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Are Sagebrush Habitats and Their Birds Teetering on the Edge?
Released: 11/3/2003

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Steven Knick 1-click interview
Phone: 208-426-5208 | FAX: 208-426-5210


David Dobkin
Phone: 541-382-1117



NOTE TO NEWS EDITORS: Reproducible photos listed below can be found at:

1. http://fresc.usgs.gov/news/images/2003_10a.jpg. (A variety of petitions propose listing the Greater-sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
2. http://fresc.usgs.gov/news/images/2003_10b.tif. (Fire-prone invasive plants can result in increasing size and frequency of fires in western rangelands.)
3. http://fresc.usgs.gov/news/images/2003_10c.tif. (Sagebrush grasslands that feature native plant species, like this one near Burns, Oregon, are disappearing, with negative consequences for native birds.)

Sagebrush landscapes — a scene familiar to many of us from our travels in the west — are changing rapidly, resulting in the rapid decline of many native shrubland and grassland bird species, including the Sage Grouse and Brewer?s sparrow, according to a just-released article in The Condor by science experts from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the High Desert Ecological Research Institute, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the University of California, Riverside. The authors are members of the Cooper Ornithological Society Committee on Conservation of Sagebrush Ecosystems.

The report, "Teetering on the edge or too late? Conservation and research issues for avifauna of sagebrush habitats," was published in the November issue of the international peer-reviewed science journal The Condor and reviews the problems facing sagebrush habitats and the challenges facing native birds that depend on this habitat for survival.

Warnings began appearing over a quarter of a century ago about overuse and loss of native sagebrush habitats in the western United States and the consequences for birds that depend on this habitat for all or part of their livelihood each year. Steve Knick, USGS scientist and lead author on the article, noted that many of the troubles facing this ecosystem are not easily perceived. "The reality is," said Knick, "that almost all sagebrush habitats are suffering consequences of heavier use than they can take. At present, we don?t have a handle on how to address the problems existing in this habitat because they are so diverse and widespread."

David Dobkin, Director of the High Desert Ecological Research Institute in Bend, Ore., and another author on the report, noted that when habitats change, wildlife populations also tend to change. Today, he said, populations of many species of shrubland and grassland birds are declining, some severely. The Gunnison sage-grouse, for example, is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and the greater sage-grouse is also being considered.

The causes underlying the changes and loss of sagebrush habitats are largely human-related, according to the article. Because less than 3 percent of the entire sagebrush habitat is protected in parks or reserves, the resources in almost all sagebrush ecosystems are heavily used. Some uses, such as mining, energy development, urbanization, or conversion of sagebrush habitats to agriculture cropland, vary regionally, but others, such as livestock grazing, are widespread across the entire range of sagebrush. These uses, without proper management, can significantly affect sagebrush birds by fragmenting or completely removing their habitats, the authors noted. They write that restoring these habitats will be difficult or, in some cases impossible, either because the habitat has already been converted or because many of the essential components required by birds, such as cover to protect nests against predators, are no longer present.

The paper also points out that individual land uses often interact synergistically, compounding their negative effect on habitats and birds. For example, land uses that cause spread of fire-prone invasive plants, such as cheatgrass, can result in increasing the size and frequency of fires that ultimately convert even more sagebrush habitat to grasslands.

The authors recommend four primary areas in which future research should be focused to improve the chance of conserving birds living in sagebrush ecosystems. "First and most critical, we need to know precisely how our use of sagebrush habitats affects the dynamics of these systems," said Knick. "All uses, whether livestock grazing, mining, energy development, or even treatments by land managers to improve habitats, influence the way the system functions. These uses are not necessarily negative, but conducted improperly can create habitats that are unsuitable for native birds and other native wildlife."

Three other research areas recommended were to identify those habitat components most critical to birds, to design better survey methods and techniques to estimate bird population trends, and to determine the importance of wintering grounds and migration pathways for these birds. David Dobkin, the Editor-in-Chief of The Condor said, "We hope that this broad but detailed analysis will be a crucial step toward raising awareness in the scientific community, among land managers, and ultimately of the American public, about the potentially overwhelming challenges to ecological integrity and function faced right now by these vast western landscapes."

The published abstract of The Condor paper is accessible on-line at http://www.cooper.org (follow the links to The Condor and then to Forthcoming Issue).


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