Federal lands grazing and the Bureau of Land Management have been front-and-center in the media over the past few weeks thanks to events like the Bundy 'range war' in Nevada and disputes over wild mustang herds overgrazing public lands in Utah. Most Americans who were never even aware such things existed are now in the know.
In the midst of all buzz, the impending potential listing of sage grouse as an endangered species lies waiting. If Cliven Bundy thought the desert tortoise caused trouble for his ranch in Clark County, Nevada, he hasn't seen anything yet. An endangered species listing of the sage grouse has the potential to take things to a whole new level.
One Oregon rancher even went so far as to say, "I don't think people are far off saying it is the 'spotted owl' of the ranching community." In 1993, the threatened species listing of the spotted owl decimated the logging industry of the Pacific Northwest and caused the economies of many small logging towns in the region to tank. An endangered species listing of the sage grouse very well could have the potential to do the same for ranching communities across a huge portion of the American West.
The sage grouse occupies a habitat which spans approximately 186 million acres across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces in the Intermountain West.
Recent estimates show populations of the bird have dropped over time from 500,000 to 200,000. The core of this population (nearly three-quarters) occupies just 27% of the total habitat range, with over 60% calling Wyoming and Montana home.
A majority of the acres inhabited by sage grouse are federally owned. An endangered species listing of this bird is a serious threat to the future of grazing rights on these lands and should be of great concern to those ranchers who use them to graze a major portion of their cowherd.
Back in November the BLM released draft revisions for land-use plans (LUPs) and environmental impact statements (ESAs) that will affect habitat for sage grouse across Montana and Idaho. This allowed ranchers and other interested parties a chance to identify and address issues in the proposed changes to LUPs and ESAs over a 90-day comment period open to the public from November 1 through January 29. Many other states dealing with this issue ran similar comments periods for their own proposed draft revisions.
Since then little has been mentioned about the sage grouse. But with the sheer magnitude of focus which has been placed on federal lands grazing as of late, I feel that's all about to change, very fast. I hope the ranching business is ready for that. Like I mentioned in November, I still have yet to hear much on this topic from the ranching community and that concerns me. A proactive approach is necessary when dealing with this kind of issue.
Luckily there are ranchers doing just that, taking action to improve sage grouse populations. Ranches like the McCormack ranching operation in Oregon featured on OregonLive are who have cleared juniper on 5,000 acres of range, tapped into more water springs, and changed their grazing patterns, all in an effort to improve habitat for sage grouse.
Another great example is the Antelope Springs Ranch, owned by the Savory Institute in eastern Montana, which I had the pleasure to work with in 2013 during my time spent with Land EKG, a rangeland monitoring firm currently based in Wyoming. Antelope Springs Ranch implemented an extensive rangeland monitoring system across their expansive ranch which encompassed thousands of acres. It gave high emphasis to monitoring several sage grouse leks (mating grounds) that exist on their property.
One of the ranch goals is to maintain and improve upon current sage grouse populations. Having a baseline of where they currently stand and monitoring annually allows them to see how management changes directly affect the ecosystem and will go a long ways in their efforts to improve sage grouse populations on their property.
It is hard to say how this issue will pan out. The BLM and US Fish and Wildlife have until October 2015 to make a decision on whether or not to place sage grouse on the endangered species list. Some states, such as Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, have chosen to take a state-based approach in their management plans for sage grouse. Others have chosen the federal route.
While it is short on time, the ranching industry still has the ability to make a difference for the greater good of the sage grouse and the future of public lands grazing. However, it is important we do not let sensationalized stories such as the Nevada range war fiasco distract us from other important issues at hand – the continued use of federal lands to produce a viable food source for our nation in the form of beef and the improvement of the population of a vital species of upland bird in our rangeland ecosystems.
The opinions of Jesse Bussard are not necessarily those of Beef Producer or the Penton Farm Progress Group.