Greater Sage Grouse Recovery

Greater Sage Grouse Recovery: Sage grouse standing in profile on rocky lake shore Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
Sage grouse standing in profile on rocky lake shore
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
So what happens when you get a bunch of ranchers together with a bunch of scientists and agencies? I found the answer as I attended a meeting in a remote part of western Boxelder County a few evenings ago. I was pleasantly surprised to discover much good for both wildlife and people.

This was a formal meeting under the auspice of the West Boxelder Conservation Resource Management (CRM) Group targeting greater sage grouse recovery. It was a very informative meeting covering everything from juniper forest removal, prescribed burns, and reseeding to enhance range for cattle, birds, and wildlife.

I learned that due to wildfire suppression which is essential to maintaining healthy range conditions, juniper forests have replaced thousands of acres of grasses, forbs, and sage steppe communities. I was also informed that pinyon pine will be preserved honoring Native American traditions which is central to their culture and diet. In addition to this work, the group addresses general rangeland condition and invasive species.

The CRM is planning wetland and riparian improvements that will provide resting, feeding, and nesting sites for migrating birds. Fencing has been put around key springs and off-site water sources have been developed. The reintroduction of beaver to the stream will help the extremely limited water supply by slowing the spring water runoff, stabilizing the stream banks, and raising the water table.

There was a lively exchange regarding a paper published in a respected science journal by USU authors addressing grazing impacts on grouse populations. The Greater Sage Grouse has become a species of special concern due to plummeting populations, and is considered an umbrella species being its recovery should be paralleled by other sensitive faunal species.

A statement in the papers abstract “Our meta-analysis revealed an overall negative effect of livestock grazing on grouse populations.” raised some red flags with the ranching community. Reading further, this study was conducted on a different grouse species in the U.K. There appeared to be a peaceful resolution to this concern and agreement that future abstract wording would get more scrutiny before published.

I also learned the verdict is still out on grazing impacts on the greater sage grouse. Intense research is underway in the CRM attempting to find answers. My prediction is with all of the range restoration activity combined with well managed grazing will eventually result in higher grouse populations.

This good work has not gone unrecognized. In 2016, the West Boxelder CRM was presented with the Sage Grouse Habitat Stewardship-Collaborative Award from the BLM as an ideal example of a community-based land stewardship organization that is committed, engaged, and active across land ownership boundaries. A tip of the hat to all interests on this remarkable effort!

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Dave Menke, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Community Based Conservation Plan, https://utahcbcp.org/localworkinggroups/WestBoxElder-WBECRM/westboxelder

Sage Steppe

Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Three-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila ShultzThree-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Zane Gray’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” and Steve Tremble’s “Sage Brush Ocean” are book titles that may invoke excitement from your literary past. Or you may be traveling along the interstates and side roads of our great state as monotony sets in and drowsiness tightens your grip on the wheel while you nod your way through endless miles of this seemingly drab landscape.

In science jargon it’s referred to as sage steppe, the dominant landscape throughout much of Utah and the Great Basin. Much of this maligned biotic community has been degraded or lost through various mismanagement practices. Sage Steppe is considered an endangered ecosystem despite the seemingly large area it inhabits, primarily due to fragmentation. And the iconic Gunnison sage grouse has followed its demise having recently been placed on the threatened species list.
I just returned from spending a day of study in the field with 16 college students running transects for the Grand Teton N.P. The park is spending millions in sage steppe restoration work to reclaim this critical plant community.

Sagebrush is an important member of an ecosystem that helps support many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, as well as an abundance of insects and microbes. One study found nearly 300 arthropod species directly living on just a few plants including- 72 spider, 237 insect, 42 of which were gall-forming, amongst many other species. Such diversity also indicates that sage is playing an important part in maintaining the health of the environment providing ecosystem services such as soil protection, water conservation and nutrient cycling.
Sage is well adapted to the demands of semi-arid deserts. It has tap roots that can go over 15 feet deep to suck up any ground water that might exist and forms extensive webs of surface roots in association with symbiotic fungal hyphae to efficiently gather any rain that might fall. Oftentimes, sagebrush grows in clonal communities with members that can live over 100 years!

