Sagebrush and Juniper Removal Destroys Wildlife Habitat and Increases Fire Risk

The BLM has been promoting juniper removal that they claim helps restore landscape for wildlife. The Forest Service is pushing similar projects in prime sage grouse breeding habitat.  The agencies’ propaganda is full of misinformation on what actually happens when sagebrush and juniper habitat is destroyed. The American people deserve the truth, which is quite different.

The BLM and the Forest Service contend that removing juniper and sagebrush increases and improves habitat for sage grouse and other species that rely on sagebrush steppe habitat.  But the best available science and on-the-ground evidence from similar projects shows that it does just the opposite.  Burning large tracts of sagebrush and removing juniper not only decreases the likelihood of sage grouse recovery, it increases the chance of annually-recurring wildfires.

They claim juniper trees are an invasive species.  But juniper, like sagebrush, is a native species that was collected by Meriwether Lewis when he traveled through the northwest over two centuries ago.

Juniper’s extremely dense foliage provides food as well as hiding and thermal cover for a number of wildlife species including elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, and antelope.  Juniper trees also produce up to 20,000 berries per square meter of foliage providing high-energy food for wildlife, migratory birds, wild turkeys and upland game birds throughout fall and winter regardless of deep snow.

Junipers in the Intermountain West provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds including at least 12 that have been identified as Montana Species of Concern. These include the lark sparrow, loggerhead shrike, Brewer’s sparrow, pinyon jay, Cassin’s finch, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, Clark’s nutcracker, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, northern goshawk, and flammulated owl. The loggerhead shrike and Lark sparrow are among the top 20 declining bird species in the U.S.

The BLM also fails to mention that the Montana sage grouse recovery plan does not call for juniper removal on BLM lands.  In fact, the Idaho and Southwestern Montana Approved Resource Management Plan Amendment for greater sage grouse recommends “zero sagebrush mechanical treatments to remove juniper” and “zero acres of prescribed fire to remove sagebrush” in Montana.  That’s exactly the opposite of what the BLM and the Forest Service are doing.

 They are also not to informing the public what has happened throughout the West when 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.  It matures early in the spring and becomes inedible for wildlife or cattle with seeds that are extremely hard and so sharp they are capable of penetrating the stomach and intestines of animals that try to 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.

Juniper and sagebrush destruction also vastly increases wildfire risk, lengthening the fire season by two months in the spring and two months in the fall because cheat grass dries out by May and leaves behind a thick carpet of highly flammable fuel that creates extreme wildfire hazards annually.  By comparison, sagebrush only burns every 100 to 200 years, while juniper burns on average every 200 to 400 years.

Burning thousands of acres of sagebrush and juniper hurts sage grouse recovery efforts, increases wildfire risk, and doesn’t benefit cattle or wildlife as the BLM and the Forest Service claim because cattle and big game won’t eat the invasive cheat grass after it cures in May.  Please take a moment to call your Senator and Representative and ask them to stop the BLM’s and the Forest Service’s destruction of our public lands and wildlife.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.