WCS North America

Sagebrush Steppe Conservation Project /ID National Lab

Picture a forest of trees stretching for hundreds of miles but no more than a meter or so tall. Ecologically, this is sagebrush steppe. Historically, this ‘forest’ stretched almost unbroken across much of the intermountain West and provided cover and food for species including pronghorn, sage-grouse, and pygmy rabbits. Today only fragments of this once extensive forest remain, and for the most part what remains has been altered from its natural state as a result of many factors including overgrazing, invasion of exotic species (e.g. cheatgrass) and human-caused fires. Conserving sagebrush steppe habitat, greater sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits and pronghorn are top priorities for the WCS Yellowstone Rockies Program. 

In 2005, WCS began working within southeastern Idaho’s Lost River Sinks landscape [primarily on the extensive 570,000 acres of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL)] - one of the best remaining examples of intact sagebrush-steppe habitat in the country.  Because of DOE’s national security concerns, rather than conservation motives, sagebrush habitats on most of the INL have been safeguarded from many disturbances for over 50 years.  WCS is using this opportunity to conduct research to better understand sagebrush steppe ecology in this large and relatively intact sagebrush ecosystem.  WCS is using the information gathered to develop conservation strategies to better protect and manage sagebrush steppe habitats and sagebrush obligate species throughout the western U.S.  WCS is also gathering essential wildlife and biodiversity information on the INL site that will contribute to a long term conservation management plan for the INL.  By doing so WCS will help the DOE make decisions about how and where to develop future facilities necessary for the pursuit of its mission and goals while protecting this fragile and unique sagebrush landscape and assemblage of obligate species.


  • Conserve essential sagebrush habitat for sensitive species (e.g., greater sage-grouse and pygmy rabbits) by developing Candidate Conservation Agreements and a Conservation Management Plan for the INL.
  • Use knowledge gained through research on the INL to protect the relatively intact nature (i.e., ecological integrity) of sagebrush habitats in the Lost River Sinks Landscape.
  • Protect sensitive sagebrush obligate species such as pygmy rabbits and sage grouse  in the Lost River Sinks Landscape.
  • Maintain ecological connectivity across the Lost River Sinks Landscape.


Idaho National Laboratory Conservation Management Plan

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) contains some of the least disturbed sagebrush steppe habitats remaining in the Great Basin. In addition the INL is one of the few remaining areas that support abundant populations of sagebrush obligate species such as sage grouse and pygmy rabbits. WCS is working with the U.S. Department of Energy and the S.M. Stoller Corporation to develop a Conservation Management Plan that will provide guidelines for landscape management that are focused on conserving important wildlife species and their habitats. WCS has been working on this project since 2005 and will continue to work on the project through implementation of the Conservation Management Plan in 2012.

Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Connectivity

Sage grouse and pronghorn make long distance migrations from winter grounds on the Snake River Plain to summer habitats in mountain foothills and valleys to the north. Due to the undisturbed nature of the landscape it is one of the remaining strongholds for species such as greater sage-grouse pygmy rabbits bighorn sheep and Great Basin rattlesnakes. Identifying and protecting movement corridors for these species are important for maintaining ecological integrity in the Lost River Sinks Landscape. WCS is conducting movement studies on both sage grouse and pronghorn to identify important movement corridors. Results from these studies will update Bureau of Land Management habitat management plans and guide land acquisition efforts in the region.


Researchers from WCS and the Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation discovered a new migration route of pronghorn antelope that ranks among the farthest for any land mammal in the western Hemisphere. The migration route stretches from the base of Idaho’s Pioneers Mountains to the continental divide’s Beaverhead Mountains, passing through Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve—a round trip in excess 160 miles. The route crosses federal, state, and private land and narrows in one stretch to a bottleneck less than two football fields wide. There, animals are restricted by mountains, fences, a highway, and fields of jagged lava. The discovery is part of an ongoing study tracking pronghorn using GPS and radio collars. The study’s investigators include WCS’s Dr. Scott Bergen, Tess O’Sullivan of the Lava Lake Institute, and Mark Hurley of Idaho Fish & Game.


WCS North America Program
212 South Wallace Avenue, Suite 101 Bozeman, MT, 59715 USA
(406) 522-9333

Partners Include

Idaho National Laboratory
US Department of Energy