Aromatic odors emanating from sage, especially following a downpour of rain, comes from a mix of chemicals including camphor, terpenoids, and a cocktail of other volatile compounds. Some of the chemicals have anti-herbivory action by killing the gut bacteria of carious browsers although pronghorn antelope seem to have evolved resistance to these toxins. Other browsers like cattle, sheep, and mule deer can only eat sagebrush in small doses or whan the leaves are young and tender.

It is this mixture of molecules that sagebrush produces which come into play for communication. Sagebrush is eaten by many mammals and insects. When sagebrush is browsed on by a pronghorn or grasshopper volatile compounds are released from the wound that warn other branches of the same sagebrush as well as the neighboring sage about the potential threat. The sagebrush in the area react to the warning by metabolizing toxins that make them taste unappealing and that cause digestive discomfort for future herbivores who try to make a meal of them.

Native Americans considered sage a sacred plant. It offered medicine, clothing, shelter, and was commonly used in their ceremonial sweat lodges. Last but not least, my lovely granddaughter was given the name Sage. So the next time you find yourself surrounded by our “sagebrush ocean” pay tribute to this vibrant and intricate community of life.

Jack Greene, a lover of sagebrush.

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Sage Grouse, Pronghorn Antelope and Fences

Greater Sage Grouse
Courtesy US FWS
Stephen Ting, Photographer

As Robert Frost famously wrote in his poem, Mending Wall, “Good fences make good neighbors”.

Fences keep livestock from crops, children from traffic and delineate boundaries. In the intermountain West, fences are important to keep livestock where we want them and away from where we don’t. But wildlife of open sagebrush habitat did not evolve with fences. Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope have had a particularly difficult time adapting.

Sage Grouse are stout, chicken-like birds found only in sagebrush, whose foliage features prominently in their diet. Sage Grouse were once abundant, but their numbers have plummeted due to habitat loss. Today they are candidates for listing as an endangered species. In flight, these large bodied birds like to skim over the sagebrush canopy and so doing, careen right into fences. One Utah study attributed 1/5 of Sage Grouse deaths to fence collisions.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of Yellowstone and the High Rockies]

Pronghorn
Courtesy US FWS
James C. Leupold, Photographer

At dawn during the spring, male Sage Grouse congregate on ancestral dancing grounds to attract mates. The birds fly to these lek areas before sunrise so may not be able to see a fence before they collide. Other areas of special concern include the crest of low hills and the midst of wide open flats. Where grouse are common, flagging a fence or otherwise making it more visible can help considerably to reduce airborne fence collisions.

For Pronghorn Antelope, however, the top of the fence is not the issue. They are the swiftest game animal in North America. As with bison, market hunting in the 19th century decimated their populations. This trend has reversed, but here also, fences are a problem. Pronghorn are sprinters, not hurdlers and rarely jump a barrier over 3 feet tall. They choose to go under or through fencelines. A simple solution for barbed wire fences is to string smooth wire for the bottom strand at least 18 inches above the ground. This simple fence fix enables pronghorns to scoot below the fence unscathed as they migrate between winter and summer grounds

The perspective of Pronghorn Antelope and Sage Grouse could be summed up in the lyrics from a Cole Porter song: Don’t fence me in.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

 

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS: Images.fws.gov
Audio: Kevin Colver, 7loons.com, Songbird Selections
Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

Resources:

Lives of North American Birds. Kenn Kaufman. 1996, Houghton Mifflin Company., http://www.amazon.com/American-Peterson-Natural-History-Companions/dp/0395770173

Don’t Fence Me In: If sage-grouse had a song it would be “Don’t Fence Me In”, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, http://www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/ecs/biology/sagegrouse/dontfence.html

Safer Fencing Can Help Save Western Birds, Environmental Defense Fund, http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentID=9126

Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, Cornell University | University of Nebraska – Lincoln | Clemson University | Utah State University, 2005, http://icwdm.org/handbook/mammals/PronghornAntelope.asp