By DOUG WARNOCK
For the Capital Press
Will the threatened sage grouse be to the livestock industry what the spotted owl was to the lumber industry? This issue was discussed recently at the national Society for Range Management conference in Spokane.
The sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush ecosystem of the West, has significantly declined in population during recent decades.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act was justified, but due to higher priorities and budget restraints, it did not move to have the species listed as endangered.
USFWS determined that the sage grouse was threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation resulting from wildfires, incursion by invasive plants, grazing, climate change and direct displacement by energy development and other activities. It is expected that no action will be taken on sage grouse by USFWS until 2015.
Responding to the situation, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service teamed up with several partners and launched the Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010. The initiative is aimed at improving sage grouse habitat, while helping ranchers improve their rangelands. If successful, the initiative could remove the need to declare sage grouse as endangered. Partners in the venture are state fish and wildlife agencies, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, conservation districts and other federal agencies.
A simple premise guides the initiative: "What's good for sage grouse is good for ranching." The initiative focuses on 56 million acres in 11 Western states. Its purpose is to help ranchers improve their rangelands in those areas containing the highest numbers of sage grouse. About 40 percent of the birds' habitat is privately owned land.
In the first year since the initiative began, more chicks survived, fewer adult birds died and habitat was expanded. Participating ranchers reported they saw improvements in the health of their land.
Funds have been made available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program to help ranchers improve habitat. Over $18 million has been allocated for the two programs so far.
According to Tim Griffiths, initiative coordinator, 40 different practices are being implemented by ranchers to enhance sage grouse habitat. Some focus on removing hazards to the birds, such as rebuilding or moving dangerous fencing. Others include deferring grazing or not grazing certain areas during specific seasons so that habitat can be protected during the critical mating and nesting periods.
Implementing proper rotational grazing allows full recovery of range plants prior to additional grazing, which improves the health and vigor of the rangeland vegetation. Still other practices are aimed at reducing the amount of undesirable plants and increasing desirable plants.
In certain areas encroaching conifers are being removed. Conservation easements are being established in some places to reduce disturbance by humans and larger animals.
The initiative is a multifaceted approach that should help regenerate the sage grouse population and assist ranchers in improving their rangelands.
Doug Warnock, retired extension agent, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley.