Sage grouse conservation: Upper Green River Basin local working group supports habitat improvement projects
Formed in March 2004 following a directive under the Wyoming Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, Local Sage Grouse Working Groups (LWGs) around the state worked to develop and facilitate implementation of local conservation plans to benefit sage grouse, sage grouse habitat and other species which utilize sagebrush habitats.
The Upper Green River Basin Sage Grouse Working Group (UGRBSG), comprised of 11 members who represent government agencies, industry, agriculture and wildlife stakeholders, created a conservation plan – finalized in 2007 – which identified strategies to support and conserve sage grouse populations and habitats in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming.
Melanie Purcell, the current chair of the UGRBSG, shares the group meets two to three times each year, depending on what is going on at the state level in terms of sage grouse management.
In addition, group members allocate funds for sage grouse habitat projects and hear any project updates and reports from funded projects.
The current UGRBSG team and their representation includes; Melanie Purcell, Conservation District; Albert Sommers, agriculture; Bob Barrett, sportspersons; Dale Woolwine, Bureau of Land Management; Dean Clause, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD); Greg Schamber, oil and gas industry; Jennifer Hayward, Natural Resources Conservation District; John Dahlke, conservation; Aimee Davison, consultant; Pete Guernsey, at-large member; and Rusty Kaiser, U.S. Forest Service.
Sage grouse habitat
The goal of LWGs across the state is to collaborate all stakeholders through conservation projects to improve sage grouse habitat and populations.
“Conserving native rangelands is important to sage grouse and other wildlife because it provides habitat to allow them to complete their lifecycles in an ever-changing human dominated landscape,” Melanie shares. “Sage grouse are dependent on sagebrush, so they are considered sagebrush-obligate, though they do vary in how they utilize sagebrush throughout the year.”
She continues, “Sagebrush is really important for thermal cover and from predators in the winter months, as well as serving as sage grouses’ main food source in the winter. In the summer, the hens need different minerals for their eggs and chicks, so forbs and insects protected by the structure of sagebrush become important as a protein source during the nesting and brooding season.”
While lekking areas are typically flatter with shorter vegetation, the proximity to healthy sagebrush is important when it comes to having cover to escape from predators during breeding, Melanie adds.
Intact habitat conservation
“Anytime we think about conserving habitat, having open habitat on a landscape scale is ideal, especially when considering animals that move great distances from one place to another,” Melanie says. “Intact habitat is important for deer to have food water and cover along their migration route, but this is the same for sage grouse.”
Melanie shares sage grouse might not migrate hundreds of miles, but the birds do move quite a lot.
“Some sage grouse populations are considered migratory and can migrate anywhere between two and 50 miles,” she says. “They move often from seasonal habitat to seasonal habitat. In this area, there are birds that are moving from as far north as the Upper Green to the winter concentration, which is just north of the Sweetwater County line.”
The UGRBSG prioritizes projects working to improve or conserve sage grouse habitat in the Upper Green River Basin. Currently, sage grouse management at the state level focuses on adaptive management.
“We are starting to talk about what adaptive management means through the Sage Grouse Executive Order,” Melanie says. “This includes things like figuring out what a trigger is, and how they are calculated based on cycles and bird numbers.”
“One thing we usually fund every year is cheatgrass control in Sublette County,” Melanie explains. “We have invasive cheatgrass, but we are pretty lucky in that it’s not everywhere. It has been really nice to work closely with our Weed and Pest for cheatgrass control.”
The UGRBSG has a budget of $75,000 annually, and roughly $30,000 is allocated to cheatgrass control this year. Melanie shares, there is an adaptive management project on the Natural Pressurized Lance (NPL), a gas field south of Jonah, for sage grouse management that UGRBSG is tentatively funding.
“Drilling on the NPL was put on hold, so right now they don’t plan to drill for at least a couple more years that I know of,” she explains. “They have the opportunity to collect additional data on sage grouse use predrilling. This NPL area has a big winter sage grouse area concentration delineation, so there is the opportunity to look at how birds are moving to and from winter areas before drilling occurs.”
Melanie continues, “This data is collected in hopes that it will be able to be applied to research down the road as an adaptive management-type project.”
The NPL project is tentatively funded for $35,000, pending final requests from Jonah Energy.
“The remaining funds we like to keep back in case a project comes forward later on,” Melanie adds.
“Other projects we have funded in the past are a lot of windmill conversions in the area to help reduce the raven population and the number of territorial nesting pairs that predate on sage grouse eggs out in open sagebrush areas,” Melanie explains. “With solar well conversions, the windmills ravens were nesting on were taken down outside of the raven nesting season and changed into solar wells. This has also been a good source of water for many animals, and often, a more reliable water source as solar tends to be more efficient than wind in Sublette County.”
In some cases, Melanie shares, the conversion of windmills into solar wells also provides some green area – mesic habitat – for sage grouse.
“A couple years ago, another project also looked at geography and the winter concentration areas,” she says. “We are waiting for some results from this project to become available and see how they want to move forward next.”
To learn more about the Local Sage Grouse Working Groups or the Upper Green River Basin Sage Grouse Working Group, visit wgfd.wyo.gov/habitat/sage-grouse-management/sage-grouse-Lolcal-working-groups.
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.