the sage of the west

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Fun Fact Friday: How Do You Survive in the Big Empty? These Lagomorphs Use Superpower Adaptations, of Course.

By Nancy Patterson, Public Affairs Specialist, Greater Sage-Grouse Rocky Mountain Region

It’s wide open in the Big Empty of sagebrush country. For the more than 350 species that live here, hiding spots are few and horizons are long. When you’re a favorite food of lots of predators you need special adaptations to survive. Lagomorphs are adaptation champs in this ecosystem. The term lagomorph describes mammals in the order of lagomorpha, better known as hares, rabbits, and pikas. In sagebrush country, some lagomorphs you might see are jackrabbits, cottontails, and pygmy rabbits.

Rabbits and hares have big eyes set on the sides of their heads. This gives them a wide viewpoint to look around for threats. Their large ears act like giant microphones to capture the slightest sound. And their long back feet act as a speedy superpower. With them they can spring into the air and dart quickly in a jig-jag pattern to escape predators. Jackrabbits can run at speeds of 40 miles per hour and their powerful hind legs can propel them in 10-foot leaps with each bound. Imagine trying to keep up with one of these athletic racers!

But, it’s tough to survive on big feet, eyes, and ears alone. It also helps to have superpower hiding adaptations. And rabbits and hares have some that act just like invisibility cloaks.

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Fly fishing the Upper Owens River in the winter is fantastic.  It is stunningly beautiful.  Peaceful.  Quiet except for the occasional piercing sound of a hawk.  Clear and very cold this day.  Not another person to be seen.  The fishing went off. 

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Fun Fact Friday: To Migrate or To Staycation? Sagebrush is a Great Home for These Birds

By Nancy Patterson, Public Affairs Specialist, Greater Sage-Grouse Rocky Mountain Region

Brrr! It’s getting cold out in northern sagebrush country! With snow beginning to fall, animals are on the move. Like Greater sage-grouse, more than 350 species call this place home, but some only spend part of the year here and others stay year-round.

Many birds head south. Sage thrashers and Brewer’s sparrows fly to the warmer southern United States and Mexico. Swainson’s Hawks left months ago, gathered into kettles of tens of thousands of birds to travel all the way to Argentina for the winter months. Imagine doing a round-trip trek of more than 12,000 miles from South America to northern North America each year like these world travelers do!

For some, the sagebrush landscape is their favorite winter resting spot. All summer Rough-legged hawks spent in the Arctic tundra. Their journey south brings some of them to the western sagebrush landscape. You might see them perched on utility poles, transmission lines, fence posts, and other high ground throughout the winter months.

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Fun Fact Friday: What’s a Greater sage-grouse to do when it’s feeling parched? Find a guzzler to guzzle from.

Story by Kelly Bockting, Wildlife Biologist, BLM-MT Dillon Field Office, and Nancy Patterson, Public Affairs Specialist, Greater Sage-Grouse Rocky Mountain Region

Did you know much of the sagebrush ecosystem receives less than 12 inches of precipitation per year? That’s less than half of the United States’s average 30 inches annually! The more than 350 species that live here are specially adapted to live in this dry place. But the lack of moisture can make it tough for animals to get enough to drink. One way BLM-Montana/Dakota’s Dillon Field Office helps provide that extra drink is with water guzzlers for wildlife.

Wildlife guzzlers catch rainwater and snowmelt in a storage tank and dispense the water into a drinker so all wildlife species have access to drinking water. Since water can be hard to find in the sagebrush ecosystem, guzzlers are generally placed 2-3 miles from other water sources to provide water in between other oases of the range.

Dillon Field Office has installed several wildlife guzzlers in recent few years. Their goal is to provide a reliable water source during drought cycles and to enhance water distribution throughout big game summer habitats. The guzzlers also help reduce pressure on private lands, especially on agricultural lands where pronghorn, deer and elk may congregate in late summer when their summer range begins to dry up. 

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Salvia reptans is in the mint family Lamiaceae. Commonly known as west Texas cobalt sage, it is native to the southwest United States and parts of Central America including Mexico and Guatemala. West Texas cobalt sage is an herbaceous perennial that is resistant to herbivory and is highly drought tolerant. Native specimens of this plant have a creeping habit and produce long stems that trail along the ground. Outside of its native range, the west Texas cobalt sage is cultivated for the landscape, and has a more upright growth form. This species blooms during the midsummer, producing small brilliant blue flowers that attract a myriad of pollinators including hummingbirds and butterflies.

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There are about 400,000 greater sage grouse left in the West, nesting in the sagebrush from California to North Dakota. That’s a fraction of what their numbers were just a century ago, when homesteaders described them as blackening out the skies. Human development is the culprit. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to decide whether or not the greater sage grouse needs protections under the Endangered Species Act. Some fear that the red tape and restrictions to development that would come with a “endangered” listing would turn small rural hubs into ghost towns. 

So the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish, a sportsmen’s group, a consulting firm, an oil and gas company, a conservation group and a local cattle association have all come together to try and protect the sage grouse. The shared hope is that if they put sufficient protections in place, the bird won’t be listed as endangered.

Dean Clause, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist 

They need very large, vast expanses of sage brush that are relatively quiet and undisturbed. In this day and age, with more people and more and more activity on the landscape, to try to minimize development and disturbance, it’s not always feasible.

Albert Sommers, Wyoming Rancher

In this industry we’re in, we’re multigenerational, we are sustainability. We can’t abuse the landscape we’re in.

Paul Ulrich, Jonah Energy (an oil and gas company)

A listing would be devastating to our operations … And the issue isn’t just oil and gas. It’s ranchers, recreationalists, conservation groups. The impact across the board is significant.

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Program Coordinator

This sage grouse conservation effort on a range-wide scale is the largest conservation effort ever undertaken for a single species, period.

Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds

You can sum up all of the plans to protect sage grouse that have occurred over the last year and a half as ‘planning to plan.’