Beyond the Boundaries

Sagebrush Steppe

Help Us Protect the High Desert Sagebrush Corridor

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada were set aside in the 1930s to protect the rugged landscape and unique wildlife of the high desert. These neighboring refuges contain not only vast stretches of sagebrush grasslands, but also high cliffs, narrow gorges, lakes and springs. The varied habitats on nearly 1 million acres of refuge land here shelter important populations of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, sage-grousepygmy rabbit, bighorn sheep, redband trout, and other types of wildlife.

These two refuges form the heart of one of the largest and healthiest high-desert sagebrush ecosystems in the American West, a crucial and rapidly vanishing part of our natural history.

The Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex plays a significant role in providing habitat for greater sage-grouse, a game bird that has been in decline. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified this area, along with five others across the West, as ‘strongholds,’ for greater sage-grouse – places worthy of special attention when it comes to habitat management. The six strongholds consist of about 23 million acres in total and represent core habitat for 75 percent of the estimated greater sage-grouse population. (See below map for location details.)

Map of Sage-Grouse Strongholds
Map of Sage-Grouse Strongholds

The Refuge Association has been a long-time supporter of the Service’s stronghold strategy. Through collaborative conservation and management of these priority areas – which include a matrix of public and private ownership – we can support strong breeding populations of greater sage-grouse as well as 350 additional species which rely on healthy sagebrush habitat.

Sage-Grouse | Credit: USFWS
Sage-Grouse | Credit: USFWS

Sixty percent of sage-grouse core habitat sits on federal lands. However, sage-grouse require adiversity of habitat during different periods of their life-cycles, and it is more common than not that the birds will travel back and forth across public and private holdings in the course of an average year. Private landholdings often include springs, riparian areas and wetlands that are essential habitat for brood-rearing – and these private lands are often home ranches that hold extensive grazing permits on the adjacent public lands. Thus, the well-being of this bird and its extensive habitat depends on a collaboration between federal, state and private land managers.

At Sheldon and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the two refuges are linked by more than 500,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land leased to the Beatys Butte Grazing Association, as well as more than 1 million acres of adjacent private ranchland. Here, ranchers and land managers, agencies, county and local officials, and nonprofit partners are working together to find common solutions to many of the challenges to managing healthy rangelands – which include invasive species, drought, and wildfire, as well as fragmentation by proposed energy corridors or similar development. These collaborations between many stakeholders are essential to the continued economic, cultural and ecological vitality of the high desert – not just healthy birds, healthy communities and healthy landscapes.

Just to the north of both Hart and Sheldon, the historic Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an oasis in this landscape – a wetlands complex that provides habitat for 320 bird species, including migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and summer populations of trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes. Together, Hart, Sheldon and Malheur protect large blocs of diverse habitat in the heart of the high-desert landscape.

Read more about the recent Department of Interior announcement stating the greater sage-grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

Significance and Threats

A diverse group of animals inhabits Sheldon and Hart Mountain refuges. Most notable are the herds of pronghorn antelope. These denizens of the open range were nearly extinct 70 years ago, but their numbers have rebounded today thanks to the protections afforded by havens like these. The greater sage-grouse, a sagebrush-dependent bird that is a candidate for the Endangered Species list, lives in the rolling hills and valleys of this landscape.

Another important resident is the pygmy rabbit. These small rabbits have recently been listed as endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by agriculture, development and energy production. A wide variety of waterfowl can be found here, including Canada geese and white pelicans. Bighorn sheep live in the high, rocky sections of these refuges. Sheldon and Hart Mountain wildlife refuges also harbor populations of mountain lions, bobcats, marmots and kangaroo rats, among other species.

Pronghorn | Gail Collins / USFWS
Herd of pronghorn | Gail Collins / USFWS

What The Refuge Association is doing:

The Refuge Association is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a range of other partners to safeguard the Sagebrush Steppe Corridor. Among other actions, we are:

  • Assisting local partners in four sagebrush stronghold areas–Sheldon-Hart Mountain Refuge Complex, the Bear River Watershed and Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge–to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat;
  • Developing a vision and long-range conservation plan for protecting this landscape;
  • Fostering communication and cooperation among various federal and state agencies, local communities and associations, longtime ranchers and private landowners;
  • Working to strike a balance between continued ranching and restoring habitat for native wildlife.

What you can do to help?

By making a contribution to the National Wildlife Refuge Association you’ll enable our team to continue their work to protect and enhance the high desert sagebrush and other landscapes and wildlife across the country. Please consider making a donation today.

You can also join our Action Team and receive alerts about important actions you can take for the refuge system and the wildlife that live within it. Through the Action Network you will be notified about pending legislation in Congress and enabled to express your thoughts about these measures directly to your congressperson. Please join today and help us stand up for the refuges!




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