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Ranching and the Future of the Sage Grouse

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One continuously hears from federal and state agencies that livestock production is compatible with the recovery of sage grouse.

As someone who traveled extensively throughout the range of sage grouse, and who has studied the impacts of livestock on sage grouse for decades, it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can assert that ranching and restoration of the bird are compatible.

Livestock impacts to sage grouse occur at every stage of the bird’s life cycle.

Mitigating and eliminating all these impacts is virtually impossible.

For instance, livestock grazing, by consuming vegetation, exposes nesting sage grouse to greater predation.

Loss of hiding cover also exposes the eggs to greater temperature extremes. Both can contribute to nesting failure.

Once chicks are born, the babies feed for a month or more on insect and forbs in wet meadows and riparian areas. Cattle and sheep selectively consume some of the forbs that are critical to young birds.

Plus, livestock trample and compact soils, drying out them out, and thereby reducing the extent of wet meadow/riparian habitat.

And since they preferentially grade in these moist lush habitats, they remove the taller grasses and other plants that shield sage grouse chicks from predators.

Sage grouse are notoriously poor fliers. Collisions with barbed wire fences can kill as much as 30% of all SG. Obviously it is difficult to run livestock without fences.

Fences also provide vantage points for avian predators of SG. Hawks, ravens, and other birds use the fence posts as perches to scan the horizon for grouse. Under natural sage rangeland conditions, such perches are rare.

SG are also very vulnerable to mosquito-borne West Nile Virus. These mosquitoes breed in stock ponds and water troughs which are scattered through the range of SG, often in places where no water sources preexisted prior to the establishment of ranching.

Though many agencies correctly attribute the increase in range fires to the spread of cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual grass. These fires can burn up mature sage brush habitat needed by sage grouse.

However, they neglect to mention that the reason cheatgrass is spreading is due to livestock trampling of soil crusts. Soil crusts which fill the bare spaces between native bunchgrasses acts as a brake on cheatgrass establishment.

Livestock, by preferentially consuming the native perennial grasses, also reduce the abundance of native grasses, giving cheatgrass a competitive edge.

Some grazing proponents even argue that we need more grazing of rangelands to remove the vegetation that are fuels for fires. Of course, these proponents fail to note that if you graze a rangeland so completely as to remove burnable vegetation, you are also removing most of the cover, food, and soil crusts that are habitat for sage grouse and many other wildlife.

Instead of eliminating livestock grazing which is the proximate cause of cheatgrass spread, federal agencies like the BLM are planting millions of acres to exotic grasses like crested wheatgrass and kochia to provide forage for cattle and create fuel breaks. This effectively reduces the amount of native vegetation that would otherwise occupy these lands and provide for sage grouse recovery.

Taken together these impacts by livestock production are a real cost of operation that is largely externalized by ranchers on to the land and its wildlife and indirectly upon all citizens who are left with an impoverished landscape and often pay the costs of mitigating or restoring rangelands degraded by the ranching industry.

I would suggest that is impossible to run livestock in the arid West and not impact sage grouse. Anyone who suggests that ranching is compatible with sage grouse recovery is merely demonstrating how little they understand sage grouse ecology and livestock impacts.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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