Sage grouse study deserves support

The more everyone knows about the sage grouse, the better.

Published on November 9, 2017 8:47AM

Last changed on November 9, 2017 10:05AM

The more scientists can learn about the interaction of cattle and the greater sage grouse, the better both can be managed.

Courtesy of Nick Myatt/ODFW

The more scientists can learn about the interaction of cattle and the greater sage grouse, the better both can be managed.

News of researchers studying the impact cattle might have on the greater sage grouse has drawn sharp criticism from some in the scientific community, who wonder whether the effort is worthwhile.

The sage grouse, a wild bird the size of a chicken, has been at the center of a decades-long debate across the West. Two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the bird was “relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173 million-acre range,” which includes 11 states and two Canadian provinces.

As such, it would not need protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, as ranchers and others worked together to change how they grazed livestock.

The agency credited an “unprecedented conservation partnership” among ranchers for significantly reducing threats to the bird on 90 percent of its breeding habitat.

This, of course, was welcome news.

However, there is more to learn about any impact livestock may have on the birds and how they both might be better managed. That’s among the goals of a study led by University of Idaho professor Courtney Conway, who also serves as director of the U.S. Geological Survey Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which is a partnership of UI, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The researchers hope to learn how cattle and sage grouse might be able to co-exist. That’s what a recent article in the Capital Press says.

Four years into the 10-year study, one of the researchers said there appear to be no “big red flags” regarding the compatibility of sage grouse and cattle.

That and other aspects of the article have evoked criticism of the study. The critics’ premise is apparently “we already know what the outcome will be, so why do it?” They also picked at the headline, over which the researchers had zero control.

We believe more research is needed, on this and every other scientific topic.

Through history, scientists have declared as settled a wide variety of “facts” that, upon further study, turned out to be wrong.

In the 16th century, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the earth orbited the sun instead of the earth residing at the center of the universe.

He was correct, but it took many years before his theory was fully accepted.

As recently as the 1980s scientists believed that one gene controlled a single trait in a human. Once the human genome was mapped, every trait could be controlled, according to this theory.

But they were wrong. Now that the genome has been mapped, scientists have discovered that a single trait is influenced by many factors.

The lesson: In science, as in life, everything is often much more complicated than it might seem at first.

Who knows what the sage grouse research project will find? We anxiously await the results, with the hope that they will spawn even more questions and ideas for better managing rangelands.


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