Once native habitat turns into concrete, asphalt, houses or energy developments, there’s no going back. Urbanization is a localized threat in the West rather than landscape-wide, but it’s one of the most severe.

When it's gone, it's gone for good...

Reclaiming habitat lost to development is costly, difficult, and rarely effective.

We all need homes. But development near wild landscapes fragments already-scarce habitat, displaces wildlife, and increases the impacts from natural disasters like storms and wildfires. Further, once native habitat is developed, it's nearly impossible to restore.

The examples below highlight how radically development is transforming western landscapes. While this problem is localized, it's happening all across the range.

Fort Collins, Colorado

Agricultural fields and sagebrush range quickly became dense urban areas.

On Colorado's Front Range, few cities showcase how subdivisions gobbled up working range and farms better than Fort Collins.

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  • 35 sq miles

Much of the western U.S. is still wide-open and rural. But where human development is encroaching, the results are stark—and the impacts are dire for wildlife. This is clearly evident on Colorado’s Front Range as cities like Fort Collins (pictured above) creep ever-outward, destroying native sagebrush habitat as they expand.

The Front Range also shows the typical sequence of threats to rangeland: first it’s plowed up for crops, then the farm roads and fields become suburban subdivisions, which fill in with homes until they become small cities.

And as urbanization changes the landscape, wildlife move out.

Sprawl is a growing threat in and around many western towns as people leave cities in search of amenities like open space, clean air, and outdoor recreation. Since 2020, seven of the ten fastest growing states were in the West’s sagebrush sea, including Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, and Washington.

Las Vegas, Nevada

This desert landscape turned into a cityscape in just a handful of decades.

Las Vegas has transformed this once-remote Nevada landscape.

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  • 594 sq. miles
Historical imagery from Las Vegas prior to urbanization.Modern imagery shows

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada has been the fastest growing state for 36 of the last 76 years. Its current population of 3.2 million people is 22 times higher than the population in 1946, when just 143,000 people lived in the Silver State. Half of Nevada’s population lives in Las Vegas, pictured above.

Nevada is also the driest state in America, receiving an average of just 10 inches of rain each year. Supplying water to homes, businesses or agriculture in the desert requires building expensive infrastructure projects, like the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. That dam formed Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. that appears in this image.

Ongoing droughts in the Southwest have shriveled streams and lakes to all-time lows in recent years. Lake Mead dropped to 26% of its capacity in July 2022, threatening power and water supplies for cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Wildlife also suffers during droughts.

Greater Yellowstone, Montana

Rural landscapes far from cities also experience habitat fragmentation from residential development.

Subdivisions and ranchettes chop up vital migratory pathways for big game species that live near Yellowstone National Park.

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Modern imagery shows how small ranchettes have fragmented once intact sagebrush range in Montana.

Just a stone’s throw north of Yellowstone, Livingston is an example of how suburban sprawl is death by a thousand cuts. A common threat to sagebrush landscapes throughout the Mountain West occurs when large family  ranches—many of them original homesteads that stretch for miles—begin to subdivide into smaller and smaller parcels.

The example above may look like wildlife still have plenty of room to roam. But the roads, power lines, pipelines, and crop agriculture that accompany building out these five to ten-acre ‘ranchettes’ are daunting obstacles for some of America’s most iconic wildlife species.

Elk, pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep and mule deer all migrate through this region, as do the wolves, bears, coyotes and ravens that feed on them. These critters endure injuries, stress, and mortality from vehicle strikes and fence entanglements as intact landscapes are carved up to make way for new homes.

Conservation in Action

Success Stories

New conservation easement in Washington state preserves more than 2,000 acres of native sagebrush range in critical sage grouse habitat, adding to a 6,800-acre easement the neighboring ranch placed under a conservation easement in 2019.

The Etchart Family worked with the NRCS, TNC, and the CO Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to place much of the ranch in a conservation easement protecting this prime working land from development and preserving habitat for elk, deer, and sage grouse.

Learn more about urbanization and how YOU can help!

Growing urbanization is a serious threat to natural systems like the sagebrush sea and the Great Plains grasslands. Once land is converted into houses or industrial development, it is nearly impossible to return back to native habitat.

Learn more about the threat of urbanization and the conservation solutions helping to keep native range intact below.