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Sagebrush ecosystem restoration on the Wind River Reservation grows deeper roots with recent federal funding

Four men stand in front of a body of water with a large cliff face behind it.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Siva Sundaresan, Eastern Shoshone conservationist Richard Baldes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pat Hnilicka, and Eastern Shoshone Tribal Chairman John St. Clair at the announcement for the $10.5 million investment for the Western sagebrush ecosystem on September 12th.

Sagebrush ecosystem conservation got another big boost in September, thanks to the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced more than $10.5 million of funding for projects throughout the West and on the Wind River Reservation.

On a crisp morning at Washakie Reservoir, tall limestone cliffs frame one end of the kite-shaped lake, a sort of gateway to the nearby Wind River Mountain Range. Spindly silver-green sagebrush and gold grasses catch the early light for as far as the eye can see.

A group of about twenty people in hiking boots, Carhartt pants and work polos mingle next to the water. They’re all gathered at the reservoir for the announcement of the funding to help support this iconic sagebrush landscape.

Eastern Shoshone Tribal Chairman John St. Clair said that one type of sagebrush in the area – called “sweet sage” by some – holds a special significance in Eastern Shoshone culture.

“There's all kinds of species of sagebrush, and one of them is sacred to us that we use in our ceremonies,” he said.

Sagebrush plants play an important role in the ecosystem – their long roots can grow up to 12 feet deep and retain moisture that can replenish nearby rivers and streams. Their roots also keep the soil intact, making it easier for other plants to grow.

To St. Clair, efforts to protect this particular ecosystem are a big support for Native connection to the land.

“It means a lot to us. Because, you know, we throughout history have been stewards of the land, and we still consider ourselves to be stewards of the land,” he said.

Dave Kimball is a Wyoming-based biologist. He said the state’s sagebrush ecosystem is actually a bit of an outlier.

“To start out on a positive note, in Wyoming, the sagebrush ecosystem is doing quite well, all things considered,” he said.

But, sagebrush ecosystems aren’t thriving everywhere. Throughout the West, an average of more than a million acres of the ecosystem are lost or degraded every year. That’s in part due to climate change, drought, and development.

So, Wyoming is at an opportune point to try to keep a good thing going.

“The threats aren't to the point where we can’t still preserve what we have,” Kimball said.

A close up of cheatgrass waving in the wind.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Highly flammable and invasive cheatgrass on the Wind River Reservation.

One of those threats is invasive grasses, like cheatgrass. The plant dries out early in the year and is very flammable. After fires, it grows back really quickly, making it harder for other plants to reseed in a water-sparse world.
“Cheatgrass can basically push the ecosystem into a different kind of a cycle or pattern of burning often,” Kimball said.

As wildfires in this part of the world keep increasing, removing cheatgrass is a clear priority. That’s why the feds have put nearly $600,000 into invasive grass removal throughout the state and on the reservation.

“The great thing is, this is a place where you can work and there's still a lot of hope for keeping the most important things here for wildlife in this landscape,” Kimball said.

Chairman St. Clair said this project makes more room for water-storing sagebrush and a wider range of plants for wildlife to munch on.

“The restoration project will not only benefit our wildlife but also our cattle industry that we have going with our ranchers,” he said.

That’s because sagebrush is a necessary part of many animals’ diets – like mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and, of course, sage grouse. Cattle and sheep can also graze on the plant.

The top of sagebrush plants.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
The tops of sagebrush plants near Washakie Reservoir.

Another project will build a new wildlife-friendly fence to keep cows out of Crow Creek, a little river in the northwest corner of the reservation. This will benefit the sagebrush ecosystem by protecting its waterways.

Lauren Connell is with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which works on conservation projects with private landowners and Tribal members. She said the program strives to be “value-added” in their collaborations.

“We don't need to lead, we don't need to mandate what anyone should do,” she said. “But we want to know their goals and objectives and try to add in our resources, expertise and funding to help them achieve those objectives.”

Connell said the funding is crucial in supporting these Tribal partnerships and for getting a lot more done on the ground.

“It's an unprecedented opportunity, and we're trying to rise to the occasion and the challenge,” she said.

St. Clair said, at the end of the day, he wants to keep the landscape healthy so that many more generations can hike, fish and spend time in beautiful places outside.

“We don't want to use our resources just to make money. Our goal is to protect our reservation,” he said. “And I think it's one of the few that is pristine.”

And that’s the hope – that this funding will help keep the sagebrush ecosystem alive and thriving.

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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