Don’t jump to conclusions about sage grouse-cattle study

One could just as easily proclaim “study can’t say whether cattle and sage grouse co-exist” and it would be just as accurate, in fact, from a scientific perspective, more accurate.

By George Wuerthner

For the Capital Press

Published on October 30, 2017 2:24PM

Geo Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana

Geo Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana

The headline in a recent Capital Press article proclaims that “Preliminary data shows cattle, sage grouse can coexist.”

The article then goes on to quote various researchers who are at the beginning of a 10-year study. According to the article, grazing allotments were grazed according to traditional patterns for two years, then the third year, grazing on at least one study plot was terminated. Other pastures alternated between spring grazing and resting in even and odd years or were grazed during both the spring and fall before resting.

University of Idaho professor Courtney Conway, one of the researchers then suggested that “Compared to pastures that were rested that spring, we aren’t seeing a difference in sage grouse nesting success in (grazed pastures).

However, Conway does suggest tall grasses improve chick survival.

Karen Launchbaugh, director of UI’s Rangeland Center, admits it’s too early to draw solid conclusions from the study, but says at least she is pleased there have been no “big red flags” suggesting cattle and sage grouse can’t coexist.

The problem with the entire happy talk is that the study is only in the early stages of its research. Basically, they have one year without grazing and other management measures, and to suggest after such a limited time period that “cattle, sage grouse can co-exists” is pushing the limits of credibility. So many variables can affect sage grouse from year to year. It’s the long-term trends that are important.

One could just as easily proclaim “study can’t say whether cattle and sage grouse co-exist” and it would be just as accurate, in fact, from a scientific perspective, more accurate.

However, that wouldn’t get points with ranchers, the Public Lands Council, Idaho Cattlemen’s Association and the other agencies funding the project.

Furthermore, the title misrepresents what is known about livestock grazing impacts on sage grouse. Cattle impact sage grouse in multiple ways throughout their lifecycle. You can’t just look at one factor and proclaim cattle and sage grouse can co-exist.

Grouse collide with fences and suffer high mortality as a result. Grouse get West Nile Virus from mosquitoes that breed in cattle water troughs. Cattle compact and degrade wetlands and riparian areas that are critical feeding areas to young grouse. Cattle remove hiding cover for nesting hens, and of course, expose both chicks and adults to predators. Cattle, by trampling biocrusts, facilitate the establishment of cheatgrass, a highly flammable grass that is burning away sage habitat.

Even the hay fields so common around the West are a problem for grouse. First, in most cases, native vegetation was removed to create grassy open pastures and field, removing a significant amount of grouse habitat. Furthermore, the hay fields fragment grouse habitat. As poor fliers, they are reluctant to cross open fields without cover.

In short, happy talk that cattle and sage grouse can co-exist is deceptive at best, and just another example of how range departments seek to promote private livestock interests over the public’s desire to see its wildlife flourish.

George Wuerthner is a former Bureau of Land Management biologist, author of 38 books and helped to write the original petition for sage grouse listing. He lives in Bend, Ore.


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