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Wildlife

Sage grouse, grazing research project looks to pinpoint specifics over long-term

Written by Saige Albert

Cody – “The science is the easy part,” says Karen Launchbaugh of the University of Idaho on research. “The policy and the people are the complicated parts.”

Launchbaugh is the principal investigator of a large scale, 10 year, multi-million dollar research project where she looks at sage grouse and grazing.

“Our goal is to put some research behind the decisions that will be made by ranchers, agencies and lawyers,” she says.

Launchbaugh’s project was one of several funded by the Public Land Council’s (PLC) Endowment Trust in fiscal year 2015.

Inside the study

“We work with Idaho Cattle Association, University of Idaho, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Idaho Fish and Game Department and the Idaho Conservation League,” Launchbaugh explains. “We try to get a lot of different views on what needs to be studied.”

When looking at grazing, she asserts that there are only a few ways livestock grazing can affect grouse.

“Largely, it can affect the habitat,” Launchbaugh says of grazing. “There are a lot of studies on how tall grass needs to be and how much cover is necessary, but not much about lining up the habitat to the sage grouse. We are looking at how grazing affects the habitat and the grouse. It hasn’t been done much.”

Aside from cover, grass also provides fuel and forage, and Launchbaugh’s team is analyzing both as a part of the studies.

Grazing impacts

The term of the study – 10 years, says Launchbaugh, seems like a long time, but on the landscape, she notes that it isn’t long at all.

“We are looking at how spring grazing by cattle affects sage grouse habitat characteristics, demographics of sage grouse and fuel and wildfire,” she says. “Early on we decided that we would work with cattle, and we are looking only at spring grazing because it is coming up in court documents.”

Currently, they are focusing on four sites – two in southern Idaho on two grazing allotments and two in central Idaho.

“This year we added two more to have different places and see how grouse response might vary,” she comments. “We also never know when one might go up in smoke or if there will be a case that halts our work. We want to make sure we can finish.”

Data

While the study has only been in place since 2014, Launchbaugh notes that their data shows an overall successful nesting rate.

“This summer, because of funds from PLC and Idaho Cattlemen’s, we were able to get a larger field crew out,” Launchbaugh comments.

The field crews in the study looked at hiding cover around the nest to determine how concealed the grouse is when she is laying on the nest. They also looked at if the birds are selecting good sites within the pastures and on a landscape scale.

“The first year, we had 43 percent of nests that were successful,” she says. “This summer we had 44 percent. Those are respectable numbers.”

Of the 10 pastures, the success rate of grouse nesting was consistent whether they were grazed or not.

Grass height

Recognizing that a seven-inch stubble height for grass frequently comes up when talking about sage grouse, Launchbaugh mentioned that they looked at how to best measure stubble height.

“We look at drop height, leaf height and effective height,” she says. “I can’t tell anyone if this is going to be affected by season or the success of the grouse. This year, all of our plants were 20 centimeters, or over seven inches. It was a pretty good year, so we’ll be interested to see how it varies over time.”

Launchbaugh’s data has also pointed out that cattle graze between the shrubs, rather than underneath the shrubs.

“Grouse need grass under the shrubs, so just by measuring grass, that doesn’t get us to what affects the grouse,” she says.

Looking forward

“One of the things we are able to do is look at whether the pasture was grazed, where they are successful and if grouse are in areas that are heavily or lightly grazed,” Launchbaugh explains. “There was no relationship between grazing utilization patterns and the success, but that might be because we had low utilization levels.”

The highest utilization in the study so far was 29 percent.

“One of the challenges we are facing is how we can get heavier grazing,” she adds.

“The answer to the question about whether grazing is good or bad for grouse is yes,” Launchbaugh says. “It is good or bad, depending on what mangers do.”

Launchbaugh updated the Public Lands Council on her research at their annual meeting in early September 2015.

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..