Conifer Removal

our_work_map_conifer 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.

Widespread Support

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.

Read Success Stories >

Range Magazine: Win-Win. Keeping the Light on Thanks to Juniper (California) >

SGI Conifer Video >

Read SGI News >

Conservation Easements

proactive_easementsRanchers & Sage Grouse Find the Elbow Room They Need to Make A Living

Why are record-breaking numbers of ranchers signing up for conservation easements in high-abundance sage grouse areas? Rangewide, more than 380,000 acres will remain as working ranches without threat of subdivision. This milestone is the result of SGI funds that are leveraged with partner dollars. Land trusts are vital to success – developing these voluntary agreements with ranchers.

Conservation easements give peace of mind and a financial boost to ranchers who want to pass on a legacy of big open country that’s vital to a thriving livestock industry in the west, and to the future of sage grouse. The agreements provide a bright alternative to subdividing land as a way to make ends meet.

It’s no coincidence that ranches are the mainstay of sage grouse habitat on private land. Like the rancher, the grouse needs see-forever country with little disturbance. To keep the range in good shape, to find water, seasonal forage, and shelter from winter storms, ranchers move their livestock over big areas. Similarly, sage grouse may move long distances for many of the same reasons.

Fragmenting habitat is the number one threat to the future of the sage grouse.  Conservation easements are the primary mechanism to help keep large ranches intact in sage grouse strongholds.

How does a Conservation Easement Work?

A private landowner enters into a voluntary agreement typically with a land trust, like the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.  Every easement is tailored specifically for the landowner. The overall aim is to maintain the land in private ownership while limiting the amount and type of development necessary to maintain working landscapes. The agreement is attached to the land’s title, regardless of ownership. Landowners either sell or donate conservation easements.

NRCS Farm Bill Conservation Easement Funding

The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) provides funding to help purchase development rights to keep ranchland in agriculture. The Wetlands Reserve Program seeks to further benefits by restoring critical wetland habitats that are important to sage grouse brood survival.

ray_bairdFrom One Rancher to Another

Often, it’s personal testimony from a trusted fellow rancher that convinces a landowner to pursue a conservation easement. In 2012, ranchers from the Pioneer Mountains of Idaho gathered to share why they are participating.  Here, SGI funds are matched to keep working ranches together in sage grouse and pronghorn country threatened by subdivision:

“We feel like this is a dream come true for us.”
– Ray Baird, Carey, Idaho

Read Success Stories >

Sun Valley Blog >
Idaho Magazine >

SGI Conservation Easement Video >


Grazing Systems

dennis_mercerThe Sage Grouse Initiative teams up with willing ranchers to customize grazing plans that will improve nesting, rearing, and wintering habitats for sage grouse. The Initiative then chips in to speed implementation so that the benefits of practices can be more quickly realized.

To date, the SGI partnership has carried out 2.6 million acres of improved grazing systems, boosting sage grouse nest success by 10 percent.

Good for Livestock

Rangelands with lush native grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush and wet meadows are likely to put more pounds on livestock too. Just ask Montana rancher Dennis Mercer:

“Everything is benefiting from it – the green needle, Gardner salt bush and winter fat, and they’re the most important forages we have on this range. With the NRCS guidelines we’ve done, I’d say it’s increased five times from what it was when we started.”

proactive_grazingOffering Predictability

In Montana and the Dakotas, plowing up native range is the biggest threat. The best kind of predictability for sage grouse is to keep lands in grazing and landowner financial statements in the black.

“Predictability”  has another definition when it comes to sage grouse conservation. Grazing to improve habitat for sage grouse is one of 40 approved practices from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that qualifies for regulatory certainty, under an agreement with the NRCS. That means whether the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act or not, the landowners who carry out approved practices can continue what they are doing without further regulations.

Developing a Grazing Strategy

Ranchers who qualify (with lands in the sage grouse priority areas) and enroll to develop grazing plans work closely with local NRCS staff and SGI rangeland conservationists. Inventorying the land gives a picture of where improvements can be made to benefit sage grouse, other wildlife and overall rangeland health.

A grazing plan may include these strategies:

  • Rotating livestock to different pastures, while resting others to establish a diversity of habitat types.
  • Changing seasons of use within pastures to ensure all plants have the ability to reproduce.
  • Leaving residual cover (grass from the past season) to increase hiding and nesting cover for sage grouse.
  • Managing the frequency and intensity of grazing to sustain native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs.
  • Managing livestock access to water to ensure healthy livestock and healthy watersheds.

NRCS Farm Bill Funding for Grazing Improvements: Two cost-share programs offer dollars specifically for grazing projects that will improve sage grouse habitat in care areas. Those are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP).

More on Grazing for Grouse:
Beef Magazine features an excellent column by   about managing for soil first, then grass, then livestock, with high applicability to sustainable grazing for sage grouse.

Read Success Stories >

Read SGI News >

SGI Grazing Systems Video >

Marking Fences

fence_threatSaving Sage Grouse By Preventing Collisions

“I was headed out in the field and the sage grouse took off and headed right for that fence, but sure enough, at the last minute they went up and over those markers!” – Rancher Don Phillips, Ely, Nevada

Sage grouse across the west face a deadly hazard each spring –fences the birds can’t see when flying to and from traditional breeding grounds known as leks. The collisions are widespread. However, marking fences can reduce strikes by up to 83 percent, according an SGI-funded study by Bryan Stevens, University of Idaho.

Fence-marking or moving high-risk fences is an important part of sage grouse conservation. To date, SGI funding has led to marking or moving of more than 530 miles of fences, saving an estimated 2,800 sage grouse from collisions and reducing the risk of birds striking fences by 83 percent. The white vinyl fence markers are snapped onto the top strand of a fence to increase visibility.

Marking the Right Fences

Fences pose a threat to sage grouse habitat on a small portion of their range near leks and wintering areas, so marking only the high-risk fences saves time, money, and thousands of sage grouse lives.

In 2012, the Initiative released a science tool showing landowners and managers places where marking fences reduces strike risk to birds. SGI contracted with Stevens to take the model he developed for a master’s degree project and apply it rangewide. The spatial toolfence_marking relies heavily on topography as the predominate factor influencing collision risk. The flatter the terrain, the higher risk to birds that fly low to lek sites over long distances. In steeper terrain, the birds tend to descend from higher up and are less likely to hit fences. With the new planning tool in hand, public and private land managers alike can focus their resources on 6 to 14% of the landscape that poses a high collision risk over a breeding season.

Want to Volunteer?

Fence-marking also has become a popular activity for students, from Future Farmers of America to Boy Scouts, Conservation Corps and tribal groups. Every time our youth help wildlife and ranching, we are assuring conservation efforts of today continue tomorrow. Contact your local NRCS office to find out about volunteer opportunities – adults welcome too.

NRCS Farm Bill Funding

Fence-marking often is part of whole ranch planning, where a landowner incorporates a variety of strategies for sage grouse conservation. If you have fences you believe should be marked, please contact your local NRCS office to find out the best way to receive assistance.

Read Success Stories >

Read about the Science Behind Fence Markers >

Other Restoration


Weeds & Fire

Exotic grasses and weeds are tough on sagebrush habitat, especially cheatgrass that fuels large wildfires. The best practice is to keep our best habitats as free of invading plant species as possible.


Wet Meadows

Sage grouse broods head to wet meadows in mid-late summer to browse on succulent plants and eat insects. To protect and enhance the habitat, SGI-enrolled ranchers restore wetland and riparian habitats and adjust grazing strategies.



Collecting sagebrush seed, raising seedlings, and planting them makes for highly intensive and expensive restoration. Managers choose this option with care.