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Saving Sagebrush Helps More Than Grouse: Deer, Local Economy Benefit Too

Tom Koerner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mule deer bucks in velvet Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, also greater sage grouse habitat.

Rolling sagebrush-covered foothills may seem like an almost commonplace symbol of the American West, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls it "one of the most imperiled ecosystems in America," threatened and fragmented by invasive species, wildfire, and development.

Loss of quality habitat has led to steep declines in the numbers of greater sage grouse, a bird that lives and breeds in the sagebrush. Because of this, many Western states are working on plans to improve and preserve the sagebrush steppe the birds rely on. Now, two new studies show that saving sagebrush can benefit more than just the grouse.

The first, published Sept. 29 in the scientific journal Ecosphere, shows that conserving sagebrush ecosystems can benefit mule deer, a species that has declined in recent years.

The researchers in the study, which included biologists from the Nature Conservancy and the University of Wyoming, looked at two groups of migratory mule deer in Wyoming's Green River Basin. They found that the pathways and areas used by the deer overlap substantially with land classified as core sage grouse areas. This means saving lands for sage grouse will also help mule deer.

Another new study has found that sage brush habitat has over $1 billion in economic benefits to communities near it. The report, published Sept. 30 by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Western Values Project, looks at the economic benefits that recreation in sagebrush ecosystems bring to communities in 11 western states.

Users of sagebrush land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which include campers, ATVers, drivers, hikers, hunters, and other recreationists, spent over $623 million within 50 miles of the recreation sites in 2013. The report quantified the economic contribution – a figure that includes additional economic impacts from that spending -- as more than $1 billion west wide.

"A healthy sagebrush habitat is not only good for sage grouse, but as well as all the other impacts that go into that, whether it is hunting or fishing or camping or hiking or riding ATVs, all of those things depend on a healthy sagebrush habitat," said Ross Lane, the executive director of the Western Values Project.

"So we wanted to look at, what is the impact of just those sectors and that recreation spending."

In Colorado specifically, over 1 million visitors spent nearly $50 million within 50 miles of sagebrush recreation sites, and the economic contribution to the local economy totaled $76 million, according to the report.

Credit Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Land Management
A map of where greater sage grouse like to breed; blue dots indicate the highest breeding densities.

States across the West, including Colorado, have created plans detailing how they are going to preserve high quality sagebrush habitat. Their ultimate goal is to protect enough land to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list, since having an endangered bird on the land would limit many other activities, including energy production.

In late 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on whether it thinks the bird needs protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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