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Sage Grouse

Cheyenne – Days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that Governor Mead’s Executive Order will protect sage-grouse habitat, the USDA announced in early July that it will send $10.4 million to Wyoming for conserving critical sage-grouse habitat on private land.
This is on top of $17 million the state received from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program earlier in 2011.
“The additional funding will help address a backlog of great applications for GRP,” says Paul Shelton, assistant state conservationist for operations in Wyoming.
The recently announced funding is available to eligible ranchers to conserve critical sage grouse habitat through the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). Along with Wyoming’s funds, approximately $5.5 million has been given to Idaho, and Utah will receive $2.3 million.
In response, Mead says, “I am pleased the federal government is backing up its words of support for our sage grouse plan. Because private property owners often bear the costs of species protection, it is good to see funds provided to offset some of the costs associated with protecting a species.”
“USDA and its partners are taking a proactive approach to maintaining large and intact grazing lands that support healthy sage-grouse populations,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “GRP will provide these states with another tool to conserve this at-risk species and also protect important ranch lands.”
Through GRP, ranchers and farmers limit future development of land while retaining the right for landowners to conduct common grazing practices and operations using rental contracts and conservation easements. NRCS, along with the Farm Service Agency, directs financial resources and technical expertise to help landowners protect and restore the enrolled lands.
For the first time this fiscal year, USDA is dedicating a portion of GRP funding solely to protect sage grouse habitat, and this announcement means that GRP is now formally included among the conservation programs used for USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI).
Launched in 2010, USDA says SGI has become an “extremely successful effort in the West” by targeting funding toward the removal of threats in the most important places where sage grouse numbers remain high. Eligible ranchers in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming can use funding from SGI to maintain large and intact sagebrush grazing lands.
In additional USDA news, the agency provided $53 million earlier this fiscal year to eligible ranchers through conservation programs, including the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. Using these programs, ranchers are implementing conservation practices to conserve grasslands that benefit sage grouse in 11 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Article compiled by Christy Martinez, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – Stating that the documents do too little to protect sage grouse populations, Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has filed a complaint challenging Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Management Plans (RMP) in six western states, Wyoming included.
    Recently completed RMPs for the Kemmerer, Rawlins, Casper and Pinedale resource areas are included in the group’s legal challenge that calls for the agency to consider a “no grazing” alternative. The lawsuit was filed in Idaho and has been assigned to Judge Winmill, a judge who has heard several other cases brought by WWP. With headquarters in Idaho and a Wyoming field office, WWP is an activist group that opposes domestic livestock grazing on western public lands.
    “We’ve made a decision to intervene,” says Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna of the lawsuit in which the State of Wyoming is also seeking to intervene. “What they’re claiming, as they do in a lot of these lawsuits, is that the BLM continues to allow harmful livestock grazing and failed to look at the adverse affects of grazing, particularly on sage grouse habitat and populations,” says Magagna. He says that while the lawsuit does mention mineral extraction that it’s primary focus is livestock grazing.
    “They always point to the fact that they didn’t consider a ‘no grazing’ alternative in their resource management plans,” he says. While work on the defense is underway, Magagna says his group’s attorneys will first cite potential economic impacts to the livestock community to earn standing in court.
    He further explains, “An RMP does not authorize any activity. It only determines what types of activities are permissible and what array of land uses is allowable. In the RMP it is not necessary to consider a ‘no grazing’ alternative.” Magagna points out, “The RMP doesn’t authorize any grazing. That comes later through a permit and an allotment management plan.”
    WSGA, as are other western livestock organizations, is involved in another lawsuit filed in California by WWP challenging the use of Categorical Exclusions on 386 forest service permits across the western United States. As set forth by the National Environmental Procedures Act (NEPA), Categorical Exclusions can be used in circumstances where the deciding agency sees little to no environmental impact.
    The original lawsuit over categorical exclusions on 386 permits could have affected 90 Wyoming permit holders, but was later scaled back to 21 permit holders including one Wyoming permit holder. Magagna says that lawsuit has now been further reduced to five permit holders. He’s waiting to hear if any of those five are within Wyoming.
    “The government and the plaintiffs agreed to do a trial on five allotments and based on that outcome move forward,” says Magagna. WSGA wasn’t granted intervener status in the case, but allowed to be a party to the remedy phase.
    Anytime lawsuits are pursued, it’s expensive, but Magagna points out, “Thanks to our members and supporters, we can enter a lawsuit.” Of the organization’s legal fund he says, “We still encourage donations to keep the fund up as we recognize there will be additional lawsuits.”
    Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..