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Fish, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation

BLM's Wildlife Program: Habitat Conservation and Improvement

The BLM manages wildlife habitat primarily in western shrublands, grasslands, woodlands, forests and riparian areas as well as glaciers and Arctic tundra in Alaska. Where a habitat or watershed analysis indicates a need for action, the BLM works to improve habitat conditions through vegetation treatment programs and construction of special habitat projects. Wildlife projects include such activities as creation of water developments, wildlife-friendly fences, nesting platforms, and erosion control structures.

Helicopter lands near guzzler in Utah desert. BLM photo.

Constructing and maintaining water sources is an important activity benefiting wildlife in the arid West. The BLM constructs, enhances and maintains springs, water holes, stock ponds, reservoirs, wells, and guzzlers. The BLM collects data to verify locations of water sources and determine the water quality, capacity, and beneficial uses associated with the water source.

In addition to improving habitat for a variety of plants and animals, the BLM also takes actions to recover specific species of concern. Typically, such actions are prescribed as part of an approved conservation or recovery plan for plants or animals that are listed or proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act or are officially identified as candidate or special status species. For more information on these programs, see the BLM’s Special Status Species web page.

Monitoring progress toward meeting priority conservation targets is crucial. Information is either collected directly from the field or indirectly through remote sensing and photo interpretation. At the field level, BLM biologists routinely monitor habitat conditions and populations of resident and migratory animals including neotropical migratory birds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians and reptiles. A species of special conservation interest is the sage-grouse whose habitat spans 11 Western States. The BLM manages more than half of all remaining sagebrush habitat.

Tractor working a field.  Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation

BLM field and state biologists work with partners to restore habitat for big game, including reestablishment of bighorn sheep into historically occupied habitats, and improving habitat quality for a large variety of wildlife including deer and elk, pronghorns, quail, and other game species.

Above: Checking on a guzzler outside of Moab, Utah, to benefit bighorn sheep (see story below).

Right: Turning retired farmland into wildlife habitat by seeding native plant species at the BLM's Atwell Island in California's Central Valley.




Case Study: Bighorn Sheep Depend on Public Lands 

Three bighorn sheepAmerica’s majestic wild bighorn sheep are attracted to the kind of rugged and open landscapes the BLM manages throughout the West. Their populations were once in the millions, but today, they are limited to remote areas of the West where they can find adequate forage and a permanent water source away people and activities. 

The BLM manages significant habitat for Rocky Mountain and desert bighorn sheep, including habitat for the federally-listed peninsular bighorn sheep in California.

The BLM works with state fish and game agencies to manage habitat and plan for translocations of sheep from one area to another. Because wild sheep are susceptible to diseases carried by domestic sheep and goats, the BLM and Forest Service are working with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Wild Sheep Working Group on guidelines for minimizing the risk of disease transmission. 

The BLM addresses additional challenges faced by wild sheep. Wild sheep avoid people; when recreation or other activities restrict wild sheep access to traditional water sources, BLM managers place water in more remote areas. Moab, Utah, provides one example. 

Utah Guzzler Projects

A BLM fire crew fills a bighorn sheep guzzler in Utah from helicopter, BLM Utah photoToday, Moab, Utah, is the mountain biking capital of the world, but it once was prime habitat for wild sheep. As recreationists and tourists have flooded into the area, the wild sheep have retreated into the more remote desert surrounding Moab, leaving their water source, the Colorado River, behind.

Consequently, the BLM has created and maintains water developments, called guzzlers, in areas where bighorn sheep reside. Most bighorn water developments are installed in areas inaccessible to people and cattle. 

For example, in the Potash Bighorn Sheep Management Unit outside of Moab, the BLM maintains a number of guzzlers, primarily for bighorn sheep but also used by other wildlife such as chukar partridge.  

The BLM also protects sheep by preventing  or minimizing human and livestock disturbance during sheep lambing and breeding seasons and adhering to livestock fencing standards to allow sheep passage.


