For the Love of Sage: Communicating for an Ecosystem

For Americans who haven’t lived in or experienced sagebrush country, it can feel like an empty void or unproductive wasteland. Members of the conservation community know these perceptions to be unfounded, and for decades they have enacted significant scientific studies and conservation initiatives to better understand and protect this place. Yet, these efforts alone won’t save this productive and ecologically significant system. The sagebrush ecosystem spans approximately half its original size and is considered one of America’s most imperiled ecosystems. Promoting a broader understanding and engagement of the American people in the significance of this special landscape can have a positive impact on sagebrush conservation. Fortunately, this movement is underway and includes many people that care deeply about sagebrush country but more is needed. 

Bringing Together Diverse Views and Values
In the summer of 2016, a diverse group of private landowners, state fish and wildlife agencies, tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and corporations met to develop a shared vision and plan for range-wide communications to support a healthy sagebrush landscape for people and wildlife. Together we crafted a vision statement, created specific objectives, identified target audiences, and began to outline strategies needed to achieve our goals. These were a few of the tangible matters we worked on, but what was even more significant were the intangible results.

Forum participants highlighted a wide array of values they associate with sagebrush but the common vision was conservation. Values ranged from the historical, cultural, natural, spiritual, and aesthetic tenets of this ecosystem; recreational, agricultural, and other economic uses of sagebrush country; and, this system’s provision of clean water and wildlife, among numerous others. We deliberated over how we can share these values and beliefs with the broader public to engage them in conservation actions.


 People as Sagebrush Associates, Dependents and Obligates
San Stiver, the Sagebrush Initiative Coordinator for Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, has a dynamic view of how people fit into the sagebrush system and this can guide how we reach these people. He views humans as an integral component of a functioning sagebrush ecosystem. Much the same as a wildlife component, he suggests there are some humans that are associated with the sagebrush community, some that are dependent on the ecosystem, as well as some humans that are sagebrush obligates, whose lives are closely intertwined to this place.

Stiver thinks of sagebrush-associated humans as a group of people that use sagebrush during some aspect of their lives and are enriched by the knowledge or use of the ecosystem. Secondly, sagebrush dependent humans receive some part of their human needs from the sagebrush ecosystem. Whether it’s the water from the rivers that course through the sage before flowing from our faucets, the sun and wind energy harvested from this ecosystem that powers our electrical grid and homes, the fuel that is pumped from beneath the sagebrush and into our vehicles, or the space that provides us recreational opportunities, these people are sagebrush ecosystem dependents.  The last group of folks is sagebrush obligates. These people live in the sagebrush and sustain their culture, heritage, livelihood and identity as people of the sagebrush system.  The loss of sagebrush imperils them individually, societally, and economically.

“I see humans whose culture and heritage depend upon the sagebrush system as the group that can offer the most accurate picture of the situation and the most effective solutions to conservation challenges,” Stiver said. “It is imperative that we engage all three groups of humans to seek and find common solutions to the systemic problems that plague the sagebrush biome.”

Telling the Story of Sagebrush Country
The result of these discussions is formulating a nationwide communications campaign that has the potential to have an enormous impact. We created the first version of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Communications Framework, a document to guide a number of early tools that will be drafted in the coming months. This is a living document that will be updated as messages shift and conservation priorities are implemented over the next few years. The organizations that sponsored the forum—National Audubon Society, Partners for Conservation, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Intermountain West Joint Venture—are in conversation with other groups about implementing the framework and continuing to build the communications momentum of this growing community.

Communication is an essential tool to tackling sagebrush country’s challenges. Those who are involved in this effort are whole-heartedly invested in telling this ecosystem’s story and promoting its value with the rest of the nation. Here’s how you can help:

  • Dive into the Sagebrush Ecosystem Communications Framework for guidance on how to share more about this special ecosystem and broaden the understanding and value of the sagebrush sea.
  • Share your sagebrush conservation success story with the IWJV. We want to broadcast the great efforts taking place across the range. Email
  • Connect your work and harness the power of social media with #350species. Learn how this hashtag can help people more easily discover what others are saying about a specific topic and participate in these public conversations.
  • Get involved with this growing community and their efforts to implement the framework. Email, or contact one of the other sponsors, for more information.

Find other articles in the Winter 2017 issue of IWJV’s newsletter here: