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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Sagebrush covers hills 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.

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.

"Removing the juniper has really been a boon," he said. "You get a 10-fold increase in grass production at the same time you are helping the sage grouse."

Forrest said if a landscape has more than 5 percent cover of juniper, the sage grouse will stop using the area. "It gives their predators — other birds — a chance to hide," he said.

The success of this initiative, however, is intertwined with the health of the sagebrush steppe habitat that covers the West, the majority of which has suffered substantial degradation.

An environmental analysis prepared by the Bureau of Land Management in response to a court decision noted that as much as 70 percent — or close to 78 million acres of sagebrush grasslands — are so ruined that it will require expensive and resource-risky approaches to save them.

"The patchwork of quality sagebrush areas remaining today is a landscape of habitat islands for sagebrush (dependent) species," the analysis noted.

Sage grouse, Forrest said, is one of those species and in the winter months, sagebrush is its only food source.

The proliferation of invasive species such as cheat grass has had a devastating impact on sagebrush, resulting in an 18 percent loss of the sagebrush grasslands ecosystem in the West since European settlers moved in, the report said, emphasizing too, that cheat grass acts as a matchstick for wildfires.

Forrest said the interplay among sagebrush habitat, sage grouse and wildfires is a key emphasis with the state's catastrophic wildfire task force.

"Once you get the conversion to cheat grass, it will burn every three to five years," he said.

While there has always been fire on Western landscapes, Forrest said this stepped up cycle has decimated sagebrush.

"The cycle used to be 50 to 150 years, which would give the sagebrush a return cycle. Because it takes them 15 to 50 years to grow, there is no way for them to get back into the system."

The BLM analysis said that within the last 10 years, fires have been so prolific — particularly in western Utah and eastern and central Nevada — they consumed 3.7 million acres of sagebrush steppe, with some areas more than once.

"The acreages of sagebrush steppe affected by invasive grasses and consequent wildfires eclipse all other natural and (man-made) effects," the report said.

Forrest pointed to Skull Valley as an example of where fires have taken their toll. "It used to be brush, but it burned, the cheat grass came in and it's been burning every three to five years," he said.

Some species of sagebrush don't resprout after a fire, and non-native plants exude chemicals that prevent the sagebrush from growing, he added.

"In the Western part of our state, from north to south, fire is the big threat to sagebrush. It is, in fact, the No. 1 threat and we can't lose the fight," he said. "We don't have the technology to put it back. So with grazing fire breaks, with whatever tools we have, we need to make sure those fires don't take place."

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