© Kylie Paul

Life in the Sagebrush Sea

While efforts to conserve the greater sage-grousethe charismatic ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea—have received all the attention recently, the grouse are just one of hundreds of species that depend on this vital landscape.

The Sagebrush Sea is habitat for an abundance of western wildlife, including predators, like bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, and herds of grazers, including pronghorn, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Not all wildlife of the sagebrush steppe are easily seen. Nocturnal species like bats are also active during the cool desert nights, and the habitat is home for a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects to breed, feed and hide in. It’s truly an ecosystem full of life.

A handful of these critters are sagebrush “obligates”—that is, species that cannot survive without the Sagebrush Sea. Here’s a look at some of the animals that need healthy sagebrush steppe to survive.

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Pygmy Rabbits

pygmy rabbit, © NPS

Pygmy rabbits are the smallest rabbit in North America (weighing in at less than a pound!). They are also only one of two rabbit species in North America that digs its own burrow.

Life isn’t easy for the diminutive pygmy rabbit, and they rely on sagebrush habitat in more ways than one to survive. Their diet consists of primarily bitter sagebrush, especially in the winter when there isn’t much else to eat. Pygmy rabbits don’t just rely on sagebrush for food either. These tiny rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain, so without tall, healthy sagebrush, they have few places to hide from their many predators. Pygmy rabbits may have multiple litters in a year, but most don’t make it past their first year, primarily due to predation.

Although all pygmy rabbits are at risk for habitat loss, only a small isolated population in Washington is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. This specific population of pygmy rabbits may be making a comeback due to extensive reintroduction and habitat restoration efforts.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn, © Larry Andreasen

The graceful, powerful pronghorn is often mistakenly compared to antelope or deer, and Lewis and Clark even likened them to goats upon their first observation of them. However, pronghorn aren’t related to any of these – they are an entirely unique species found exclusively in North America.

The pronghorn holds a few notable records. They can migrate incredibly long distances (hundreds of miles for some herds) and are the fastest land mammal in North America. Their speed offers a glimpse into the past, as they adapted to outrun now extinct species of North American cheetahs and other ancient predators.

Pronghorn are particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation. For example, fences are a significant barrier to their movement. Pronghorn may be quick, but aren’t particularly agile and won’t typically jump over fences, which can hinder migration and even cause death by entanglement. Roads collisions can also be a threat as they move across their expansive range.

Although pronghorn can be found outside of the Sagebrush Sea, sagebrush is a key part of their diet. Like other large mammals of the West, they also rely on large, open spaces like sagebrush steppe habitats to roam.

Sagebrush Lizard

sagebrush lizard, © Elizabeth Materna/USFWS

Sagebrush lizards are appropriately named, as they are found almost exclusively in sagebrush steppe. Like their fellow denizen of the Sagebrush Sea, the greater sage-grouse, male sagebrush lizards perform a dance of sorts (resembling pushups) when attempting to attract a mate. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded, so they are most active when it’s warm and sunny. Cold weather isn’t a problem for these resilient reptiles though, as they hibernate in the winter to conserve energy.

The sagebrush lizard is pretty tough. It does well at high elevations (up to 10,500 feet) and is the only lizard that lives in Yellowstone National Park (where there is in fact, sagebrush habitat). They can be found at particularly high elevations in the park where geothermal activity helps keep them warm.

Sagebrush Vole

Like reptiles and rabbits, rodents also use sagebrush and other native plants as food and coverage. Sagebrush voles, another aptly named species, are active year round and spend much their time looking for food (which includes sagebrush and other native plants). They don’t care for certain weather conditions though, and retreat underground when it’s windy. They are also social creatures with keen hearing, and are one of the only vole species to live in colonies.

Birds

The Sagebrush Sea is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The greater sage-grouse (whose flamboyant spring mating rituals attract bird enthusiasts from across the United States and around the world) shares its habitat with dozens of other bird species, ranging from small sparrows to at least 15 birds of prey. Smaller species like the sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, and sage thrasher rely on sagebrush habitat and may be seen perched atop healthy sagebrush shrubs. Large birds of prey like the ferruginous hawk and the majestic golden eagle can also be seen soaring above the sagebrush steppe searching for prey.

One bird of prey (and one of the smallest owl species), the burrowing owl, is characteristically found more often on the ground than in the sky. These precocious-looking owls are opportunists, and occupy the burrows of other animals such as the prairie dogs and squirrels. Despite their ability to adapt to their surroundings however, burrowing owls have disappeared from much of their historic range across the U.S., including in the Sagebrush Sea.

© Kylie Paul

Fish and Aquatic Species

The Sagebrush Sea is an arid landscape and there isn’t much water to be found. Rare water sources like wetlands, streams, seeps and springs are vital to wildlife. These species include amphibians and many unique and imperiled fish. One beautiful example of fish found in the Sagebrush Sea is the vibrantly colored Lahontan cutthroat trout (which is also the state fish of Nevada). This trout is the largest subspecies of cutthroat (which are all unique to western North America), with the largest one ever recorded at 41 pounds. They are currently classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They can now only be found in five lakes – just 0.4 percent of their historic range.

Lahontan cutthroat trout, © USFWS

The Future of the Sagebrush Sea

The Sagebrush Sea invokes a variety of images, but clearly a barren wasteland shouldn’t be one of them. The wildlife profiled here are only a glimpse of the vibrant diversity of life that occurs on this landscape.
Unfortunately, sagebrush steppe continues to decline due to a multitude of threats that include oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors. Combined with climate change, unnatural fire and invasive species, both common and rare wildlife are at risk of losing their irreplaceable home.

The Sagebrush Sea and its wildlife can be saved. Defenders is heavily involved at the both the federal and state level to improve conservation for sage-grouse and the multitude of other species of the Sagebrush Sea. But individuals can also play a role just by raising awareness and talking to others about what’s at stake if we continue to lose sagebrush habitat. View and share documentaries such as PBS’ The Sagebrush Sea, for example, and start conversations with others about why the Sagebrush Sea is worth saving. Also reach out to federal policymakers and let them know that how you feel. The American West wouldn’t be the same without this quintessential landscape and the iconic species that call it home.

Save the Sagebrush Sea

Urge President Obama to put strong conservation measures in place for the greater sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat!

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