sagebrush

Sagebrush seeded after prescribed fire. Photo by Dr. Kirk Davies.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) recently signed an executive order (EO) directing the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) to restore and conserve sagebrush habitats and maintain wildlife corridors. 

Known as the Sagebrush State, the ecosystem covers 50 percent of Nevada and supports over 350 species of wildlife, plants and invertebrates. Nevada has lost the sagebrush habitat due to wildfire, invasive species such as cheatgrass, juniper encroachment and agriculture conversion, according to the EO. The mule deer population has declined by 10 percent over the last 20 years and the greater sage-grouse population by approximately 78 percent since the 1960s.

“Nevada’s wild landscapes provide the clear air, clean water and open space that are integral to a healthy economy and our way of life,” Sisolak said in a statement. “Whether it is mule deer or desert tortoises, no animal thrives without a healthy ecosystem, and this executive order puts a crucial focus on the corridors through which wildlife migrate to survive.”

The EO directs NDOW to develop a Sagebrush Habitat Plan with stakeholders by Dec. 31, 2023, including state and federal agencies, Tribal communities, ranchers and farmers and conservation groups. The plan would work with the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program to identify “priority landscapes for action in consideration of associated resource values, site potentials and feasibility.” 

Together, the two groups will prioritize strategies to enhance, restore or maintain habitats for all species dependent on the sagebrush biome. The Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program is a “collaborative, multi-disciplinary program” designed to offer mitigation credits for projects that have adverse effects on the sagebrush ecosystem through the Conservation Credit System. 

Additionally, the EO calls for NDOW and the Nevada Department of Transportation to develop a Wildlife Connectivity Plan to identify and conserve migratory corridors of ungulates and other species. The memorandum of understanding between the two agencies would identify ways to minimize wildlife-vehicle collisions with highway crossings and other highway features to improve permeability for wildlife, while maintaining highway safety.

The EO notes the state’s mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep rely upon wildlife corridors, and maintaining the integrity of corridors is essential to the health of these animals.

“Wildlife populations and hunting opportunities in Nevada depend on quality habitats and the ability of mule deer, elk and antelope to move across the landscape,” said Carl Erquiaga, Nevada field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). 

“TRCP greatly appreciates Gov. Sisolak’s leadership in issuing an executive order that will prioritize the conservation and restoration of the sagebrush ecosystem and safeguard wildlife migration corridors in the state,” the group said in a statement. 

“We look forward to working with the governor’s office and the Nevada Department of Wildlife in seeing it implemented so that healthy big game herds in places like the iconic Ruby Mountains will continue to provide world-class outdoor experiences for future generations of sportsmen and women.”

The EO notes that outdoor recreation generates $12.5 billion of annual consumer spending and $1 billion in tax revenues and supports more than 87,000 jobs.

In addition to TRCP, conservation organizations supporting the EO include Nevada Wildlife Federation and Western Resource Advocates. Rachael Hamby, senior policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, said the EO “will safeguard and expand opportunities for Nevadans to experience one of the region’s truly incomparable ecosystems and help promote resiliency against the impacts of climate change.”

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts—one of the partners in the habitat plan—the EO builds on Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) new instruction memorandum on sagebrush by:

• Directing the Nevada BLM to avoid development in crucial winter range and migration corridors, especially during sensitive seasons, and prioritize wildfire protection, suppression and restoration in winter range and migration corridors.

• Providing guidance for working with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to remove or modify fences that may inhibit wildlife movement.

• Prioritizing the restoration of migration corridors and research opportunities to learn more about how and when wildlife are using these pathways.

“Funding is now essential,” The Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in a statement. “Without substantial investment to back up the worthy intentions of these two new policies, they could wither away along with the sagebrush. Nevada’s Legislature should ensure that money is allocated toward these efforts, and it should cement the policies in law and regulation.”

The governor’s office has not released details of funding. However, Nevada’s 2021-2023 biennium budget shows over $2.1 million for the account to restore the sagebrush ecosystem program. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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