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Reports highlight saga of Sage Grouse and sagebrush

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 4:41 p.m. MDT

"Removing the juniper has really been a boon," he said. "You get a 10-fold increase in grass production at the same time you are helping the sage grouse."

Forrest said if a landscape has more than 5 percent cover of juniper, the sage grouse will stop using the area. "It gives their predators — other birds — a chance to hide," he said.

The success of this initiative, however, is intertwined with the health of the sagebrush steppe habitat that covers the West, the majority of which has suffered substantial degradation.

An environmental analysis prepared by the Bureau of Land Management in response to a court decision noted that as much as 70 percent — or close to 78 million acres of sagebrush grasslands — are so ruined that it will require expensive and resource-risky approaches to save them.

"The patchwork of quality sagebrush areas remaining today is a landscape of habitat islands for sagebrush (dependent) species," the analysis noted.

Sage grouse, Forrest said, is one of those species and in the winter months, sagebrush is its only food source.

The proliferation of invasive species such as cheat grass has had a devastating impact on sagebrush, resulting in an 18 percent loss of the sagebrush grasslands ecosystem in the West since European settlers moved in, the report said, emphasizing too, that cheat grass acts as a matchstick for wildfires.

Forrest said the interplay among sagebrush habitat, sage grouse and wildfires is a key emphasis with the state's catastrophic wildfire task force.

"Once you get the conversion to cheat grass, it will burn every three to five years," he said.

While there has always been fire on Western landscapes, Forrest said this stepped up cycle has decimated sagebrush.

"The cycle used to be 50 to 150 years, which would give the sagebrush a return cycle. Because it takes them 15 to 50 years to grow, there is no way for them to get back into the system."

The BLM analysis said that within the last 10 years, fires have been so prolific — particularly in western Utah and eastern and central Nevada — they consumed 3.7 million acres of sagebrush steppe, with some areas more than once.

"The acreages of sagebrush steppe affected by invasive grasses and consequent wildfires eclipse all other natural and (man-made) effects," the report said.

Forrest pointed to Skull Valley as an example of where fires have taken their toll. "It used to be brush, but it burned, the cheat grass came in and it's been burning every three to five years," he said.

Some species of sagebrush don't resprout after a fire, and non-native plants exude chemicals that prevent the sagebrush from growing, he added.

"In the Western part of our state, from north to south, fire is the big threat to sagebrush. It is, in fact, the No. 1 threat and we can't lose the fight," he said. "We don't have the technology to put it back. So with grazing fire breaks, with whatever tools we have, we need to make sure those fires don't take place."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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