How the West Can Be Won

The West's iconic sagebrush prairies, grasslands, and mountains are in trouble. To protect those ecosystems, we need to protect some key species.

Grizzly bear

The North American grizzly is what’s known as an umbrella species: Protecting it and its habitat also protects hundreds of other plant and animal species connected with it. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, there are only 1,800 of these bears left in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. That's not surprising, considering that 99 percent of the grizzly’s natural habitat has been lost to people over the past 200 years. Much of its remaining homeland is privately owned, which means the government can’t protect it. A 2014 report by the same committee suggests that the number of grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park is increasing, albeit slowly, but threats to its home and food supply persist and could get worse if the Yellowstone grizzly is removed from the Endangered Species List.

Gray wolf

The reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone in 1995 after a decades-long absence might not have been welcomed by elk, the wolves’ primary prey. But keeping the elk population under control has led to more willows, aspens, and other streamside vegetation. It’s also boosted the numbers of beavers and songbirds that rely on such trees. The trickle-down affects almost every species in the West, but reintroduction efforts are far from over: We now have something like 5,600 gray wolves left in the Lower 48 states, down from an estimated population peak of 200,000 when Europeans first arrived in North America.

Credit: dsafanda/iStock

Wild Pacific salmon

From grizzly bears to orca whales, at least 137 species (including us!) depend on the nutrient-rich wild Pacific salmon. Their arduous annual migration also serves as a barometer for the health of our rivers and streams. But aggressive, proactive tactics are needed to protect this fish today as it faces threats from habitat loss and overharvesting. Experts agree that the best bet for conservation is to focus on protecting “salmon strongholds,” the rivers with the best existing habitats and healthy native salmon stocks. If we can do that, we’ll ensure a healthy salmon population for our children and for all the other species that depend on the fish.


Called “skunk bears” by the Blackfeet Indians, wolverines are the largest terrestrial members of the weasel family, famous for their snowshoe-like paws and ability to climb 4,900 feet in just 90 minutes. They can take down prey many times their size and also act as a cleanup crew, scavenging and eating the remains of dead animals before they can spread disease—an important job that they perform in a territory as large as a grizzly bear's, covering hundreds of square miles per year. Today, however, they are so rare and elusive that little is known about their dwindling population. (Fewer than 300 are thought to remain in the Lower 48.) Though they were once found throughout the Rockies, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada mountains, they are now thought to inhabit only the Northern Rockies and North Cascades.

Yellowstone cutthroat trout

These fish, one of just 11 fish species native to Yellowstone and a vital food source for dozens of other animals, are famous for their rounded heads, friendly faces, and the orange slash along the bottom of each of their gill plates. But they’re in trouble, thanks to competition for resources by the numerous rainbow, brown, and brookie trout brought to the West in the late 19th century through misguided population efforts by “bucket biologists.” Fortunately, they’re finally getting some help from Yellowstone and the National Park Service, which announced their Native Fish Conservation Plan in 2011 and have been working to remove the nonnative trout species ever since.

Whitebark pine

The striking whitebark pine is a rugged beauty, bending and twisting in all directions 8,500 feet above sea level in the Northern Rockies. The trees have survived in the high country landscape for generations, but now they are facing threats they can’t fight, such as a nonnative fungus called white pine blister rust and a proliferation of mountain pine beetles that have migrated to feast on whitebarks due to warmer winter temperatures. According to a 2014 report released by the Endangered Species Coalition, the whitebark pine could be wiped out by the end of the century unless restoration efforts are successful. The loss of these trees is already having ripple effects—they're crucial for stabilizing soil, shading snowpack into the summer, and providing nutritious seeds to feed nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears.

Wild bison

The largest land mammals in North America, wild bison have been around since the last ice age and are evolutionarily equipped to survive anywhere from Mexico to northern Canada. Yet there are now only about 4,500 left in the United States (almost all of them in Yellowstone), down from the tens of millions that once thundered across the plains. A 2008 study found that 74 percent of Americans agree bison are extremely important living symbols of the American West. Still, the federal government regularly slaughters hundreds of the animals at a time in the name of protecting ranchers’ cattle from brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes females to miscarry—even though the risk of wild bison transmitting the bacteria to cattle is incredibly small.

Greater sage grouse

These large, chicken-like birds are famous for their spiky black tails and elaborate mating dance. But they’re also what's known as an indicator species: If they aren’t doing well, other species across the Western grasslands are also in trouble. And since as few as 200,000 greater sage grouse are left in the United States (down from a historic peak of 14 million), well, you can do the math. Protecting the greater sage grouse and its habitat—the sagebrush prairies and grasslands—benefits more than 350 other species, including elk and golden eagles. Such efforts can also play a key role in suppressing wildfires because sagebrush and native grasses are far more fire-resistant than the invasive plant species that have overtaken many of these areas.

Rocky Mountain elk

These majestic creatures have the largest antlers of any of the six types of North American elk—of which only four types remain. This is a problem because elk help to shape the western landscape through their feeding and grazing patterns. They are also the primary prey of wolves and a key nutrition source for grizzly bears, which feed on elk carcasses that the wolves leave behind. Today about one million elk live in North America, primarily in the West, down from an historic peak of 10 million.

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