced that more than $10.5 million will go to help protect the iconic Western landscape this year.

Sundaresan, who previously lived in Fremont County, noted that the sagebrush ecosystem is home to more than 350 species, including bison, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, sage grouse, and other birds and waterfowl. The 175 million acre ecosystem makes up about a third of the landmass in the Lower 48.

“This ecosystem is home to a variety of plants and animals and contains biological, cultural and economic resources of national significance,” Sundaresan said.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law designates roughly $10 million to the USFWS annually to help sagebrush conservation throughout the region from 2022 to 2026. The funding is part of the Biden Administration’s Investing in America agenda as well as the America the Beautiful Initiative, which aims to protect and restore 30 percent of the country's lands and waters by 2030.

Sundaresan said this year’s funds will support 59 projects that focus on “habitat restoration, on the ground science, combating invasive species, reducing the threat of wildfire and encroaching conifers, and saving precious water.”

The USFWS Deputy Director was joined by Eastern Shoshone Tribal Chairman John St. Clair. Of the new funding, Sundaresan shared that more than $1 million will go directly to conservation projects with tribal communities. He said wildlife conservation requires collaboration.

“To be successful, we have to continue working together to make significant progress at this national scale and it's really important that we strengthen relationships between the service states and the tribe,” Sundaresan said.

Roughly $300,000 will go to building eight miles of new wildlife-friendly fencing by Crow Creek on the Wind River Reservation to keep cattle out of a critical riparian area. The project will be completed with the help of both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Chairman St. Clair said the fence will help balance multiple needs on the reservation.

“We don't want to push out the cattlemen, so we're going to still have some of our reservation available for ranches. So this project here is going to help them too – it’s going to help our environment, our cattlemen, and our wildlife,” he said.

St. Clair added that the fence will be a helpful tool as the two tribes continue to grow their bison herds and said he hopes that bison can eventually be designated as wildlife under the tribes’ joint Fish and Game Code.

Currently, the code does not include bison, meaning they are not managed as wildlife in the same way that bighorn sheep, elk, moose and other animals are. For this to change, the General Councils of both tribes would have to vote to amend the code to include bison.

One of the other projects delegates an estimated $584,000 to manage invasive species and defend about 100,000 acres of high-quality sagebrush habitat. The project is a partnership with the state of Wyoming, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, private landowners, and tribes. St. Clair said the funding will help deal with invasive cheatgrass on the reservation.

“[Cheatgrass] takes over,” he said. “It's detrimental not only to our cattle and horses, but also to the wildlife that come to this area – so we want to try to preserve that.”

St. Clair said that this year’s projects with the USFWS build on an already-established partnership between the agency and the tribes.

“We feel our relationship with U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been very positive throughout the years – they've done a lot of things for the reservation and we work very well with them,” he said.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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