WASHAKIE RESERVOIR—Siva Sundaresan chose a landscape where mule deer, bighorn sheep and myriad other species pour out of the mountains each fall to wait out winter amid the sage to introduce a new federal program aimed at conserving sagebrush ecosystems.
Once a Lander resident and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy director, Sundaresan returned to the eastern flank of the Wind River Range and his former county on Tuesday to announce an infusion of $10.5 million to benefit the high desert’s struggling sagebrush-steppe.
“The sagebrush here is part of a larger 175 million-[acre] ecosystem,” he said. “All across the West, it composes about a third of the landmass in the Lower 48 and I understand is home to more than 350 species.”
Protecting “iconic, irreplaceable” sagebrush-covered landscapes like the east slope of the Winds is a “top priority,” for the Biden administration and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams, he said.
To that end, Sundaresan explained that federal wildlife managers were funding 59 projects around the country aimed at restoring and studying sagebrush ecosystems. A couple of them were taking place on the Wind River Indian Reservation, near where he stood with Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman John St. Clair.
One collaborative $584,000 project, Sundaresan said, will guard about 100,000 acres of high-quality sagebrush against invasive plants like cheatgrass, a nonnative intruder that’s making inroads around the West.
Another $300,000 project, he said, will add six miles of new fence to exclude cattle from sensitive habitat. St. Clair pointed out that the new fence will also help to manage the tribes’ burgeoning bison herds.
“Eventually, we hope in our law-and-order code to designate the buffalo as a wildlife species,” St. Clair said, “so that we can eventually put them out with the rest of the wildlife: Bighorn sheep, elk, all of the animals.”
Sagebrush has cultural significance to the Eastern Shoshone people, St. Clair said, and single-stalked strands that some call “sweet sage” play a role in some ceremonies.
Sagebrush-dominated landscapes, which tend to be the places nobody wanted during the homesteading era, are in decline. A 2022 interagency report found that an average of 1.3 million acres are being lost or degraded every year.
Sundaresan had no delusions that $10 million in funding, which came from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, would restore the fortune of an entire biome. But putting money to on-the-ground habitat work through these types of partnerships, he said, is how you achieve meaningful conservation.
“This is how we have to do it,” Sundaresan said. “If we can find common ground, literally and metaphorically, with landowners, the state, the tribes — it’ll make things better. That’s what conservation is going to take.”
The program will fund 11 Wyoming projects. The project details are posted online at FWS.gov/program/sagebrush-conservation.