Conifer Removal

What’s The Problem With Conifers?


Fires once kept native conifers from expanding into sagebrush-dominated, treeless country. In the last 150 years, junipers and pinyon pines have marched across rangeland, drying up precious streams and threatening sage grouse. Research shows that as little as 4% tree cover near a sage grouse breeding area causes the birds to abandon the lek.

In the Great Basin, conifers have expanded their range by 600 percent. If no action is taken to reverse the trend, 75% of the conifers will grow into large trees within the next 30-50 years, completely overtaking the native bunchgrasses and sagebrush that 350+ species of wildlife need to survive.

The Solution: Careful Prescriptions Based on Science

SGI dollars contribute to conifer removal projects where restoration payback will be greatest: areas with younger, low-density trees and an understory of grass and sagebrush. We focus projects in sage grouse strongholds on private lands or public lands where ranchers hold grazing leases.

Plus, SGI funds research on the impacts of removing conifers, including studies on sage grouse movement within treated landscapes, increased water availability post-conifer removal, and the benefits to other wildlife species like songbirds.

The Results: Restoring the Sagebrush Sea

To the Helmicks, conservation and ranching are one in the same.Rangewide, we’ve removed 405,000 acres of encroaching conifer in core sage grouse habitat, reclaiming important range for wildlife and decreasing fuel for potential wildfires.

Cutting invasive trees on agricultural lands across the range earns a thumbs up from ranchers and conservation groups alike. Restoring our imperiled sagebrush-steppe is good for wildlife and keeps rangelands productive for livestock, too.


Read research and science on conifer removal 

Map tree canopy cover near you using SGI’s Interactive Web App 

Hear stories from the field about ranchers partnering to remove conifers

Learn more about conifer removal priorities in the SGI 2.0 Investment Strategy 

Read about our Public Land Partnership with BLM to remove conifers 

Grazing Systems

Why Develop a Grazing Strategy?


Rangelands with lush native grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush and wet meadows are the best habitat for sage grouse and hundreds of other species. Plus, managing for diverse, healthy plants puts more pounds on livestock, too. Listen to these ranchers talk about how.

One of the biggest threats to sage grouse is converting their wide-open sagebrush range to cultivated crops, homes, roads, or other non-grazing uses. That’s why it’s critical to maintain working rangelands through well-managed livestock grazing. 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.

The Solution: Benefits for Ranchers and Birds

The Sage Grouse Initiative teams up with willing ranchers to customize grazing plans that will improve nesting, rearing, and wintering habitat for sage grouse. Ranchers enrolled with SGI work closely with local NRCS staff and SGI rangeland conservationists on a grazing plan specific to their property.

We offer financial assistance through two NRCS Farm Bill programs — the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program — for grazing projects in core sage grouse habitat.

The Results: A Healthier Range for People and Wildlife

Bill Kennedy believes that there's always room for improvement on his family's sagebrush ranchland.

SGI has helped improve grazing systems and range habitat on 2.6 million acres, boosting sage grouse nest success by 10 percent. Grazing plan practices may include:

> Managing the frequency and intensity of grazing to sustain diverse native plants

> Rotating livestock to different pastures while resting others

> Changing seasons of use within pastures to ensure all plants have the ability to reproduce

> Leaving residual grass from the past season to increase hiding and nesting cover

> Managing livestock access to water to ensure healthy livestock and healthy watersheds


See a map of priority areas for sage grouse conservation

Download the latest science on how grazing can conserve sage grouse

Read success stories about grazing management

Learn more about the benefits of grazing plans for the bird and the herd

Marking Fences

Why Are Fences a Threat to Sage Grouse?


Sage grouse tend to fly close to the ground, just skimming the tops of the sagebrush. Unfortunately, that means these birds can get tangled in livestock fences, resulting in injuries or fatalities.

Luckily, marking fences can reduce strikes by up to 83 percent according to this SGI-funded research, especially if targeted near their leks and wintering areas. The risk of striking fence wires is greatest when sage grouse are flying toward mating leks in the dim, pre-dawn light in the spring.

The Solution: Making High-Risk Fences Visible

Fixing the collision problem is simple: 3″ vinyl strips snapped onto the top wire at 3-foot intervals increases the fences’ visibility in low light. Since not every mile of fence needs to be marked, SGI funded a science-based modeling tool to ensure we focus on the fences that pose the most risk to birds. The tool — based on a GIS model of strike-risk around 4,684 known leks — revealed that fences in only 6 to 14 percent of the total sage grouse range are high-risk.

In 2016, we tailored this model to allow the public to input specific lek data (uploaded by managers and kept confidential)

Marking fences to make the top strands visible prevents deadly sage grouse collisions (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media).

to find high-risk fences at the local level. This new online planning tool helps public and private land managers focus their resources to save birds from collisions.

The Results: Safer Skies for Sage Grouse

SGI has helped to mark or move 590 miles of fences with the help of partners. Fence-marking often is part of whole ranch planning, where a landowner incorporates a variety of strategies for sage grouse conservation. Click here to contact a local SGI or NRCS expert near you.


Read success stories from ranchers who marked fences

Find high-risk fences near you with the SGI Interactive Web App

View the research that helps prioritize where to mark fences

Contact SGI field staff to learn about financial assistance or volunteer opportunities


Weeds & Fire

How Do Invasive Grasses Harm Sagebrush Country?


The spread of invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass is linked to unwanted wildfires. Cheatgrass is highly flammable and dries out earlier than native plants, leading to more frequent, hotter fires. Once sagebrush habitat burns in a megafire, its hard to restore, leaving noxious weeds that degrade rangelands and wildlife habitat.

These invasive grasses replace the sagebrush sea’s diverse, native plants — like sagebrush, wildflowers, and bunchgrasses — with a monoculture of weeds. That’s bad for birds and herds, which rely on nutritious, native perennial plants.

Wildfire and cheatgrass are a big problem in the western portion of sage grouse range, and the problem is starting to move east into the Rocky Mountain states, too.

The Solution: Conserve Our Western Roots

SGI helps landowners develop grazing plans that promote deep-rooted perennial grasses. We provide comprehensive rangeland inventories that provide the biological basis for creating sustainable, site-specific practices that keep the range resilient and weed-resistant.

To avoid further loss of sagebrush grazing lands to weeds or wildfire, SGI uses our groundbreaking Ecosystem Resilience & Resistance index (based on soil temperature and moisture regimes) to prioritize investments in reducing cheatgrass.

We also partner with BLM on pre- and post-fire prescriptions that include co-mingled public and private property. This includes strategically place fuel breaks that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

The Results: Enhancing Rangeland Health

Since 2010, SGI has enhanced rangeland health to reduce the threat of invasive grasses — and associated wildfire risk — on 1.7 million acres. We plan to scale up our work to implement a variety of practices that will improve health and resilience on 2.2 million acres of priority rangelands by 2018.


Learn why roots matter and how to manage for healthy, diverse plants

Find resources on managing invasive grasses and wildfire in the Great Basin

Map ecosystem resistance to cheatgrass near you using SGI’s interactive map

See our Science to Solutions study on reducing threats from weeds and fire



Mesic Habitat

Why Do Sage Grouse Need Wet Areas?


As upland nesting habitat dries out in late summer, sage grouse follow the “green line” in search of productive wet habitats that provide food and cover for maturing young. SGI-funded research shows that 85 percent of leks are within six miles of mesic resources. The largest leks are within two miles of wet habitats.

Wet habitats comprise less than 2 percent of the landscape, and 80 percent of these vital resources are in private ownership — another reason ranchers are central to sage grouse conservation.

The Solution: Enhancing Vital Wet Areas

We help compensate ranchers for protecting valuable mesic habitats through conservation easements. Plus, we pair land acquisitions with habitat enhancement practices that benefit sage grouse and other wildlife.

For instance, removing encroaching conifers can help recharge springs, since these trees are heavy water users. And SGI also helps ranchers pay for livestock water developments, like pipelines and storage tanks that transport water to uplands to spread out cattle. This relieves grazing pressure around delicate riparian areas, springs, and wet meadows.

The Results: Protecting Scarce Resources

wet areas are important for sage grouse sgiTo date, SGI has focused our mesic habitat investments in the Bi-State region along the Nevada-California border, conserving 12,000 acres of prime wet areas with easements. In addition, SGI has improved 179 acres of mesic habitat throughout the 11-state sage grouse range.

We’re excited to expand our investment in important wet habitat, particularly in northern Nevada and Utah, via SGI 2.0. Stay tuned for the upcoming SGI Mesic Area Strategy, which will guide our conservation efforts through 2018.


See the science showing that private lands are vital for conserving wet areas

Watch this webinar on riparian and wet meadow restoration in Colorado

Listen to a rancher talk about water developments on his Utah ranch

Learn more about how sage grouse use wet meadows

Conservation Easements

How Do Easements Give Ranchers and Sage Grouse Elbow Room?


Chopping up sagebrush country is the number one threat to sage grouse—and to the ranching families who depend upon wide-open rangeland to run livestock. Conservation easements help keep large ranches intact for future generations, benefiting rural communities, working lands, and 350+ species of wildlife.

The Solution: Financial Assistance to Keep Ranches Intact

Conservation easements give peace of mind and a financial boost to ranchers who want to pass on a legacy of intact sagebrush country. The agreements provide a win-win alternative to subdividing land as a way to improve a ranch’s bottom line.

A private landowner enters into a voluntary agreement (typically with a land trust), tailored specifically for each property. 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.

SGI provides funding to compensate landowners for easements through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, or the Wetlands Reserve Program. Land trusts are vital partners, leveraging funding and tools to develop these voluntary agreements with ranchers.

ray_bairdThe Results: Conserving Our Agricultural Heritage

Record-breaking numbers of ranchers are signing up for conservation easements in sagebrush country. Rangewide, SGI has targeted resources to ensure 380,000 acres will remain intact as working ranches, providing valuable habitat, soil, and water for the American West.


View the cropland conversion risk model on the SGI Web App

Learn more about local land trusts that partner with landowners

Read success stories from participating ranchers

See the science on how easements can protect wildlife