Farewell, western juniper. Idaho, feds partner to yank the plant & let sagebrush return

‘It’s the coolest thing ever.’ Watch the renowned sage grouse mating ritual.

Sage grouse are famous for the way the males dance and strut to get the girl. Idaho Fish and Game explains.
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Sage grouse are famous for the way the males dance and strut to get the girl. Idaho Fish and Game explains.

Over the next 15 years, crews will remove western juniper from more than half a million acres of Owyhee County’s signature sagebrush sea.

Federal and state officials consider the plant a major threat to sagebrush ecosystems. Native vegetation finds itself unable to compete with the juniper for water, nutrients, space and sunlight, and starts to die off.

The effort is a partnership among three federal agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service — and Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, Department of Lands and Governor’s Office of Species Conservation.

“This vital landscape project demonstrates the Department of the Interior’s commitment to shared conservation stewardship through collaboration with our state partners,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in a news release announcing the project.

sage grouse map.JPG
This map shows areas federal and state land managers plan to remove juniper from in western Owyhee County, to benefit sagebrush habitats in the area. The map was developed for the final environmental analysis of the juniper project. U.S. Interior Department

Workers will remove juniper from 617,000 acres of Owyhee County. The removal sites are scattered across the county’s western side, between highways 95, 78 and 51.

The Interior Department says crews won’t remove juniper from within any official wilderness areas or lands “with wilderness characteristics.” The agencies will also avoid removing any old-growth trees.

“Junipers are such significant invasive plants that even small amounts of them cause sage grouse to avoid and abandon habitat,” said Virgil Moore, Idaho Fish and Game director, in the news release.

Removing the juniper not only benefits sage grouse, but also mule deer, elk, pronghorn and golden eagles. The agencies also say it will help local ranchers and recreationists.

“This is great news for Idaho’s continuing efforts to maintain and improve sage-grouse habitat,” Gov. Butch Otter said. “It’s an example of the kind of on-the-ground federal, state and local collaboration that can make a real difference for the species and improve the lives and livelihoods of ranchers, recreationists and other land users in Owyhee County.”

The project’s cost will be split between the state and federal governments. The Statesman could not get a total budget estimate Thursday.

“The total cost of the project depends on the treatment bids from contractors,” said Otter’s spokesman Jon Hanian. “There is no established state cost-share for the BOSH (Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat) project.”

The state has already put $422,693 toward projects that complement the federal effort by clearing 3,314 acres of western juniper on state and private lands, Hanian said.

Cynthia Sewell is Idaho Statesman’s government and investigative reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, csewell@idahostatesman.com or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.
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