Water Is Life: Introducing SGI’s Mesic Habitat Conservation Strategy

Healthy mesic habitat benefits ranchers and wildlife in the west.April 5, 2017

Conserving the West’s wet “Emerald Isles” builds drought resilience, boosts forage productivity and benefits wildlife

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative is helping landowners conserve wet habitats in sagebrush country to benefit working lands and wildlife.

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative is helping landowners conserve wet habitats in sagebrush country to benefit the bird and the herd.

In the arid American West, water is as good as gold. Wet mesic habitats — places where water meets land — comprise less than 2 percent of the entire landscape. Yet neither people nor wildlife can survive without them, as evidenced by the early homesteaders who followed scarce water when they settled the West.

Recognizing the importance of mesic habitats in the desert, the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative is proud to announce a new conservation strategy that empowers private ranchers and our partners to protect and enhance the wet, green places that sustain working lands and wildlife.

What Is Mesic Habitat?

Mesic habitat refers to land with a well-balanced supply of moisture throughout the growing season, such as streamsides, wet meadows, springs and seeps, irrigated fields and high-elevation habitats. These are the places that provide drought insurance as uplands heat up, and the places where birds and livestock flock during the hot summer months.

Healthy mesic habitats act like sponges, helping to capture, store, and slowly release water. This service is essential for supporting the wildlife, people, and livestock living in the West.

 

 

Where Are Wet Areas Found On The Range?

Today, the majority of these vital water resources are on private lands. By conserving these areas, ranchers can build drought resilience and boost forage productivity. Through the Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS is supporting ranchers who are working to protect and restore mesic areas, benefiting agricultural operations, sage grouse, and 350+ sagebrush-dependent species.

How Do Sage Grouse Use Wet Areas?

Two sage grouse hens perch on a pipe in an irrigated agricultural field. Photo: Ken Miracle.

Sage grouse hens perch on a pipe in an irrigated agricultural field. SGI empowers private landowners to conserve these wet habitats. Photo: Ken Miracle.

As summer heat dries out upland soils , sage grouse — like livestock and most wildlife species — follow the green line seeking out wetter, more productive areas. These mesic habitats serve as “grocery stores,” providing the protein-rich forb and insect foods that help newly hatched sage grouse chicks grow and thrive. Research shows the important role mesic habitats play in the distribution and abundance of sage grouse, influencing where they choose their breeding grounds, called leks.

The loss of mesic habitat is one of six key threats to sage grouse that NRCS and our partners are addressing through a variety of conservation actions outlined in the Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 Investment Strategy. Since 2010, SGI has partnered with 1,474 ranchers to conserve more than 5.6 million acres of sage grouse habitat. 

What Can Ranchers Do?

Western ranchers know the impacts of drought. Practices that boost riparian, wet meadow and watershed function supply more reliable water and forage production during lean times. The Sage Grouse Initiative is thrilled to offer technical and financial assistance for strategic practices and easements that help landowners conserve the West’s precious water resources.

NRCS cost-shared this mesic restoration project in Colorado, enhancing habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse and other wildlife.

NRCS cost-shared this restoration project on a ranch in Colorado, which enhanced mesic habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse and other wildlife. Photos: Claudia Strijek

Through SGI, the NRCS and partners are helping ranchers restore and protect mesic areas across the 11-state range of sage grouse. We’re scaling up the following key conservation actions through practices detailed in SGI’s new brochure, On The Range, Water Is Life:

  • Grazing Management
  • Spring Protection and Enhancement
  • Low-Tech Restoration
  • Conifer Removal
  • Mechanical Restoration
  • Easements

New Mesic Resources Online

The SGI Interactive Web App now features a Mesic Resources layer that shows the "greenness" of wet habitats rangewide.

The SGI Interactive Web App now features a Mesic Resources layer that shows the “greenness” of wet habitats rangewide.

Our science team developed a new addition to the SGI Interactive Web App — a free, open-access, online tool that informs local conservation efforts — to help visualize mesic resources across the entire range of sage grouse. The SGI Mesic Resources layer draws upon over 30 years of satellite imagery to map the location of late-summer wet habitats. The data quantifies photosynthetic activity and net primary productivity from 1984 to 2016, providing users with a measure of ‘greenness’ in sagebrush country.

Watch the webinar below to learn more about how to use the Mesic Resources layer on the SGI Web App.

Additional Resources

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.