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Rancher partners with Sage Grouse Initiative

Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Ranchers are partnering with the Sage Grouse Initiative to improve habitat on private land and their grazing allotments on public land. One of those ranchers talked about the benefits of the partnership at an SGI team meeting in Twin Falls on Tuesday.

The status of the sage grouse will be reviewed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015, and listing it as an endangered species could bring big changes to ranches in the West.

The Black Family Ranch, based since 1875 in Bruneau, Idaho, is a large operation running cattle on both private and public land that has partnered with the Sage Grouse Initiative to help keep the species viable and its status unchanged.

“We have a vested interest in what’s going on and how we manage this land,” said rancher Chris Black.

The operation uses a holistic grazing strategy and supports all wildlife, including sage grouse, on its grazing allotments in the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwest Idaho, he said.

The goals and objective of the Sage Grouse Initiative to protect sage grouse habitat are the same as his goals and objectives for the ranch, he said.

That’s why he partnered with the Initiative, led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and its partner agencies and organizations.

“It takes everyone to work through this,” to protect sage grouse and keep them off the endangered species list, he said.

Black explained his partnership with SGI to remove invasive junipers during a recent SGI team meeting in Twin Falls.

Sage grouse populations peaked in the area in 1963.

A photo of the area from 1946 showed juniper growth limited to rocky outcroppings. When stock ponds and wetlands projects were added in the early 1980s, juniper growth spread beyond those outcroppings, Black said.

A more recent photo showed an altered landscape, with more junipers and less sagebrush range. That invasion of conifers isn’t good for sage grouse or the many other species that depend on sagebrush-steppe habitat, according to SGI.

A recent study in eastern Oregon by the Nature Conservancy, University of Idaho and SGI found no sage grouse leks were active with as little as 4 percent conifer cover on the landscape. And active leks disappeared where small trees were scattered throughout sagebrush, typical of early juniper encroachment.

Monitoring was done ahead of Black’s juniper removal in the Owyhee area and on-ground work began in January. For the least impact on the ground, trees are being sheered and stacked into slash piles, Black said.

Thus far, the project has removed junipers on more than 800 acres of private land and 500 acres of state land, he said.

But the project to enhance wildlife habitat involves more than juniper removal, and includes brush management, prescribed grazing, wetland enhancement, water development, and putting up and marking protective fencing, he said.

Black has built ponds and created meadows, important for sage grouse because they feed on insects and most wildlife congregate in wet areas, he said.

Other benefits in improving habitat include increased quality and quantity of feed for wildlife and forage for cattle, more availability of water and improved efficiencies in herding cattle, he said.

“My land is in excellent condition. We don’t need to do it for the operation, but we need to do it for wildlife enhancement,” he said.

His project is part of a larger SGI effort in the Owyhee area, with neighboring ranchers doing the same on their lands, he said.

That larger project has planned juniper removal on approximately 16,000 acres, with 10,000 acres already treated.

SGI is a partnership in a working landscape that has brought everyone together to work on solutions and get things done in a timely manner, Black said.

“SGI is really just another tool to help people live in harmony with the land,” he said


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