Sustaining Scarce Water Resources

Water is a prime asset of western rangelands, especially when wet meadow habitats form. These springs, streamside riparian areas, and flood-irrigated meadows are dynamic systems for a diversity of wildlife, providing critical food and cover. Sage grouse seek out these green spots in mid to late summer, when uplands dry out, to raise and feed their chicks. These areas are also essential for working ranchlands, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, rural communities and other wildlife.

Today, wet habitats cover less than 2% of the western landscape, with 25% located on public lands. Annual precipitation and snowpack are the drivers of these systems and can be highly variable. Sustaining these scarce water resources is paramount to proactively conserving the sagebrush ecosystem and working lands in the West.  

Conservation strategies are being developed to support wet meadow and riparian habitats on public and private lands with collaboration between federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, agriculture and energy industries, sportsmen and women’s groups, recreationists, and more. Broad-scale and site specific efforts include: removing conifers to improve water availability; restoring degraded riparian areas, meadows, and other mesic areas near breeding habitats; implementing grazing plans with specific riparian and wet meadow goals to increase productivity of these resources; and, preventing the conversion of mesic sites to subdivision and other non-compatible uses.

Putting Science into Practice

From valley bottoms to higher elevation sites on public lands, our science partners have completed the most geographically complete set of mesic resources correlated with sage grouse populations. These resources can be viewed in time and space (1984-2016) across the West with focus on sage grouse brood-rearing habitat (July 15-September 30).

Management Tools and Success Stories

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Where There’s Water, There’s a Way

The West was settled around water by homesteaders following creeks and streams to stake out new ranches. In such a dry climate, carefully conserving and storing water has always been a priority for landowners.

One method to keep more water in an area for a longer period of time involves building simple, low profile rock structures in wet meadows or small, ephemeral streams. Named after Bill Zeedyk, the designer and a long-time ecologist, these Zeedyk structures slow down and spread out water. The results are impressive and visible quickly. Click here to learn more about these practices in action in Montana.

Another simple wet habitat restoration structure is called a Beaver Dam Analogue (BDA). Historically, beaver dams helped keep floodplains and groundwater levels high enough to sustain people, livestock, and wildlife through the hot summer. BDAs are stick and log structures that imitate beaver dams, helping to slow down and spread out water over an area to keep it greener longer.

With either rocks or sticks, simple, cost-effective natural dams can help improve habitat, boost drought resilience, and enhance agricultural operations. Now that’s the definition of a win-win situation!