As dawn breaks on a Montana prairie, dozens of male sage grouse fan their spiky tails and inflate bright yellow throat sacs to make a sound with a definite romantic flair – like uncorking a bottle of champagne. The strutting males vie for the attention of females, who choose their mates after weeks of watching the sunrise dances on traditional breeding grounds called leks.
Today, there’s new hope for this iconic western bird, despite declines so drastic that the greater sage grouse qualifies for listing as an endangered species. The population has slipped from millions in presettlement days to about 200,000 as habitat is degraded, developed for houses, or lost to oil and gas development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the species provides a window of opportunity to avoid a listing altogether through voluntary conservation.
Dave Naugle, a University of Montana wildlife biology professor in the College of Forestry and Conservation, serves as science adviser to the Sage Grouse Initiative, which conserves core breeding grounds for the highest density of sage grouse while simultaneously helping rural private landowners make a living.
“It’s a reimagining of where we want to work and how we want to work together,” Naugle says.
He gives credit for the win-win tactic to a model in UM’s backyard: the Blackfoot Challenge. Since the 1970s rural landowners have come together to conserve natural resources and a rural lifestyle in the Blackfoot River watershed. By focusing on the 80 percent of what residents agree on, the group has kept large ranches and working forests intact, conserved vital wildlife corridors for grizzly bears and elk, and improved the nutrition and health of grasslands for ranching and wildlife alike.
Translating the Blackfoot Challenge model to sage grouse conservation is working even in the initiative’s first year, Naugle says. To enlist ranchers as voluntary participants, the staff of the lead agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), talks to landowners mainly about healthier grass, fewer weeds, fatter cattle and keeping land intact instead of subdivided.
“Ranchers embrace the idea of enhancing their rangelands for cattle production while at the same time improving habitat for wildlife,” Naugle says. “They’re calling us in record numbers to enroll.”
The Sage Grouse Initiative targets 56 million acres across 11 Western states and is marshaling existing farm bill resources: $18.5 million in 2010 and $53 million in 2011, including a $23 million investment in perpetual working-lands conservation easements in prime sage grouse habitat, mostly near Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where ranchlands are under threat of subdivision.
The money isn’t new, Naugle says. Rather, it’s taking existing budgets and strategically applying them to shore up the best private land habitat for sage grouse by helping landowners make improvements so their livelihoods will be healthy, too.
NRCS does not typically take on an endangered species challenge, yet the agency is proving to be ideal because of its many field offices located in rural areas, Naugle says. The service has the expertise and the trust of farmers and ranchers to hit the ground running.
Where once the farm bill assisted rural landowners in “1,000 random acts of conservation kindness,” as Naugle called them, today NRCS allocates dollars to areas depicted on a colorful map that’s generated from hard data gathered by state fish and wildlife biologists who count and track sage grouse.
The bird’s entire range shows up in blue, covering 186 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, California, Washington, and North and South Dakota. Within the blue are clusters of bright yellow, orange and red colors, where breeding bird numbers are highest. Naugle generated the map in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.
“Seventy-five percent of the breeding population is concentrated in just 27 percent of the species’ occupied range,” Naugle points out. “It makes sense to spend your first dollar conserving 500 birds instead of five birds.”
He praised the leadership of Dave White, the NRCS chief who knows the Blackfoot Challenge success story firsthand and champions a smart and efficient vision for the farm bill.
“In an era when all agencies are being asked to do more with less, White is working with producers to increase sustainable agriculture and at the same time tackling conservation issues,” Naugle says.
Leadership is one breakthrough for the Sage Grouse Initiative. Enlisting science is the second, Naugle says. As science adviser, he pinpoints the core breeding areas and then identifies threats and solutions for conserving prime habitats.
“The threats are very different depending on the location,” Naugle adds, from cheatgrass fires that burn up sagebrush in Idaho to energy development in Wyoming. West Nile remains a significant threat, but conserving the biggest and healthiest populations first gives birds the best chance to rebound.
In Montana, NRCS enrolls landowners in grazing systems as an alternative to tilling lands for biofuels production. Once land is plowed up, the sage grouse habitat is gone forever.
North of Billings between Roundup and Ryegate, almost every landowner has volunteered to be part of the initiative across about 100,000 acres of sagebrush-dominated grasslands. Here, NRCS offers technical expertise and financial support to alter grazing patterns to leave more ground vegetation, which provides food and hiding cover for sage grouse nests and their chicks. Naugle will work this spring with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to radio track sage grouse to study if survival is higher.
Marking or moving fences makes a clear difference for sage grouse, too. Envision a male sage grouse flying in low to a lek in predawn darkness, readying for the sunrise dance. Rather than barreling into a barbed wire fence, he spots flashes of white plastic like playing cards (that dangle from the wires) and avoids a deadly crash.
“The most severe collision risk is right next to a lek,” Naugle explains, “but fences can be a problem even a couple of miles out.”
Marking fences works, according to the 2011 results of a University of Idaho study. A graduate student walked fence lines and counted impact sites near leks. Before the next spring, he put white tags on the fence wires and then returned after breeding season to find a six-fold decrease in sage grouse accidents.
“We took the estimate from the research and applied it to last year’s success of marking 180 miles of fences and figured we’ve saved about 1,000 birds,” Naugle says, cautioning that fencing is just one part of the conservation strategy.
“We have to get popping on all fronts,” he says. “The message we always return to is that sustainable agriculture benefits both producers and wildlife.”
New grazing systems and other projects should help sage grouse across an area the size of Yosemite and Glacier national parks combined – 1,000 square miles in 2010 and another 2,000 square miles in 2011. Sage grouse are an umbrella species, Naugle says, so by meeting their needs, many other declining prairie species will be helped, too – from pygmy rabbits to Brewer’s sparrows.
Naugle is convinced that landscape-level conservation coupled with landowner partnerships should be taught in universities as part of every wildlife biology curriculum. With UM support in 2008, Naugle launched a yearly landscape conservation course that he co-teaches with Greg Neudecker, a private lands biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As part of the class, students head to the Blackfoot Valley to learn skills that will serve them far beyond basic knowledge of wildlife biology, such as what to wear when meeting ranchers and how to place themselves in the landowners’ shoes.
Naugle believes landscape conservation courses, the Blackfoot Challenge and the Sage Grouse Initiative all chart a new path for conservation that links science with effective solutions. That pathway takes center stage in a new book he edited, “Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America.”
“We’re taking a different approach from spending millions of dollars on declining populations that aren’t going to make it,” Naugle says. “We’re investing in the best landscapes for sage grouse and helping ranchers and farmers make a living. We can apply that strategy for other species, too.”
— By Deborah Richie Oberbillig