Exotic grasses dominate this former sagebrush habitat near Arco, Idaho. This is a common sight in sagebrush country, a result of wildfire or intentionally removing sagebrush to “improve” the range.
At one time, sagebrush habitat covered as much as 300 million acres (over 468,000 square miles) in the Western United States. It provided a robust ecosystem for over 350 species of wildlife. Today, that vast sea of sagebrush has shrunk into a series of lakes, ponds and puddles and is considered to be one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the nation.
There may still be the visual appearance of plenty of sagebrush, but as Mary Rowland, researcher for the Forest Service’ Pacific Northwest Research Station says, “Even though you can see sagebrush everywhere, less than 10 percent of the remaining habitat is unspoiled, in terms of historical structure and composition.” That is like a ten cylinder truck with only one functioning cylinder. It still looks like a truck but it doesn’t run like one.
The assault on sagebrush habitat hasn’t ended. Most of the conversion to agriculture has finally subsided but only to be replaced with energy driven activities such as gas, oil and coal extraction. Wildfires continue to erase sagebrush habitat each summer and noxious weeds supplant even more. A recent report indicated that ten million acres (15,625 square miles or four and one half times the size of Yellowstone National Park) in the Great Basin alone are at moderate to high risk of displacement by cheatgrass in the near future. At this point in the game, that is a permanent change.
Not all sagebrush is created equal. There are at least 18 species and subspecies, each with its unique properties, growth forms, preferred habitats and preferences by sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, pronghorn and mule deer, iconic species of western rangelands.
Not only is all sagebrush not created equally, it cannot be managed equally either. The most common form of sagebrush is big sagebrush, a species further divided into Basin, Wyoming and Mountain big sagebrush subspecies. Each one has a different associated community of grasses, forbs and other shrubs, and responds differently to grazing, noxious weed invasion and especially fire.
A management strategy to maintain sagebrush that works well in the mountain big sagebrush community of the Sand Creek Desert or in Shotgun Valley, may be the exact wrong strategy in the nearby Big Desert, dominated by Wyoming big sagebrush. Big sagebrush of all types is killed by fire and may take from 20 to 100 years or more to recover, depending on the subspecies.
The assertion that all sagebrush naturally creates a monoculture and must be controlled isn’t true. A 25 year study on the INL removed grazing and found that sagebrush density increased in the first years and then stabilized as grasses prospered.
Conserving sagebrush ecosystems is not an easy task. But with 350 wildlife species at risk, it should be our priority. “There is an ecologically driven urgency to start now,” says Michael Wisdom, a researcher with Rowland. “This ecosystem is so vulnerable to threshold effects that, once crossed, are nearly impossible to reverse. It is far easier to prevent the system from reaching thresholds than it is to mitigate them after the fact.”
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho