This past week, Public Broadcasting’s Nature film series featured the Sagebrush Sea.  The film’s main focus was on the Greater Sage Grouse which is the emblematic creature found in this vast landscape that covers the bulk of many western states including substantial parts of New Mexico Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, California, Montana and Idaho.

The movie followed the sage grouse through the year as it tries to survive in what many might suggest is a harsh environment dominated by freezing winters, and blazing hot summers. One of the themes of the film is that this ecosystem is under appreciated.  What may appear at first impression to be a land devoid of life is really teeming with wildlife from the sage grouse to eagles, jackrabbits, pronghorn and mule deer.

The second theme is that this vast ecosystem is in jeopardy from a host of threats including oil and gas development, urbanization, and changes in fire regimes and the fate of the sage grouse as well as many other species is linked to the future survival of this landscape.

While the movie did a fine job of introducing people to the variety of life and beauty of the sagebrush ecosystem, it missed an opportunity to provide a more in-depth analysis of how and why the ecosystem as well as the sage grouse is threatened. No doubt it was an omission done on purpose to avoid controversy.

While the movie’s producers did mention fragmentation of habitat resulting from oil and gas development as one major threat, it failed to articulate the greatest threat coming from livestock production. Like everyone from Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell on down to some conservation organizations, there is a disconnect between the proximate causes of sage grouse decline and the ultimate cause.

For example, the movie did mention cheatgrass wildfires as a threat to the grouse. Cheatgrass is an annual grass that dries out early and becomes highly flammable fuel for fires.  While sage brush ecosystems are adapted to fire, the historic fire regime burned these landscapes at intervals of decades to hundreds of years. This gave sage brush plenty of time to recover from any fire. However, with the advent of cheatgrass fires, the interval has shortened dramatically with some Sagebrush Sea sites burning every few years so that the only plant that can survive on cheatgrass infested sites is cheatgrass.

Where the film failed, however, is making the connection between livestock grazing and the spread of cheatgrass. Cheatgrass does not magically appear. Its spread is exacerbated by livestock production.

The natural sage brush grassland is dominated by perennial bunchgrasses that are widely spaced with the intervening soil covered by lichens, mosses, and algae collectively called “biocrusts”. These biocrusts serve many purposes. By capping the soil, they prevent wind and water erosion. They capture atmospheric nitrogen and transfer it to the soil, enriching the site for all plants.

However, what might be the most important factor in the health of the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem is these biocrusts hinder the establishment and germination of cheatgrass seeds. So when the biocrust is intact and healthy, cheatgrass has a difficult time becoming established and competing with the native grasses on the site.

Livestock hooves, however, trample and break up the soil biocrusts giving cheatgrass the added advantage it needs to colonize the landscape. Cattle further tip the balance in favor of cheatgrass by selectively grazing the native perennial grasses. Heavy grazing can reduce the production of seeds by such natives, and reduce their vigor. Over time the loss of perennial grasses favors even greater colonization by cheatgrass.

It must be mentioned that historically over most of the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem bison or other large herding herbivores were absent. The dominant hoofed animals were highly migratory bands of pronghorn and deer so the soils of these sagebrush ecosystems are not adapted to concentrated heavy trampling by native wildlife.

Finally if the annual cheatgrass burns, its seeds, buried in the soil, quickly germinate, and outcompete the native perennial grasses which tend to produce successful seed crops and germination at irregular and long intervals.

Livestock production also harms sage grouse in many other ways. For instance, sage grouse depend on tall grass to disguise nests, and provide hiding cover from predators.  Grazing by livestock reduces this cover making sage grouse more vulnerable to predators. Again, the movie while documenting how various predators from coyotes to ravens to golden eagles can prey upon sage grouse, failed to make the connection that the vulnerability of grouse to these predators is a consequence of livestock’s removal of grass cover.

Livestock production also requires fencing. Sage grouse are poor fliers and regularly fly into barbed wire fences with surprising frequency. In some studies up to 30% of all mortality comes from collisions with fences.

Despite their name, sage grouse do depend on other plants and animals (insects) for their survival. Chicks in particular feed almost exclusively on insects and forbs (flowers) during the first couple of months of their lives. The most important feeding sites for sage grouse chicks early in life are moist meadows and riparian areas; those green lines of vegetation along streams.

However, another way that livestock degrade sage grouse habitat, is by compacting soils, breaking down the banks of streams, and reducing the vegetative cover thereby exposing sage grouse to greater predator losses. Cattle in particular gravitate towards these riparian areas and other moist green sites and degrade this habitat component for the grouse.

Because so much of the Sagebrush Sea is arid, ranchers often install watering troughs and develop springs to provide cattle with water. Yet these water developments are often breeding habitat for breeding mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus, a disease that has been shown to cause high mortality in some sage grouse populations.

