The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.

Grouse chick. Photo: Wildlands Defense.

The greater sage-grouse, now threatened with extinction, once occurred in the tens of millions. It has declined in over 93% of it range in the Sagebrush sea in seven western states. This largest of our grouse may be on its way to oblivion if not protected by the Endangered Species Act, first proposed in 2003 but never enacted due to widespread resistance from development and grazing interests. There are no places in Utah that sagebrush and its forbs and grass understory, so important for grouse rearing, have not been seriously degraded by 150 years of over-grazing by sheep and cattle. Would it have asked too much to have a sage-grouse park where livestock were excluded?

When I first came to Utah in 1970, I got my chance to see this magnificent sage grouse firsthand. Coming into Utah I had no inkling of the devastation that ubiquitous over-grazing had had on grouse habitat dating back to pioneer settler days of the 1860s. Then I found one well-documented source in the bowels of Utah State University’s Quinney Natural Resources Library. Below is an excerpt from a 1939 M. S. thesis by Lynn A. Griner, a document available on-line and approved by forestry and range faculty. Regrettably, it was not published in a journal and is rarely, if ever, cited in current studies by Utah researchers. This is unacceptable if understandable, especially if your goal is to highlight minor improvement in sage-grouse conservation as the species continues to decline from industrial, developmental and grazing impacts. Even the suspect cooperative interagency plans for grouse survival have been rejected at the national level, perhaps because of impediments to oil and gas permitting. Here are the exact words from a scientific study pointing out Utah’s failure to conserve and protect the formerly productive Sagebrush Sea and its iconic bird. This taken from: Lynn A. Griner. 1939. A study of the Sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), with special reference to life history, habitat requirements, and numbers and distribution. M.S. thesis. Dept. Forestry, Utah State University (page 96).

“Overgrazing. With the coming of the pioneers came the livestock, which were later to destroy many acres of valuable grazing land. The real depletion of the range forage became of importance during the boom of the eighties. During the 20-year period between 1890 and 1910 the vigor of the range was severely injured due to the repeated close cropping. The conflict between large and small operators and between sheep and cattle units intensified the use of the range until depletion was everywhere present and common. Then came the increase in animal numbers during the war years, with the result that both the stockmen and the range faced ruin. This depletion of the range forage was due to: (1) too early and too late grazing, with the result that only a small, if any, seed crop was produced; (2) overstocking and combined close cropping which weakened the plant vigor; (3) year-long use, destroying nearly all palatable forage plants (17).

Today in the sagebrush areas, because of the misuse which the land had experienced, the sagebrush has increased; however, the palatable perennial grasses and weeds have decreased and have almost disappeared. The poorer plants have become more abundant on the deteriorated sites, and eventually in some areas they have gained possession of the range. Over part of the sagebrush grass area practically the only feed for livestock today is the very inferior sagebrush itself.

It is this tremendous loss of forage grasses and weeds that has brought about the present low-grazing capacity. It is estimated that the grazing capacity in different parts of the sagebrush type is 60 to 90 percent less than it was in the early pioneer days. The virtual wrecking through misuse of this valuable resource can ne (be) traced to the apparent indifference of those controlling the use of the land (17).”

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Rangeland managed by BLM in Northern Utah showing residual and caged grasses at the end of the grazing season. Use typical of riparian and meadow areas which are preferred sage grouse brood rearing habitat. Photo Credit: Dr. John Carter.

Overgrazing, according to Griner, impaired ground cover, accelerated erosion, and led to gullies 60-100 feet deep and 200 or 300 feet wide. More recent peer-reviewed research by life-long grouse expert, Dr. Clait Braun has verified the devastating impacts of overgrazing on sage-grouse survival. See Braun Declaration

When I eventually left Logan, I was struck, as a scientist, by how the biased science and management around sage-grouse ecology and its history was accepted by people either in denial or fearful of powerful state politicians. Because the endangerment of this species affected federal and state grazing policy and all kinds of oil and gas exploration, we have witnessed a sad period of denial of grouse conservation history, denial of current federal and state public land mis-management and politically suppressed (or perhaps intimidated and inadequate studies and planning from our public universities) in Utah. An eminent ecologist and colleague in Utah recently concluded that this grazing management on public land by the US Forest Service and BLM was “criminal neglect” in his view. Another senior ecologist in British Columbia suggested that a Nuremburg-type trial of the derelict agencies is justified.

How the public’s interest can be rescued is problematic. If state Senators continue to insist on espousing anti-science hysterics, that are reminiscent of 1950s carnivore hatred and their sanctioned destruction, then mismanagement of wildlife in Utah will continue to be irrational and a national embarrassment.

Barrie Gilbert is a PhD wildlife ecologist, retiring from Utah State University in 2001 and currently sits on the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection Board of Directors. He is the author of One of Us: a Biologist’s Walk Among Bears.