Brett French’s excellent article in The Gazette, “Study: Big sagebrush may weather climate change,” details the resilience of native sagebrush and its vital importance for a vast array of Montana’s wildlife.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Counsel oppose Bureau of Land Management plans to burn sagebrush. In fact, we are currently suing in Billings to stop the BLM’s plan to burn thousands of acres of sagebrush-juniper habitat in the Iron Mask Planning Area of the Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern and contend the federal agency ignored the importance of sagebrush and junipers for wildlife and the well-documented fact that invasive and highly flammable cheat grass moves in after sagebrush is burned by the BLM.
The BLM claims native plants cannot thrive without sufficient sunlight and water, which is limited by the juniper trees and big sagebrush. They claim that there are few plants adapted to these conditions and these areas can become biological deserts.
The Gazette article, however, cites the recent study “Managing Big Sagebrush in a Changing Climate” done by researchers from Montana State University, Colorado State University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Utah State University. Those researchers conclude sagebrush may be one of the few native plants naturally well prepared to “weather climate change.”
Since the required direction of the Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern is to protect wildlife, The Gazette’s article on Big Sagebrush came at a perfect time to refocus the discussion on wildlife.
It’s common to see the large herd of antelope that reside between Canyon Ferry and the Elkhorn Mountains. This is exactly where the BLM wants to burn thousands of acres of sagebrush habitat. As the Gazette article states: “Pronghorns are one species that benefits from big sagebrush. One study found that the evergreen plant supplied 78 percent of the annual diet for pronghorns in Wyoming” and “more than half of the winter diet for deer and elk near Gardiner comes from sagebrush.” That’s important because the Elkhorns are one of the premier elk hunting areas in the nation. Elkhorn bull permits are among the most sought after in Montana.
The article also points out that large numbers of native birds depend on sagebrush habitat, noting the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service calls Big Sagebrush “perhaps the most important shrub on western rangelands.” Many birds, such as the imperiled sage grouse, live nowhere else.
The BLM in their environmental analysis of the Iron Mask Project, ignored that cheat grass moves in after burning sagebrush and cutting down junipers. Cheat grass is a very aggressive noxious weed that has proven almost impossible to eradicate across the West, is inedible for wildlife or cattle after early spring, and has seeds that are so hard and sharp they can penetrate the stomach and intestines of animals that ingest them. The seeds can also blind the eyes of nesting birds that use sagebrush habitat and replaces the forbs that sage grouse depend on to feed their chicks.
Burning large tracts of sagebrush also vastly increases wildfire risk, lengthening the fire season by two months in the spring and two months in the fall because once cheat grass dries out it becomes highly flammable, creating extreme wildfire hazards annually. By comparison, peer reviewed studies found undisturbed sagebrush habitat only burns every 100 to 200 years in the Intermountain West.
The Idaho and Southwestern Montana BLM Approved Resource Management Plan for greater sage grouse recommends "zero mechanical treatments to remove juniper” and “zero acres of prescribed fire to remove sagebrush" in Montana. That’s the opposite of what BLM is trying to do in the Iron Mask project. Leaving sagebrush alone is the best for the many species that rely on healthy sagebrush-juniper habitat.