Cattlemen look at sage grouse
Lander – The Fremont County Cattlemen’s Association sponsored a Greater Sage Grouse seminar on March 14 in Lander.
Representatives from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spoke about sage grouse habitat, diet and management. Nine ranches, located from Lysite to the Sweetwater River, were represented at the seminar.
As the birds’ name implies, their required habitat is large, intact sagebrush dominated landscapes. Wyoming is home to 38 percent of the nationwide sage grouse population.
“In the spring and summer their diet is more than 75 percent sagebrush,” said Mandi Hirsch, NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative range and wildlife specialist. “They need at least 15 percent sagebrush canopy in conjunction with perennial grasses and forbs with a height ideally greater than seven inches.”
Insects attracted by the forbs are just as important as the plant itself. During lekking season, the birds use low sagebrush flats, ridge tops, old lakebeds, roads, cropland and burned areas for breeding.
From mid-July to September, sage grouse can be found in riparian areas, irrigated fields, high-elevation meadows and upland seeps and springs. In Wyoming, sage grouse will commonly range 12 miles from their nesting and lekking area.
“In the autumn and winter, the birds’ diet is 99 percent sagebrush,” Hirsch said. “Snow cover is what limits their habitat during this time. For cover and feed, sagebrush needs to be about 10 inches above the snow.”
Predators are the largest mortality cause for sage grouse. Nest predation during the early chick period is the most common. A predator taking an adult happens infrequently and does not impact the population. The main culprits are ravens, golden eagles, badgers, foxes, magpies and ground squirrels.
“Wetter, more productive lands in the Rocky Mountain West are generally privately owned,” said Jim Hellyer, rancher and association member. “Consequently 66 percent of sage grouse habitat is on private lands. It is important for landowners to manage for wildlife by making sure meadow and water resources are not fully utilized by livestock.”
Fremont County impacts
In February 2013, after six years of effort, the BLM released the proposed Lander Resource Management Plan (RMP) and final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The BLM Lander field office manages 2.5 million acres of public land in central Wyoming.
Conserving sage grouse habitat plays a large role in RMP revisions. The Lander BLM is the first of several field offices in Wyoming to go through the process. Both the Bighorn Basin and Buffalo RMPs started in 2008, and will look similar to the Lander RMP.
“It is good to know the science behind the stipulations,” Hellyer said. “During the RMP revision process it is helpful for agriculture to have a seat at the table – a representative who is willing to learn, speak for agriculture and listen to land management agencies’ concerns.”
The proposed Lander RMP is currently in the 30-day protest period until March 25. It includes the State of Wyoming’s Core Population Area Strategy approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Executive Order implications
Governor Mead’s executive order covers 83 percent of the sage grouse population and 43 percent of surface area. It is applicable to state lands, state-authorization on private lands, a nexus with a state permit, and/or land that used public funds. Within the Lander field office, 70 percent of sage grouse habitat is considered a Core Area and under the Governor’s plan.
“Both the Governor and the BLM say well-managed livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse habitat,” said Caleb Hiner, BLM Wyoming Sage Grouse planning lead. “The National Technical Team report, which informed the Lander RMP, concludes that livestock grazing can reduce wildfire fuels and be beneficial for forb management for sage grouse. None of the documents say what well-managed livestock grazing is, and neither does the Lander RMP.
“For grazing management, the BLM is talking about stocking rates, land health assessments in priority habitat area, hot season grazing and range improvements. If we eliminate livestock grazing from sage grouse habitat, we might be doing more harm than good,” he added.
Hiner says the BLM is focusing on how realty actions, wind development, surface disturbance, energy development, access roads and high-tension power lines affect core areas.
Vegetation treatments that completely alter sage grouse habitat will not be continuing.
As producers look to maintain and increase the sage grouse population on their deeded and leased lands, monitoring is the key to doing so. The adage of “take half, leave half” applies.
“Improper grazing is the threat, not the grazing action itself, which can be beneficial,” Hirsch explained. “Ideally residual cover has at least four inches of stubble height on March 15. To do so, it is crucial to have a drought and grazing contingency plan that allows for flexibility in your operation.”
Using photo points is one of the easiest ways to monitor sagebrush canopy, the grasses and forbs. Photo points involve taking a photo in the same location during the same time period on a regular schedule. Labeling the photos and then filing them provides a helpful reference tool.
“Livestock can be used to positively influence sage grouse habitat through the timing and location of grazing,” Hirsch said. “What is good for the rancher is good for the grouse.”