Sage grouse have been dying out in Wyoming and across the west for years, and the bird is being considered for endangered species listing. As a result, Wyoming has made a major push to preserve prime sage grouse habitat. But recently, scientists have been warning that conservation may not be enough. Studies have recommended that in addition to protecting habitat that’s still intact, the state needs to restore areas that have been disturbed. So now, a variety of agencies are working to come up with a plan for large-scale restoration. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: Ryan Fieldgrove’s ranch is prime sage grouse territory. It’s just outside of Buffalo, set on ten thousand acres of grassy, rolling hills, dotted with sage brush. As we drive down a bumpy two-track, Fieldgrove points out an area where the sage grouse like to congregate in the winter.
RYAN FIELDGROVE: I’m not completely sure why they like it here, but there’ve been times where we’ve come through and there’ll be two or three hundred.
BELDEN: Fieldgrove is one of several dozen ranchers participating in a federal program designed to protect sage grouse habitat on private land. Last year, he signed a contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, promising to adjust grazing patterns and do certain other things to benefit sage grouse on his property.
FIELDGROVE: This part of the ranch has the most leks in it, so the most sage grouse, we feel. … And so we try not to graze too hard in these pastures where there’s crucial habitat. We stay out of this pasture and the next one through the nesting and brood-rearing period.
BELDEN: Keeping cattle out of certain pastures for parts of the year means the grass stays higher – which means more food for the sage grouse, and better cover for them to hide their nests and their chicks. Further down the road, Fieldgrove points out where he’s put reflectors on his fences, to keep sage grouse from flying into the barbed wire and killing themselves. All these measures are part of his contract with the NRCS.
In exchange, the NRCS is paying him $89,000 a year for three years. Fieldgrove says he’s ahead financially, the sage grouse are thriving, and his herd of cows is healthier than ever, as a result of rotational grazing.
Paul Shelton with the NRCS says most ranchers who are participating in the Sage Grouse Initiative are finding the same thing.
PAUL SHELTON: You can increase production, you can increase gains on livestock, and still do the things that we’re trying to achieve for some of these species of concern.
BELDEN: Shelton says his agency has gotten ranchers to voluntarily shift their grazing patterns on 175,000 acres of prime sage grouse land so far, and they have contracts in the works for another 1.3 million acres. Plus, the NRCS has been working with landowners on conservation easements, which protect land from future development. In addition to all that, Wyoming’s core area policy limits development in prime sage grouse territory.
The goal of all of these efforts is to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list. And Shelton says that’s important for not just for environmental reasons, but also because listing would severely limit energy development.
SHELTON: The repercussions to the 11 western states, and certainly to Wyoming, from an economic perspective, is in the many millions, if not billions, of dollars.
BELDEN: Most agree that the state’s efforts to protect sage grouse habitat are a big step toward preventing sage grouse from being listed. But some say it’s not enough. Dave Naugle at the University of Montana is a leading ecologist studying sage grouse. He wants people to be more aggressive in areas like the Powder River Basin, where there’s large-scale gas development.
DAVE NAUGLE: I would think of getting in a restoration mode very quickly and identify where you still have those birds and where we could start doing restoration of plugged and abandoned wells on very big scales to provide additional habitat to see if we could get some of those small remaining populations to rebound.
BELDEN: Naugle says if large-scale restoration doesn’t happen now, sage grouse could die out completely in some areas.
Federal agencies are taking that warning to heart. The Bureau of Land Management, which permits drilling, is launching a restoration initiative in northeast Wyoming. And they’re coordinating with the NRCS and various other entities in that effort.
The BLM’s Janelle Gonzales and Bill Ostheimer, who are in charge of the effort, take me out to a plugged well. As is typical, the company re-contoured and re-seeded the area. But Gonzales and Ostheimer explain that they’ll have to do more to get the habitat good enough for sage grouse. They’ll have to start planting shrubs – rather than grass – on abandoned well sites. And to keep the habitat from being fragmented, they’re hoping to take out roads and power lines that link the various sites.
That can be hard to do, because the land that’s drilled is largely private. And landowners often want roads and power lines to stay after the drilling is done, because they’re useful for ranching operations. But Ostheimer is optimistic they’ll be able to reach compromises. He points to a nearby power line.
BILL OSTHEIMER: If the only use for this line in the future is going to be to power a stock tank and provide water for that well – well if we can swap an overhead power line for a solar well, then we can take that linear disturbance and the vertical structures off the landscape.
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BELDEN: Ostheimer and his colleagues are hoping to reach those kinds of compromises across the Powder River Basin. But they expect it will take years if not decades. And there are lots of unknowns. Rehabilitation of sage grouse habitat on this scale has never been tried before. We don’t know if the sage brush will re-grow successfully. And even if all that works, we don’t know if the birds will move back in. But if it does work, sage grouse might just steer clear of the endangered species list. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.