Case Study: Pronghorn and BLM Public Lands

Pronghorn Pronghorns are wild grazing animals unique to North America. They are sometimes called pronghorn antelope, but are not related to the antelopes of Africa and Asia. 

These graceful, fast animals once numbered 35 – 40 million. As the West was settled and developed, pronghorns were heavily hunted and their habitat increasingly fragmented and overtaken by domestic animals. By 1900, pronghorns all but disappeared, their numbers reaching a low of only 13,000. In the twentieth century, western States passed laws and mounted extensive conservation efforts to expand pronghorn populations. Today, there are about a million animals throughout the West and limited hunting is allowed.  

The pronghorn is a plains animal that favors wide open spaces. BLM lands provide important habitat for pronghorns.  Read BLM's Pronghorn Fact Sheet here.

Pronghorns may be the fastest land mammal in North America, but they will not jump over anything more than three feet high.  The BLM’s wildlife-friendly fence replacement projects benefit this special animal as well as other large animals that migrate, such as elk and mule deer. 

BLM Installs Wildlife-Friendly Fences for Pronghorn, Other Wildlife

Rangelands managed by the BLM provide important habitat for large animals such as pronghorn, mule deer, elk, that roam and migrate across expansive landscapes. These lands also support a domestic livestock industry important to Western communities.

In some areas, woven wire fences still cross public rangelands, restricting the movement of large animals, especially pronghorn. Animals become entangled in the mesh and cannot move to new habitat areas. Animals are injured and some are killed by direct collision.  

The BLM works with livestock operators to replace old fences with new wildlife-friendly fences that allow large animals to migrate while continuing to contain livestock.


Case Study: BLM Restores Aspen Communities to Benefit Wildlife  

Many areas of the West are defined by tall stands of aspen, but these striking trees provide more than spectacular fall foliage. Aspen communities are considered second only to riparian/wetland communities as the most productive habitat for wildlife and plant diversity in the Rocky Mountain region. Big game such as elk, mule deer and antelope, and a variety of small animals and birds, depend on aspen habitat.

Aspen habitat.  Left shows treated area, right - untreated.  BLM WyomingToday, many aspen communities are threatened. Surveys indicate approximately 50 percent of the historic aspen in Wyoming has been lost due to conversion to conifer and/or sagebrush stands. 

The Wyoming Front Aspen Restoration Project is helping to reverse this trend. Wyoming BLM and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are working together with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to protect and improve the aspen habitat under extreme stress in Wyoming. The objective is to remove conifers from aspen stands to reduce competition for water and nutrients. The resulting slash is used as a fuel bed to reintroduce fire into the stands to stimulate new growth of aspen communities. Other partners helping with the project include the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust.

The goal is to treat up to 9,000 acres of at-risk aspen stands in the Wyoming Range. Already, more than 3,500 acres have been treated. In the photo above, compare treated areas on the left to areas not treated on the right. These treatments benefit forest health and wildlife habitat, restoring plant and animal diversity to the ecosystem.

This partnership has provided local economic benefits as well, including more than a million board feet of timber; 2,000 tons of biomass sold for bio-energy, mulch, and landscaping chips; 1,500 tons of fuel wood; and 1,500 Christmas trees. (Some of the biomass is being used for reclamation in nearby oil and gas fields.) The project has employed people in slashing crews, logging and sawmill operations, commercial trucking, biomass removal and grinding, and firewood and Christmas tree removal. 

Case Study: Sagebrush Restoration in Nevada Benefits Mule Deer, Other Wildlife

Volunteers pose in restoration area, NevadaThe BLM and the Nevada Division of Wildlife, in cooperation with private land owners, have been involved in seeding perennial grasses and shrubs in a number of areas that have been affected by wildfire. Some areas need additional seeding to get perennial grasses and shrubs established in winter ranges which are at lower elevation, experience lower precipitation and have southern exposure slopes.

The BLM participates in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Mule Deer Working Group, created to develop strategies to address declining mule deer populations.

Photos by Tom Warren, BLM, Elko District Office