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In the Name of “Saving” the Sage Grouse, the BLM Wants to Destroy Its Habitat

Mount Borah and the Lost River Range. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The Challis and Salmon BLM of central Idaho appear to be ready to destroy much of the sage grouse habitat in the Lemhi, Pahsimeroi, and Lost River valleys, ironically in the name of protecting sage grouse.

As an ecologist, and someone who has studied both sagebrush and sage-grouse ecology, I find the proposal to crush 134,000 acres of sagebrush in prime and associated sage grouse habitat almost criminal. I do not say that lightly.

There is abundant scientific evidence that demonstrates that sagebrush is critical to sage grouse survival. Much of the area proposed for treatment currently does not even meet the BLM’s minimum levels of sagebrush cover for sage grouse, thus destroying tens of thousands of acres of sagebrush can only lead to the continued decline of sage grouse in the area.

There is also abundant evidence that disturbance of sagebrush landscapes leads to an increase in cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an invasive annual grass that is highly flammable. Since it can increase wildfire frequency in sagebrush landscapes, it is one of the significant threats to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse.

But cheatgrass does not suddenly appear from space or with aliens. Instead, cheatgrass spread is a direct consequence of disturbance that harms native grasses and landscapes.

For instance, one recent study in Oregon that compared mowed and unmowed sagebrush sites concluded: “By the third year post-treatment annual forb and annual grass (cheatgrass) biomass production was more than nine and sevenfold higher in the mowed than reference treatment.”

Another 2012 study found: “The preponderance of literature indicates that habitat management programs that emphasize treating (like mowing) Wyoming big sagebrush are not supported concerning positive responses by sage-grouse habitats or populations.” The same study went on to conclude: “Most published information suggests that treatments to winter or breeding habitats of sage-grouse have a negative effect on the species.”

Research published in 2018 concluded that “grazing impacts resulted in reduced site resistance to B. tectorum, suggesting that grazing management that enhances plant and biocrust communities will also enhance site resistance” (to cheatgrass).  Translation: If you want healthy sagebrush ecosystems, remove the irritations like livestock grazing.

Beyond the fact that these treatments are likely to increase cheatgrass at the expense of sagebrush and sage grouse, the real threat to sage grouse in these valleys as well as elsewhere across much of its range is livestock production. Yet the BLM does not even consider the cumulative impacts of sagebrush destruction with the on-going adverse effects of domestic livestock production on these same lands.

If the BLM really wanted to improve things for sage grouse, it would be eliminating livestock grazing on OUR public lands.

For instance, much research has shown that the trampling of biological crusts enhances the spread of cheatgrass. Biological crust covers the soil in between perennial bunchgrasses and inhibits the seedling establishment of annual grasses like cheatgrass.

Cattle also the primary agent that has destroyed riparian areas and wet meadows which are critical habitat to sage-grouse chicks. Livestock breaks down creekbanks which can lead to entrenchment of waterways and a lowering of water levels which can lead to a shrinkage of wet meadow habitat. Plus, by consuming streamside vegetation and reducing hiding cover, cattle expose sage grouse chicks to predators.

Fences constructed to control livestock constitute a significant source of mortality to sage grouse. Sage grouse are weak fliers and tend to fly close to the ground. In some studies, as much as 30% of sage-grouse populations are killed by collisions with fences.

Fences also act as “lookout posts” for avian predators like ravens.

Why are their fences on public lands? Only one reason—to facilitate the exploitation of public resources for the benefit of private ranching interest.

Livestock also consumes many of the same forbs that sage grouse chicks require during the first couple of weeks of their lives, thus directly compete with sage grouse for an essential and critical food resource.

Water troughs designed to serve livestock also as breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus, which in some areas, is also a significant source of morality for sage grouse.

In short, the BLM appears to be capitulating to private interests at the expense of the public’s interest in healthy sagebrush ecosystems and healthy sage-grouse populations.

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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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