In short, livestock production negatively impacts sage grouse at every stage of its lifecycle. Yet this connection between the sage grouse’s decline, and the ecological degradation of the Sagebrush Sea was not mentioned in the movie, nor have top leaders in our government effectively made this connection either. Over and over we hear from ranchers and other livestock advocates how ranching can “save” the sage grouse. But in reality there is simply no way to have an economically viable livestock operation in this ecosystem without diminishing the ecosystem. Trying to raise a water-loving, largely sedentary animal in an arid landscape is fool hardy and not only is the grouse paying the ultimate price for this by being put at risk of extinction, but the entire ecosystem is in jeopardized across its historic range.  In the end there is no right way to do the wrong thing.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

16 Responses to Review of Public Broadcasting Nature film The Sagebrush Sea

  1. avatar Jim Wiegand- Wildlife Biologist says:

    You failed to mention what is the greatest threat facing this species………….The wind turbine invasion. Care to explain?

  2. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Oh my gosh – I just watched this last night. 🙂

  3. avatar julie long gallegos says:

    George, great review of this show which I caught most of last night on PBS. Beautifully filmed and marred only by the gaping hole of the unaddressed assault on the sage grouse, I agree. But since PBS is funded by many right-wing entities starting with the Kochs, I was not surprised at the omission and glossing-over of the state of the sagebrush sea. It’s a disconnect that is ever widening in both documentary TV (unless it’s cable TV on a show such as the excellent VICE, or Democracy NOW! and RT news shows), and in film.

  4. avatar Kirk Robinson says:

    A story recently appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune (link below) that acknowledged rangeland fire as the major threat to the sage grouse, and even identified cheatgrass as the proximate cause of the problem; but it also conveniently ignored any mention of the original cause, which of course is livestock grazing. Gotta protect the “sacred rights” of the cowman at all costs I guess. So instead of removing the original cause of the problem, you can expect western state governors to use the coming fire season as another opportunity to demand that the states be given control of the public lands – as if they would do better! Sadly, most citizens will be none the wiser.

    http://www.sltrib.com/news/2530976-155/us-interior-secretary-rangeland-fire-the

  5. avatar Lynn Jacobs says:

    I’ve not seen this film, but apparently it’s like so very many others I have seen, that is, it carefully avoids saying anything negative about the ranching industry — even if ranching is the MAIN environmental detriment, as it often is. The documentary “Cowspiracy” does pretty well in addressing why, but even it falls short in taking on ranching for what it really is and does.

  6. avatar Chris says:

    I think this review is slightly unfair. The film talked about cheatgrass and it talked about the need for ranchers to move cattle frequently because overgrazing the steppe devastates the ecosystem for a very long time. I agree that the link between those two points was not clearly stated, but I don’t think the omission was necessarily deliberate or financially motivated.

  7. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Down with cheatgrass! I hope they are making it a priority to get rid of it, with all of the vague promises being made.

    This program really showed how absolutely beautiful these birds are, as well as the habitat. Chicks were adorable, and face a lot of threats to their survival.

  8. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    At least I think this program is making people aware of what a beautiful bird the sage grouse is, and the beautiful habitat. The hen is beautiful too, not just the showy males. So that people don’t think of them as unusual, when they once numbered in the millions.

    Actually, I was wrong – I have seen some of it driving across country, Nevada and visiting the West – just not in depth. It is pretty.

  9. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I watched this again. Only 40% of the clutch typically survives (they do sometimes get a second chance), are the target of many predators, and birds only live approx. four years. It did show ranching, but energy development looms larger, I believe. I don’t like to see those oil rigs and flames (i.e. ‘the Gates of Hell’).

  10. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    As we think of and honor our servicemen and women today – one more thing to thank them for:

    “However, the Department of Defense never asked for the provision involving the sage grouse. Dealing with the sage grouse has not “resulted in unacceptable limits on our military readiness activities,” Mark E. Wright, a Defense Department spokesman, told The New York Times. “Because we have already undertaken these actions voluntarily, and expect to need to manage for the sage grouse indefinitely, we do not believe the listing decision—regardless of the outcome—will affect our mission activities to any great degree,” he said.

    The real reason why Republicans want to deny the bird federal protections is because the listing could prevent oil and gas drilling on large tracts of land where the grouse lives.”

    Thank you, DoD!

    Backed By Big Oil, House Republicans Use Military Bill in Campaign to Keep Sage Grouse Off Endangered List

  11. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Isn’t this great?

    Western Voters Support Greater Sage Grouse Conservation

    Have good day, all –

  12. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NCy51jpywo?feature=player_detailpage&w=640&h=360%5D

    I hope nobody minds if I post this, I thought it was awesome. From Western Watersheds.

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