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. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Siva Sundaresan returned to Fremont County, where he once lived, to announce $10.5 million in funding to benefit the West’s sprawling and struggling sagebrush ecosystem. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“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.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Siva Sundaresan, left, listens to Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman John St. Clair talk about habitat work on the Wind River Indian Reservation in September 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“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. 

Sagebrush-dominated landscapes, home to 350 species of conservation concern, are declining in the West at a rate of 1.3 million acres per year. Wyoming is a stronghold for remaining sagebrush. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. There was a recent article from another Wyoming online news site that discussed “night raider” Elk that come off Heart Mountain near Powell Wy during the evening to feed in the Barley fields and the farmer was sure crying and moaning about it. Wonder why that is? The adjacent farmers and ranchers have grazed down Heart Mountain to the nub leaving no feed or habitat for wildlife, yet piss and moan when the same wildlife enters their private lands for survival. Take away (or better term, decimate) the natural feed and cover for wildlife and you leave them no other choice then to go on the private cultivated fields. Don’t let the article fool you, most of these Heart Mountain farmers and rancher WILL NOT let you hunt. They’re probably banking on big depredation checks, just another gimme subsidy. It’s all about the habitat, stupid and when the grazers are allowed to let their cattle mow down the range vegetation you leave the wildlife no choice but to feed in the fields

  2. A very disconcerting you-tube video that got posted over the weekend showing the blatant overgrazing and abuse of federal lands near Cody, right in the heart of core sage grouse habitat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg34q_IrA20&t=109s
    Sounds like both the BLM and the Bureau of Rec have been notified with absolutely no action taken. a friend who rock hounds out on Heart Mountain told me that range destruction starts at the Heart Mountain canal all the way to the base of the mountain.Might be a good story for wyofile.com to check out

    1. I know that area and the narrator of that video is 100 percent spot on. These federal lands are managed by both the BLM and Bur. of Rec. Little known fact, the BOR land grazing is administered by the Heart Mountain irrigation district! That’s just like letting an 8 year old kid manage a candy store. The federal land range off Heart Mtn has been overgrazed to the point that there’s hardly any wildlife of any kind out there. Local BLM and BOR officials should be fired for their blatant disregard of the situation and letting farmers and ranchers “guard” the henhouse.

  3. Until the BLM and state stop leasing and developing the sagebrush steppe, the habitat and wildlife dependent on it will continue to decline.

  4. Wyoming is the nations sagebrush treasure trove – so why are we allowing massive solar farms on Federal land in Wyoming the intent of which is to generate electricity for the southwest such as Las Vegas and LA??? If we’re to get serious about preserving our sagebrush ecosystems we must best stop the bulldozing of thousands of acres of our precious sagebrush habitat for solar farms. How about converting the Burning Man playa with almost no vegetation to solar farms?? Makes more sense than bull dozing Wyoming’s sagebrush habitat.

    1. We have plenty of sage brush. It’s a noxious weed. Cows don’t eat it. We need more cows and more CO2.

  5. Alien cheatgrass is enemy No.1 in sagebrush ecosystems. Solve the cheatgrass problem and what problems remain are tied to politics.

    1. I agree re cheatgrass, I see it invading more and more sage grouse country. Destructive fires will follow. Reducing or eliminating cattle grazing should also be an option.

  6. If you want to save Pronghorn and Sage grouse, we better save sage brush Eco-systems. Good article and great project.