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FWS signs memo related to livestock grazing and sage grouse conservation

Written by Saige Albert

On Feb. 5, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released memo detailing FWS’ position on the relationship between livestock grazing and sage grouse habitat conservation. 

“One of our challenges is to identify or help improve land use practices that are compatible with the conservation of Greater sage grouse,” said the memo. 

“Researchers have documented both positive and negative effects of livestock grazing on western grouse species and their habitat,” FWS continued. “However, there are conflicting opinions about the respective magnitude of the positive and negative impacts on sagebrush systems when comparing historic grazing versus current practices.”

Ecosystems

FWS mentions that scientific documents have shown that non-native ungulate grazing in historic situations did alter sagebrush habitats, and they added, “Many of the grazing-associated problems we face today are a legacy of these past impacts.”

Impacts, such as degradation of habitat conditions, increased abandonment of nests, increased nest predation, modification of vegetation cover and species variation and aggravate fire conditions, have been seen.

“Although less pressing than several other widespread threats, the FWS’ Conservation Objectives Team report notes the need to ameliorate grazing-related threats to secure a number of sage grouse populations,” the memo stated.

Positives

“On the positive side, grazing can improve habitat and food conditions in certain habitats at certain times and under certain conditions,” FWS continued. 

They listed positive impacts of grazing, such as reduction of excessive shrub cover, increased habitat variety, improvement of desirable woody species establishment and reduction of fine fuels and fire risks.

“There is little that is black and white in this area – there is tremendous complexity in interpreting this information and deciding where and how to apply different types of management under varied local ecological conditions,” they continued.

Role of ranching

FWS emphasized that their decisions are made based on the scientific information available. 

However, they noted in the memo that FWS also considers “the potential positive and negative impacts of our policies on the land management decisions of private landowners.”

Their considerations include the economic and social stability of ranching communities as they impact conservation of fish and wildlife on privately owned working rangelands. 

“It is good for conservation across the range of sage grouse to have healthy, economically stable private rangelands,” FWS noted. “In many places, functioning livestock ranches provide wildlife habitat and often maintain many basic ecological processes on these landscapes.”

If ranches are sold, broken up, developed or converted to other uses, FWS noted that the impacts are negative. 

The communities in which ranchers are influential are also important, added FWS. 

“Intact rural communities provide local services, expertise and infrastructure to help address important landscape level conservation challenges, such as suppressing undesirable wildfire, treating exotic species invasions and monitoring local field conditions,” they commented. “Loss or decline of these local communities can make meeting these challenges more difficult.”

Working relationships

Finally, FWS highlighted that working relationships with landowners are very important for conservation efforts. 

“Recent research has documented the disproportionately high value of privately-owned lands in the Great Basin to wildlife such as sage grouse,” FWS said. 

The challenge, FWS added, is that many landowners view Endangered Species Act listings as a financial and legal liability. 

“Although many of these same landowners have a strong land stewardship ethic that often results in positive conservation, these values sometimes conflict with perceived legal or financial liabilities posed by environmental regulation,” FWS noted. 

“The Service’s job – whether for sage grouse or any other fish, wildlife or plant species – is to work with others to find the most effective ways to protect the nation’s natural heritage,” they continued. “We will always advocate a conservative approach that helps address threats to a species, in this case sage grouse, now and into the future.”

Policy perspective

As a result of these important factors, FWS noted, “Well-managed grazing practices can be compatible with long-term sage grouse conservation.”

They recognize 10 management policies.

First, FWS mentioned that grazing has altered the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, and poorly managed grazing continues to degrade the ecosystem in some areas. 

“In many areas across the range of sage grouse, well-managed grazing practices can improve habitat conditions or minimize future negative declines,” FWS commented. 

Grazing practices, however, need to be defined, evaluated and applied in a strategic manner, and to accomplish that, working with agency staff, range managers and scientists can provide expertise and local monitoring and improvement. 

Private land emphasis

FWS also recognizes that private lands are critical in conserving open space, habitat and ecological processes, which are important for sage grouse habitat. 

“The Service will work with landowners to improve habitat conditions wherever possible,” FWS continued. “Even if well-managed grazing practices result in some local adverse impacts to sage grouse, the Service will weigh these impacts in the context of achieving broader sagebrush conservation goals on private lands and a landscape scale.”

Regardless, FWS also recognizes that locally-managed rangelands and ranching operations are integral to sage grouse conservation, and FWS 

“The Service will work with BLM and Forest Service on ensuring areas of high priority to sage grouse are not experiencing poorly managed grazing practices but instead use well-managed grazing practices to improve existing conditions,” FWS noted. 

“Conserving sage grouse in the face of multiple threats is no easy task, and it will take successful collaboration with local communities to meet this goal,” FWS said.

With community health and the health of private rangelands both important to conserving sage grouse, FWS added, “If we continue to focus on these and other areas of agreement, we believe we have a good chance at stabilizing and maintaining viable populations of sage grouse through much of their historic range in a way that is sensitive to local community goals.”

Saige Albert 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..