Boots on the ground: Greater sagebrush habitat for greater sage-grouse
I joined Washington Conservation Corps’ (WCC) AmeriCorps program in October 2021, after working as an English teacher in China. Since I hope to specialize in environmental policy, I was eager to gain direct, hands-on experience in the conservation and environmental management field.
I serve on the Moses Lake WCC field crew, one of WCC’s newest crew locations in the state. In November, my crew joined WCC field crews from Wenatchee and Spokane, alongside Washington Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, on a vast sagebrush re-planting project outside Coulee City. This area of Eastern Washington is an excellent example of shrub-steppe ecosystem.
The landscape features shrubs, steppe (perennial bunchgrasses), and wildflowers. It is one of the only remaining places in Washington where it's possible to glimpse greater sage-grouse, one of the most enigmatic and charismatic bird species of the American West.
However, recent wildfires are affecting this habitat and threatening the sage-grouse and other species. In September 2020, the Pearl Hill fire burned more than 200,000 acres of sagebrush habitat. This habitat loss is a principal cause of the rapid population decline of threatened Washington species including greater sage-grouse and Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, North America’s smallest rabbit species.
The primary goal of our planting project was to re-establish sagebrush and other native shrubs in the burn scars of the fires before invasive species, most notably cheatgrass, move in and prevent the sagebrush from bouncing back. Following GPS coordinates laid out in plots of BLM land and armed with drain spades, bulging planting bags, and plenty of warm layers, our crews planted more than 33,000 native plants so far.
Despite its simplicity — dig a correct depth hole, plant a young sagebrush plug, fill in the hole, and secure the soil — the project still presented several challenges. Due to the size of some of our plots, we frequently traveled more than eight miles a day on foot, weighed down by heavy bundles of young plants. Temperatures on the shrub-steppe would occasionally freeze the ground and dramatically slow our progress. On one day, high winds threatened to disintegrate the young sagebrush plugs in our hands, and by our last day on the project, my crew was planting sagebrush in snow.
Despite the testing conditions, I was highly motivated to complete the project. I was first introduced to the plight of the sage-grouse by the 2020 Birdnote podcast series Grouse, based in this area of the state. More than a year later, serving at the site of the shocking wildfires that concluded the podcast series, my crew and I were struck by the widened perspective we took away from the project site each day. I gained a newfound appreciation for the beauty of the shrub-steppe habitat. It is often cold and bleak, but it is a deeply atmospheric place where silences swell and hillsides fold over each other for miles. If you're lucky, you can see the mountains of British Columbia far on the horizon.
The fight to preserve sagebrush habitat, and species like the sage-grouse and pygmy rabbits, is a difficult one. One of the hardest aspects of this project for me was the knowledge that the young sagebrush we were planting would take 50 years to reach maturity. We would be old and gray by the time they offered viable habitat to grouse and pygmy rabbits once again. There was comfort in knowing that the faster-growing native species would provide short-term benefits, such as increased resilience against wildfires. Without bold action or significant legislative protections on the horizon, it’s hard to know whether our 33,000 new plants will make it before another high-intensity wildfire roars across the state again.
Replanting projects, even ones as vast as ours, are one component of the process. Effective solutions have to be multi-faceted, long-lasting, and must bring all stakeholders to the table, including agencies, Tribes, conservationists, and cattle ranchers. The urgent race to decarbonize our energy sector could also provide benefits for sage-grouse habitat. The open plains of the western states encompass vast oil and natural gas developments; as we look to a future that champions renewable energy, restoring sage-grouse habitat in old drilling sites is important. To paraphrase an old and disputed proverb, the best time to plant sagebrush was 50 years ago. The second-best time is now. These all seem like worthwhile lessons to take into my public policy master’s degree and the field of environmental policy.
Interested in joining WCC?
We are now recruiting for nine-month AmeriCorps positions on WCC field crews statewide, including our Moses Lake crew! Visit our website to learn more and apply. With field crews and an individual placement (internship) program, this is an exciting chance for young adults (18-25) and military veterans to gain hands-on experience in habitat restoration, trail building, education, environmental monitoring, and more.