Saving The Sage Grouse: Fighting Wildfire To Defend A Species

Sep 9, 2015

In May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stepped up to the podium at a press conference in Boise. The smell of damp sagebrush was in the air, and the foothills in the background were green – a rare sight in the high desert. Jewell then cut to the chase:

“Fire is the number one threat to this ecosystem in the Great Basin states,” said the Obama administration cabinet member.

The new rangeland fire strategy focuses on sage grouse country.
Credit Larry Moore / BLM Vale District

The ecosystem Jewell is talking about is the sagebrush steppe, and the greater sage grouse is its most famous – and fragile – resident. In fire-prone states like Idaho, Oregon and Utah, rangeland wildfire is a fact of life. But the troubled species hasn't evolved with large-scale wildfire. Wildfires wreak havoc on greater sage grouse populations by destroying the areas where the birds mate and raise their chicks.

As factors like climate change and invasive plants have increased the intensity of these fires, Jewell’s new strategy is designed to allocate more money, personnel and equipment to firefighters in sage grouse country. The goal: to curb the loss of sage grouse habitat during a wildfire while continuing to protect people and homes.

In The Heat Of Wildfire, Sage Grouse The Focus

Fast forward four months to an early August morning in the tiny town of Huntington, Ore. The faint smell of smoke lingers outside the local high school where firefighters are in their daily briefing.

BLM firefighter Toby White (left) talks to members of his team during the morning briefing for the Lime Hill Fire.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

They’re here to fight the Lime Hill Fire, which burned 12,000 acres in 24 hours. Some of that land was critical sage grouse habitat, and the fire is a test of the new rangeland fire strategy.

The firefighters look at maps showing the fire perimeter, review safety protocol and get their assignments for the day.

“[I] just want to thank you guys again for all the hard work," says Sam DeLong, incident commander with the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon. "We need to put this thing to bed today. There is a lot of work left to do in there.”

DeLong has been fighting wildfires for almost 30 years. He’s helped protect human life and property time and time again. This year, the fire manager has added one more thing to his list of priorities: sage grouse.

DeLong looks at a big map posted outside the high school, and points out the sage grouse mating areas, known as leks.

BLM incident commander Sam DeLong was in charge of putting out August's Lime Hill Fire in eastern Oregon. He has been fighting wildfire for three decades.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

“You can see here's one, here’s one here, here, here, you’ve got three down on this part," he says. "Lots of habitat.”

He says the new guidelines have shifted how he attacks fire where the bird lives.

“One of the things here would be if we had a big island out here in sage grouse habitat. Twenty years ago, we would slick this off and just burn it off and just clean that up, it’s less risk to firefighters, less work. Now we would go in there and we try to protect that.”

Since Jewell’s announcement in May, DeLong has seen a change when it comes to the resources made available to him. He says he gets a faster response when he asks for more personnel and air support. There’s a new bulldozer on the way to his district too, which will make digging fire lines a lot easier.

DeLong says getting more air support helps keep wildfire out of the most important sage grouse habitat.
Credit Larry Moore / BLM Vale District

To Jim Lyons - with the Interior Department - the change is just one piece of the puzzle. 

“To some degree it’s a function of providing more resources," says Lyons, "but I think more importantly it’s about being smarter about how we fight fire and how we allocate resources.”

"There hasn't been a lot of focus on the sage brush ecosystem and rangelands in general." - Jim Lyons, Interior Department

He admits the new fire plan came late in the game – 13 years after environmentalists first asked the government to protect the bird – and just four months before the endangered species decision.

“Well I don’t think it got the attention it deserved. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on the sage brush ecosystem and rangelands in general. That’s all changing as people have come to understand their importance.”

So how has the plan worked?

For BLM biologist Melissa Yzquierdo Primus, the new strategy has made her job of protecting the bird easier. She and her firefighting colleagues were able to build fire breaks and position resources before fires ever broke out. She says that level of coordination is unusual.

“And it seems like everybody’s on board as far as, ‘OK these are habitats that are mapped and these are habitats that we need to protect,’ ” says the Oregon-based biologist.

Still, one lek did burn on private land during the Lime Hill Fire. That will likely cause problems for the male sage grouse who go there to find mates every year. But Yzquierdo Primus says four other leks were protected, and firefighters saved most of the really important habitat. Bottom line - she thinks the new strategy worked.

But a few weeks later, the mammoth Soda Fire in southwestern Idaho burned nearly 300,000 acres. At one point, wind fueled spot fires that grew to one-thousand acres in just 10 minutes. At least 10 leks burned, and more than 400 square miles of prime habitat were destroyed. The Soda Fire could have devastating effects on local sage grouse populations for years to come.

It’s also a solemn reminder that even the most well-intentioned policy is no match for some mega-fires that now burn in sage grouse country.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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