Turning the Tide in Favor of Sage Grouse
A revving chainsaw breaks the stillness of the remote Warner Mountains of Oregon. A juniper falls. The sagebrush gains another foothold of its historic range. The sage grouse does, too. This bird simply does not mix with trees.
The great news about conifer removal is that we can see tangible results for sage grouse recovery. New SGI science shows that as little as four percent tree cover near a lek (breeding area), causes the birds to abandon the lek. In Oregon alone, 875,000 acres of trees are within three miles of leks. When we focus on removing the trees near leks, the return for sage grouse is extremely high. That’s what’s happening today, and with more partnerships and support, we can scale up the effort to turn the tide for sage grouse recovery rangewide.
Stats on Success
In Oregon’s Warner Mountains, the BLM and SGI partnership has resulted in close to 50,000 acres of juniper removal in the last three years. Rangewide, we’ve tripled the chance of maintaining populations by removing 276,000 acres of invasive conifer in core habitats and prevented a loss of 60 percent of the available forage. We’re connecting corridors between habitats and life-giving springs are returning too. We see conifer removal as an outstanding opportunity for partners to pitch in for conservation success.
Cutting invasive trees in the Great Basin (in Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah) earns a thumbs up from ranchers and conservation groups alike. They agree that restoring our imperiled sagebrush-steppe is good for wildlife and productive rangelands.
Fires once kept the native conifers from expanding into treeless country. In the last 150 years, junipers (northern Great Basin) and pinyon pines (southern part) have marched across rangeland formerly dominated by sagebrush, grasses and forbs. The trees are big water users, drying up precious springs in arid country.
How big is the problem?
In the Great Basin, conifers have expanded their range by 600 percent and now encompass some 14 million acres. The rate has slowed after peaking in the early 1900s and about 20 percent of the invasive woodlands have grown into an older forest. However, within the next 30-50 years if no action is taken, 75 percent of the conifers will have grown into large trees that completely overtake the native bunchgrasses and sagebrush, eliminating native seed sources.
We have a narrow window of time to prevent irreversible consequences. When young trees grow into an older forest, restoration becomes difficult and expensive. In contrast, removing the younger trees now is cost-efficient and gains us precious ground for sage grouse too.
As rancher John O’Keeffe in Adel, Oregon explains it so well:
“Juniper removal works great on sites with an intact sagebrush and grass understory. You can cut the juniper and get an obvious and beneficial range response.”
The Solution: Careful Prescriptions Based on Science
Today, loggers are employed to help heal the land. SGI dollars contribute to conifer removal projects where restoration payback will be greatest. The focus is on the younger, low-density trees with an understory of grass and sagebrush. The SGI projects center on sage grouse strongholds encompassing private lands and public lands where ranchers hold grazing leases.