Ranchers, agencies work to protect private sage grouse habitat

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMarch 14, 2014 

At meetings last year, Owyhee County rancher Jerry Hoagland was one of the landowners who talked about what he plans to do for sage grouse habitat in collaboration with agencies and environmental organizations.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • WHY THE BIG DEAL ABOUT SAGE GROUSE HABITAT?

    The Bureau of Land Management, which controls 50 percent of the grouse's sagebrush steppe habitat across the West, is working on a court-ordered plan to protect the bird. A sage grouse endangered species listing could restrict development, energy exploration and ranching.

    Sage grouse numbers declined sharply in the early 1900s and again after World War II. About 140,000 to 500,000 of the birds survive today, scientists estimate.

    The 2-foot-tall creatures depend on sagebrush. About 50 percent of the West's original sagebrush habitat was replaced by farms and communities, intentionally removed on federal lands or replaced by invasive cheat grass through frequent fires.

Vern Kershner has pictures from the 1930s of a hill on his Jordan Valley ranch covered with sagebrush and bunchgrass, with no juniper trees.

A decade ago, the juniper trees in the same area were so thick, "you couldn't ride a horse through it," Kershner said.

A neighbor wanted the wood, so Kershner let him cut down the junipers. Today, the sagebrush and bunchgrass are back - which is good for his cattle and the sage grouse that share the land.

Kershner is a third-generation rancher who has been on his 5,000 acres for 50 years. His ranch has plenty of water, especially after nesting season, when sage grouse hens seek out meadows for their chicks to find grasses, forbs (edible nongrass plants) and insects for cover and for food.

Private land makes up just 16 percent or so of the 8 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat across Idaho. That's why federal and state officials have concentrated their management strategy on the 5 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

But when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides in 2015 whether to list the grouse as a threatened creature under the Endangered Species Act, it will be looking at the contribution private lands play in the survival of the bird.

And it's not just the grouse at issue: Its health is considered an indication of the entire sagebrush steppe ecosystem in which it lives.

That's why a partnership led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with landowners to protect more than 25 million acres of private grouse habitat across 11 states.

Other states, such as Utah, have far more grouse habitat on private lands than Idaho does. But even in places dominated by public lands, wet meadows and stream areas are crucial for grouse survival - and those areas are often in private hands.

WORKING TOGETHER

In Idaho, big chunks of private grouse habitat lie in Washington County in the western part of the state; and east of Blackfoot and in the Sand Creek desert that stretches from St. Anthony to Mud Lake in the eastern part of the state.

Conservation efforts for the sage grouse began in the early 1990s when Shoshone area ranchers formed a working group.

More working groups were developed in 1997, including the Owyhee Working Group. By 2006, Idaho's Department of Fish and Game and the state Office of Species Conservation had developed a plan that linked the conservation work of these local groups into a network.

Gov. Butch Otter is using the same approach in his sage grouse strategy, which is the Fish and Wildlife Service's "co-preferred alternative" for managing sage grouse on BLM lands.

"We have zoned the state so that (dollars) go where they need to go," said Tom Perry, Otter's chief counsel, who leads the sage grouse planning efforts.

The Sage Grouse Initiative, a coalition of public and private organizations, can tap federal money authorized in the farm bill. The program includes helping ranchers write prescribed grazing plans, mark fences so that grouse don't fly or run into them, remove juniper, and retrofit cattle water troughs so grouse can get to the them.

Since 2010, the NRCS has obligated nearly $8 million for 99 projects on 437,000 acres of private and public lands, said Ron Brooks, the agency's Sage Grouse Initiative resource conservationist.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Kershner, the Owyhee County rancher, has been trying to get agencies and environmental groups to see the wisdom of removing junipers to restore the sagebrush habitat that is critical to the grouse and other species. The BLM has proposed a major initiative to do the same on its lands.

But not everyone's in favor of cutting down more trees. Western Watersheds Project, which opposes grazing on public land, has sued to stop juniper removal in some areas.

Ken Cole, a biologist with the group, said cutting back young junipers that invade sagebrush habitat can help, but cutting big junipers might have little effect on grouse habitat. Plus, it changes the natural progress of desert ecosystems.

"On the upper elevations, you should expect what we have now - an old-growth juniper forest," Cole said.

But the Nature Conservancy of Idaho, which has partnered with Kershner and other ranchers, is a major proponent of removing the trees. Art Talsma, a conservationist with the group, helps ranchers use a more sophisticated method called "mastication," in which trees are chewed mechanically in place and the chips are left to rot into the soil.

The recovery of the sagebrush, bunch grasses and wildflowers is faster that way, Talsma said.

"We've gotten quite a few landowners to consider that alternative," he said.

The nature conservancy also helps ranchers create development-free conservation easements on their lands, which offer long-term protection for sage grouse habitat. It's a tool that can help prove to federal wildlife officials that protections are permanent.

Housing development continues to be a threat in areas such as Washington County, home to Weiser and Cambridge.

"In that area during the real estate boom, there was a real change in the landscape with development," said Don Kemner, Fish and Game sage grouse coordinator.

Ranchers also are forming rangeland fire districts - a move that addresses the top threat to sage grouse statewide. And threats such as fire and invasive weeds cross ownership boundaries.

Otter's grouse strategy has focused on federal land, modeling the successful Idaho-written rule for roadless federal forests that won wide support and survived court challenge.

But Perry, Otter's counsel, said that if the state and federal agencies can develop a collaborative plan for the federal lands, they might turn to private and state lands in a separate conservation plan.

Will Whelan, the conservancy's public affairs director, said having consistency across all ownerships is critical for the bird.

"It's going to be an important part of a plan, bringing it all together," Whelan said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service