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Workshop: how to manage grazing, energy for at-risk species

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Rawlins – In the 1940s Aldo Leopold identified four major tools to manage habitat: cow, plow, axe and fire. Of those, the cow remains the most controversial tool on the landscape.
    “In the 1940s Leopold was already talking about integrating and getting the landowner in the management process. He recognized that had to happen for it to work, and it had to stay away from government regulation,” said Utah State University Wildlife Extension Specialist Terry Messmer at the April 21 sage grouse and grazing workshop in Rawlins.
    He said it’s crucial to create a system where the landowner is part of the process and is actively involved in making decisions.
    “The con side of the grazing controversy centers over the loss of biodiversity, lowering population density, changing plant communities and disruption of the ecosystem,” said Messmer. “On the other hand, grazing changes plant composition and if done right it can increase the quality of the forage and the diversity of the habitat.”
    He says there are two sides that both make statements based on science. “The sources of conflict are stocking densities, type of livestock, season and duration of use and past history of the site you’re looking at grazing.”
    Although cows, sheep and goats have unique dietary functions, Messmer agreed they can be trained to do different things, like avoid riparian areas and eat weeds.
    “In the West the land community has a different history than the East, and it’s tough for Easterners to understand the concept,” said Messmer. “The sage grouse, sage thrasher, pronghorn, pygmy rabbit and sage sparrow are a few species that are deal breakers – the ones people are watching. One way they express their concern is with a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service and a petition. By law there’s a process the FWS has to go through with a petition.”
    “Most ranchers agree ESA is a good act. No one wants to see a species disappear. We disagree on the process,” said Messmer. “The goal of the act is recovery, not perpetuation of the process.”
    For sage grouse, Messmer said the birds do better in areas where the different types of habitat – breeding, lekking, late brood-rearing and winter – are contiguous.
    “There’s a delicate balance. Good sage grouse winter habitat is a lot of sagebrush, which they eat during the winter. That may also be good for pygmy rabbits and sage thrashers, but that doesn’t have the understory with grass and forbs important for sage grouse chicks. For livestock, you also need areas with a canopy no greater than 40 percent because there’s not a lot of forage,” he continued.
    “Grazing has been the singular focus for sage grouse,” said Messmer. “The eight petitions to list sage grouse each focus on livestock and how things done on the range to manage for livestock ultimately resulted in changes in the landscape and, ultimately, declining sage grouse numbers.”
    However, a study in southeast Utah shows broodless hens and males moved during grazing, but hens with chicks increased their use of CRP land under emergency grazing. “We saw an increase in the forb component, and it shows an interesting behavior,” said Messmer. “The next year the birds returned to those areas and grass production was down and forbs were up, so there was a positive response to the emergency grazing.”
    “In the case of brood rearing habitat, grass for nesting cover and forbs for insects are needed to sustain chicks for first two or three weeks of life. For livestock producer, grass and forbs are good, and that drives the system,” he noted.
    In eight years managing for sage grouse in south central Utah the sage grouse population increased from 600 to 6,000 and leks increased from 200 to over 1,200. “We can grow grouse,” said Messmer. “We opened up a checkerboard of patches and the birds keyed in, but the cattle did, too.”
    The initial gain from sagebrush treatments is now converging with control areas because sagebrush is coming back.
    “It costs a lot to do mechanical or chemical sagebrush treatments, but we’ve got sheep and cattle already out there and we can change their behavior patterns. If we use livestock we can cause a change over time, not all at once,” noted Messmer. In experiments using sheep 500 sheep on seven acres for several days, sage grouse selected for the grazed treatments.
    “In an area, treat no more than 20 percent of breeding habitat within a 30-year period,” cautioned Messmer. “Don’t treat the entire landscape – think of patches and opening up a checkerboard. Use 13- to 26-foot wide strips or swaths, leaving islands and edges. The whole idea is to get the edge.”
    In Wyoming, research has begun in the Atlantic Rim area, analyzing the impacts of the area’s energy development on sage grouse. UW Wildlife Habitat Restoration Ecologist Jeff Beck leads the study.
    “The sagebrush steppe landscape is large, vast, dry and diverse,” said Beck, noting there is a consistency in patterns across studies of energy development. “Birds do suffer consequences, and the main thing is populations don’t perform as well.”
    He said there’s a lag effect, where development is initiated and birds come back for three or four years but then drop off. “In Carbon County we want to identify areas where sage grouse persist through development. If we can identify areas where birds can stay while development occurs, then they’re there to spread out again after development.”
    The study focuses specifically on nesting and brood-rearing habitat. “The Atlantic Rim in south central Wyoming is interesting because there’s a high density of leks and it’s an important area for sage grouse,” said Beck. “There are 89 leks in that area, where 400 wells have been developed; four times that number are permitted.”
    The objectives of the study include a lot of mapping, but two general things: the occurrence of the species and how birds function in a habitat in terms of nesting, brood-rearing and society.
    “The bottom line of what we’re trying to do is link occurrence and fitness – or the ability to reproduce and survive,” said Beck. “We’re focusing on three fitness measurements – nest success, brood productivity and adult female survival.”
    “Through linking those two things we can say these are the best areas for sage grouse where we should be managing carefully,” said Beck. “We’ve got to learn the landscape and how to work with the knowledge we’ve gained and what’s most important for survival and persistence of those birds to maintain populations and go back into areas they avoided during active development.”
    Researchers will continue trapping sage grouse through the 2009 field season to collect the second year of the study’s data. “At the end of August we’ll take the data back to the university and get and hammer and drill out and start to make sense of it all,” said Beck. He estimates the study will be complete within a couple years.
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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