Reports highlight saga of Sage Grouse and sagebrush

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 4:35 p.m. MDT

A wild horse walks up a hill covered in sagebrush in the Cedar Mountain range on Thursday, July 18, 2013. The BLM says much of the West's sagebrush grasslands, which species like the Sage Grouse are dependent on, are ruined and in danger.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new report takes a first national review of on-the-ground conservation efforts and opportunities taking place across the country for birds, singling out the positive efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative involving 11 Western states, including Utah.

And while the initiative is being hailed as an example of collaboration, another report details the grim challenges facing the habitat the greater sage grouse depends on for survival — sagebrush.

The 2013 State of the Birds report is published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior, with collaboration from multiple state wildlife agencies, scientific groups and conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy.

"Sixty percent of U.S. land is in private hands, making the efforts of farmers, ranchers and landowners critical when it comes to creating, restoring and protecting bird habitat,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The report notes that the private land ownership includes 2 million ranchers and farmers, with more than 100 species of birds that have 50 percent or more of their U.S. breeding distributions on private lands.

Good stewardship of bird populations is important, it adds, because of the significant impact they have on the ecosystem.

"Birds are important indicators of the health of our environment," the report said.

The science-based Sage Grouse Initiative was rolled out in 2010 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service with an eye toward offering financial and technical help to ranchers and farmers to protect sage grouse habitat. By the end of 2012, the conservation service had enrolled more than 700 ranchers in the initiative and provided assistance on improved grazing practices on an estimated 2 million acres.

The initiative, called a "win-win" for people and the bird by the report, is important work for a wide range of reasons.

Often called the Spotted Owl of the West, the greater sage grouse is a finicky breeder and football-sized bird that has experienced drastic declines in populations over the past half century, with key threats being loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation, wildfires, urbanization and invasive species.

The greater sage grouse is now a candidate species for being added to the Endangered Species list, a move widely viewed by states, ranchers and other private property interests as disastrous for the West.

The report noted that new grazing practices required by the initiative not only improve nesting habitat for grouse, but native grasses, wildflowers, sage brush and wet meadows that serve as food resources also flourish.

Troy Forrest, program manager for grazing improvement with the Utah Department of Agriculture, works on the initiative and says it is all a matter of timing.

"We try to create opportunities for both the cows and the grouse," he said.

By grazing early in the year before the rains come, for example, that stimulates "green growth" that attracts insects for the grouse. By May and June, when the grouse are nesting in taller grasses and should be avoided, the cattle can be moved to different areas.

"It helps the grasses not be grazed all at the same time. They need time to go to seed," he said. "If you move that through space and time you create a benefit to the grass, the cow and the sage grouse."

Forrest said he believes more than 15 ranchers in the Box Elder County area alone have enrolled in the program covering about 50,000 acres.

The initiative also targets the removal of juniper trees, which suck up water at the expense of grasses and drive away the sage grouse.

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