Enhancing the sagebrush sea | VailDaily.com

Enhancing the sagebrush sea

Kim Langmaid
Special to the Daily

In many parts of the valley, where soils are dry and well drained, there are patches of a “sagebrush sea.” Even though a sagebrush landscape may look bland and monotonous to the casual observer, these fragile and disappearing ecosystems are sometimes teeming with life.

The “sagebrush sea” is a complex living patchwork and home to many native species of wildflowers, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects.

Historically, the “sagebrush sea” covered 270 million acres across the American West and today less than 150 million acres remain. Some sagebrush species have lost 50 percent of their historic native habitat. The threats to sagebrush habitat are many, including the spread of invasive non-native weeds, fire suppression, and a variety of human land uses that cumulatively fragment the “sea” into small bits and pieces, making it difficult for wildlife populations to access. A recent scientific survey of sagebrush around Eagle County discovered that much of the sagebrush is old and declining due to wildfire suppression and other historic land use practices.

Because of the extent of the “sagebrush sea” across the West, the complexity of public and private land ownership patterns, and the dependency of the endangered sage grouse and other obligate wildlife species, sagebrush habitats have become a focal point for large-scale landscape planning, restoration and monitoring. As part of this overall effort, this summer the National Forest Foundation and Vail Resorts are partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and many nonprofit partners and other agencies to restore and enhance the resiliency of local sagebrush habitats. Vail Resorts and National Forest Foundation Ski Conservation Funds are contributing $236,000 to five nonprofit partners conducting work on Forest Service lands, and in the process this funding is also creating summer jobs for 20 youth through the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and a new internship program at Walking Mountains Science Center.

This is no small effort. Lara Duran, the wildlife biologist at the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District based out of Minturn and Eagle, is the point person coordinating with 15 different partnering entities. Duran said that “in addition to the five partners that Vail Resorts and the National Forest Foundation are funding, the other partners provide us with either funding, in-kind labor, feedback on the project design, and lessons learned about the wildlife species we are concerned about. This project captures the importance of wildlife conservation and uses the best available science and stakeholder collaboration in the process.”

The two species of sage grouse found in Colorado are both listed as “species of special concern” on the state’s list of threatened and endangered species. The Greater Sage Grouse can be found in parts of Eagle County mainly for its winter habitat. In spring, these ground-nesting birds move north where there is suitable habitat in Routt County for their spring breeding, nesting, and summer habitat. In winter, the pungent green leafs of sagebrush account for 100 percent of the bird’s diet, as well as providing shelter from winter weather and escape cover from predators like coyote, bobcat, badger, falcons, hawks and eagles. It’s an intricate web and balance of resources that all depend on the well-being of the “sagebrush sea.” These days, sustaining this balance requires active stewardship, and sometimes a chainsaw crew.

Getchen Van De Carr with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps based out of Steamboat says “It may seem like a stretch to refer to chainsaw crews as “conservationists” yet these projects are evidence that training and skills with powerful machines can be used to preserve habitat.

The Greater Sage Grouse has been declining in population since pinyon and juniper trees have started to impede on the sage. Enter a chainsaw crew to restore the balance. Engaging young adults in habitat restoration instills a sense of ownership and value to the community. These personal growth outcomes are critical, especially today when unemployment and unhealthy lifestyles are impediments to so many young people’s true development into tomorrow’s leaders.”

The Sagebrush Enhancement Project is one of three priority conservation partnership projects for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District and the National Forest Foundation. The emphasis of these projects is threefold: to connect communities to the land, to enhance resilient ecosystems and healthy landscapes, and to create sustainable economies.

The National Forest Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works with the U.S. Forest Service and community-based organizations to restore and enhance National Forests. At least 62 million acres of the 193 million acre National Forest System are in need of restorative action due to damage from wildfire, insects, disease and natural disasters. As the nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation engages people in programs that promote the health and public enjoyment of the National Forest System. The National Forest Foundation also administers private gifts of funds and land for the benefit of the National Forests.

Kim Langmaid Ph.D. lives in Vail and is the director of Colorado Programs for the National Forest Foundation. Contact her at klangmaid@nationalforests.org or visit http://www.nationalforests.org

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