Project Partners, Conservation district encourages change
Buffalo – The Lake Desmet Conservation District Sage Brush/Sage Grouse Conservation Program is a landowner-initiated project designed to benefit the sage grouse and other wildlife species through enhanced grazing.
“There are over 340,000 acres and 24 landowners currently involved,” states NRCS District Conservationist Phil Gonzales. “We are working with landowners to implement grazing management strategies that benefit their livestock business and the sage grouse.”
There are currently $3.2 million in the project budget. USDA Farm Bill programs provide funding with additional assistance from state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and the oil and gas industry.
Projects are partnership-based and tailored to each situation. “Most landowners come in and visit with us and we start a project at whatever level of participation they are comfortable with,” explains Gonzales. “Projects are based on the benefits for the livestock enterprise that has outreach benefits to sage grouse. We don’t force-feed changes and it’s entirely voluntary. If producers truly want to do things that benefit their livestock business that will have outreaching benefits to the sage grouse we can explain what they are and what we can do to provide assistance.”
Extensive fieldwork is conducted to study soils, stock densities and seasonal use prior to sitting down with a landowner to provide alternative grazing strategies. “Depending on the unit we write a minimum three-year plan. Some are going to five years but it depends on the needs and tools needed to implement a plan,” says Gonzales.
“We have learned to be visual when presenting plans to producers to make everything palatable. We can show where birds have been seen and how they relate to the land by pasture. The more visual we are the easier plans are to understand,” explains Gonzales.
“We can’t tell people what to do, but we can tell them what not to do. We work with livestock producers, BLM, Game and Fish, Pheasants Forever and other organizations to further our understanding and learn what we can do that is effective and different,” says Gonzales.
Dave Fraley is the chair of the Lake Desmet Conservation Board and an area rancher. When Gonzales asked him why it was important to be involved in sage grouse management, he answered that he was concerned about the potential of special interest groups controlling how he grazes his ranch.
“He commented that he attended a meeting and he didn’t know another person in the room. He was very concerned about a room of strange people determining policy that would affect how he managed his operation,” explains Gonzales.
Tom Lohse is another area producer who was originally hesitant to get involved in the program because he felt it might reduce his flexibility. “Tom is in the profit business and he wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved. Everything I was asking him to do would impact his investment. After doing inventories, his biggest concerns were livestock and wildlife and managing both during a drought. In working with us he found we can provide flexibility during a drought and we found we could meet his livestock management goals. He runs fewer livestock than when we established his stocking rates, and he continued running fewer head during the drought, but he is still selling the same pounds of beef. This is contributed to higher conception rates and a change in calving and marketing of calves,” explains Gonzales.
Margaret Smith and her sisters inherited a ranch and were faced with the decision to keep it or sell out. “They didn’t want to sell because it had been in the family a long time, but the ranch was suffering from drought and many years of over-grazing. I explained that if they sold it would be at a discount because it doesn’t take a lot of management changes to see a lot of improvement that would increase the property value,” says Gonzales. “In order to see change they had to be willing to take the time, which they decided to do. Despite being in the middle of a long drought there have been some significant changes, the largest being that they have taken a grass and water management approach instead of livestock.”
Smith takes in cattle on contract and found that altering management to include rest and recovery periods increased forbs and bunch grasses. Lots of hardpan areas now have vegetation. Gonzales adds that it didn’t come without sacrifice as all three sisters have outside jobs to help pay taxes and other ranch-related expenses. But today their operation is turned around and they are back in the driver’s seat.
The program utilizes a variety of tools including fiberglass ramps in stock tanks. According to Gonzales when sage grouse or other wildlife fall in a tank they swim to the outer edge where they come into contact with the ramp and can get out. He adds that sheep can also utilize the ramps.
“We had one tank from which we pulled 13 dead birds. We put ramps in the tank and didn’t find another dead bird it in the entire summer. We’ve tried several different ways of putting ramps in tanks and these fiberglass ramps are the most cost effective in addition to being easy to install,” says Gonzales.
Pasture aerators are used to manipulate habitat and increase forage production on rangelands. They have been especially beneficial on poor-producing landscapes, such as old prairie dog towns. “We have two types of aerators. After that we seed with forbs and shrubs and in some locations we’ve started planting sagebrush. This process increases diversification of grasses, forbs and shrubs and results in a greener landscape with better sage grouse habitat,” explains Gonzales.
“This is truly a livestock management project. We are using cows to benefit sage grouse and what we are finding is that there are significant benefits to this approach. I am a firm believer that by investing in being proactive we can keep sage grouse from being listed,” states Gonzales.