The ongoing debate concerning the possible Endangered Species Act listing of sage grouse brings to mind the issue of how do we, as a community, influence the decision so as to retain our property rights and the ability to continue in business?
We can argue that the drive to have an endangered species listing for the sage grouse has nothing to do with the bird but is only a method to place millions of western acres, both public and private, under nonresident control. This is not just an agricultural industry problem. If successful, this listing will completely change the way that those of us indigenous to the sagebrush desert will be able to conduct our lives. Make no mistake, to many in the opposition this is another battle in a war to once again remove the humans making their home in the open spaces of the western United States.
I believe that we should stick together, those creatures that actually live here. That means, all of us, including the sage grouse. We, indigenous humans, are the native environmentalists. Who better to know the land and the creatures? Who would have more affinity for the high desert landscape? Why have we allowed the debate to frame those of us who have lived here for generations, as people who pillage and plunder nature? Why would the opinion of someone who has chosen to live elsewhere carry more weight than the facts presented by those of us that the decision actually affects?
To this end, we must come to the rescue of one of our own, the sage grouse. A listing of this bird and the actions that are proposed will only serve to increase the major threats. We must continue to bring the debate back to what is actually best for the sage grouse and force the opposition to prove how their proposed actions will increase the number of birds by limiting the major threats. These threats are wildfire, predation and loss of habitat. We have, in the range cow, an ally that unknowingly fosters an environment conducive to sage grouse.
Cattle and sage grouse do not compete for the resources. Rather, the cow provides a positive benefit for the grouse each time she takes a bite of grass. She is (1) Reducing the threat of wildfire by removing the fine fuel that carries the fires; (2) Providing cow dung that fosters insects; (3) The primary herbivore removing the coarse grasses which allows the delicate regrowth; and (4) She continues to provide the economic base that keeps the rancher on the land, both private and public. If indeed the goal is to increase the number of sage grouse, the cow is the best tool available.
Wildfire is the number one threat to the condition of the range and specifically the sage grouse. Not only does fire kill the birds, it destroys the habitat by removing the sage brush and opens up thousands of acres to invasive plants. Well-managed grazing on these lands can go a long way toward controlling wildfire. There are thousands of acres in the West that have no cattle on them and many millions of acres that have a 50 percent or more reduction in the amount of grazing over the last 40 years. That being said, the sage grouse numbers have declined in conjunction with the reduction of cattle allowed on public land.
The production of manure, while sounding like what we often get from Washington, D.C., is important to provide a needed food source for the sage grouse. The cattle and the grouse end up using the same sources of water, which places the grouse in contact with what the cow has left behind. Actual entomology aside, a cow pie attracts insects which attract grouse. This is a plentiful food source during the dry times of the year.
All animals that eat grass prefer the young short grass in the spring or the regrowth later in the year. This includes cattle, deer, elk and sage grouse. In listening to the current debate, many people assume that grouse only eat sagebrush leaves. This is not the case. They also eat tiny forbs and regrowth. The cow is a primary grazer, meaning she can and will eat mature grass plants leaving them the regrow that season. This is a benefit to the rest of the system.
Perhaps the most important benefit the cow provides is an economic reason for a human to manage the land. This manager not only works to maintain and improve the land, he or she limits non-agricultural land development because the private ranch lands remain open working landscapes. With a rancher involved, Bureau of Land Management lands are managed by a businessman paying for the privilege to be on continuous fire watch, build and maintain water systems and control predators among the many other management duties that have a positive impact. The change to the land both private and public would be dramatic without an active, competent manager. What must also be understood is that the indigenous human is not an intruder to our high desert environment, but has been an intricate part of the environment for thousands of years.
An ESA listing of the sage grouse, while creating havoc in the rural West, will result in less sage grouse. Active management of the high desert by knowledgeable, competent, motivated, “native environmentalists” will provide an economic base for our rural communities and ensure that we can keep our beautiful, diverse, open West intact (and thriving?)
Kenny Bentz owns and operates ranches near Crane, Ore. He is passionate about increasing local control and preserving property rights.