Author Archives: Brianna Randall

How To Watch The Best Mating Dance In The West

Photo of a sunny spring lek by Tatiana Gettelman.

Check out the ‘sage grouse strut’ each spring with these tips for responsible wildlife viewing

Have you ever seen a sage grouse strut? Located on a breeding ground called a lek, male birds puff out their chests, pop their air sacs, and fan their tail feathers every morning in the spring to impress hens.

On public land in some states, it’s possible to watch the intimate details of the sage grouse’s unique mating ritual from a distance (so you don’t disturb the birds or damage their habitat). You might also see other wildlife such as mule deer, elk, and eagles near a lek at dawn!

If you aim to get out and see the amazing spring dance, the Sage Grouse Initiative offers the following ‘dos and don’ts’ for respectful wildlife viewing.

Tips for Seeing Sage Grouse Dance

  • Go on a tour or to a public site to minimize disturbance to birds, such as Idaho’s Dubois Grouse Days,  watchable wildlife sites in Colorado, April lek viewing tours in NevadaOregon or Utah, or leks listed in this Wyoming Fish and Game guide.
  • Late April is the best time to visit since most breeding is complete, but males are still actively strutting.
  • Arrive at the lek at least one hour before sunrise in the dark.
  • Don’t drive on or near the lek and park away from the edge of the lek.
  • Turn off the engine and lights and stay in your vehicle.
  • Use binoculars and spotting scopes to observe birds.
  • Don’t make loud noises or sudden movements.
  • Don’t leave the lek site until the birds do.
  • Keep your pets in the vehicle or, better yet, leave them at home.
  • Don’t trespass on private land.
  • Postpone your visit if roads are muddy.
Viewers take care to observe respectful viewing techniques when visiting sensitive sage grouse leks.

Viewers take care to observe respectful viewing techniques when visiting sensitive sage grouse mating leks. Photo by Brianna Randall.

Landscape-Scale Sagebrush Conservation Partnership

Male sage grouse have danced at leks across their 173 million-acre, 11-state range for hundreds of thousands of years. The birds once occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West, but the bird has lost more than half of its range due to habitat loss and fragmentation from development, noxious weeds and fire. The sagebrush West is home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, and is the largest, mostly intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states.

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative has joined dozens of local groups, state and federal agencies, and thousands of private landowners to launch an unprecedented, landscape-scale conservation effort in sagebrush country, a western ecosystem that supports iconic wildlife, outdoor recreation, ranching and other traditional land uses. This collaborative effort has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ rangeland breeding habitat.

Learn more about sage grouse mating: “What The Heck Is A Lek?”

Sage grouse male displays on lek. Photo by Rick McEwan.

Mule Deer Sagebrush by Susan Morse

How Do Mule Deer Use Sagebrush?

Photo of mule deer in sagebrush by Susan Morse.

ASK AN EXPERT: Miles Moretti, President/CEO Mule Deer Foundation

Where do mule deer live?

Map courtesy of WAFWA’s Mule Deer Working Group.

Mule deer and their subspecies, black-tailed deer, range across most of western North America. They usually migrate, although there are also resident herds that don’t move during the year.

Mule deer spend the summer in the mountains and forests where it’s cooler. During the winter they live in lower elevation, wide-open sagebrush country, where it’s easier to forage for food.

They spend a lot of time on private land in the winter, since valley bottoms are usually agricultural lands, and more time on forested public lands during the summer.

How do mule deer use sagebrush?

They rely almost exclusively on sagebrush or bitterbrush as their food source to survive the winter.

Mule deer will eat a broad range of plants found in the sagebrush ecosystem. The native perennials provide just enough protein to sustain them until they can build up their fat reserves in the summer.

They also utilize sagebrush range during the spring and fall as they transition between summer and winter range.

Do mule deer and sage grouse habitat overlap?

Yes, as much as 16-19 million acres of mule deer and sage grouse range overlap. In fact, recent research shows that many of the most critical mule deer migration corridors fall within core sage grouse habitat.

Like sage grouse, mule deer flock to rangelands near water, especially in the fall. These areas tend to be irrigated alfalfa fields on ranches.

To help conserve the birds’ and the herds’ mutual habitat, the Mule Deer Foundation has focused on working collaboratively to create healthy sagebrush rangelands on both public and private lands.

What is the main threat to mule deer populations?

Development of any kind that chops up habitat—energy facilities, highways, housing subdivisions. This is especially a threat on sagebrush rangelands, since most development takes place in valleys.

It’s a high priority for our organization to restore or conserve sagebrush country for mule deer and other wildlife. Keeping rangelands healthy—and working ranches working—benefits all sorts of wildlife, plus it helps agricultural families remain on their land.

How does the Mule Deer Foundation restore sagebrush habitat?

We have a variety of proactive, partnership-based conservation projects. For instance, in southern Idaho we’ve been planting sagebrush and bitterbrush in an area that was burned badly in a wildfire—and we’ve seen good progress restoring perennials.

Across the range, we help landowners get rid of fences that are no longer needed and are harmful to wildlife. We also partner with SGI to flag fences that are high risk for collisions.

In Colorado, we work on thinning juniper trees to improve wildlife habitat. Not only are we seeing the native vegetation come back where the landscape was opened up, we’ve also seen wildfires slow down in the thinned areas where we removed fuel loads.

In fact, we worked to include a policy in the recently-passed Farm Bill that will expedite pinyon-juniper removal for mule deer and sage grouse. This will accelerate our work restoring sagebrush rangelands.

Removing conifers where the native shrubs are still intact produces the best results for wildlife habitat. Photo: Connor White

Removing conifers where the native shrubs are still intact produces the best results for wildlife. Photo: Connor White

Why are pinyon-juniper trees bad news?

Pinyon-juniper are invading into sagebrush habitat at a rapid pace due to drought, overgrazing, and fire suppression. Though they’re native, this rapid conversion of diverse perennial forage to trees threatens wildlife, since most sagebrush-dependent species rely on nutritious rangeland plants.

Plus, when these trees get too thick they burn really hot, creating mega-wildfires that leave nothing behind but cheatgrass, which has little to no value for wildlife—or people.

As a last resort, mule deer will eat pinyon-juniper if it’s the only thing left above the snow. However, it’s the least nutritious item on their menu. They do use conifers to stay out of the wind, so when we remove advancing conifers we like to selectively leave a few islands of trees.

Sage grouse are pickier and avoid trees. So, if we’re working in sage grouse habitat, we’ll remove more trees in that area and balance it out across the landscape.

What do you view as priorities for sagebrush conservation?

We want to keep the conservation partnerships working together long term. Working collaboratively across fence lines and across whole watersheds helps maintain connectivity across the range. That holistic approach is the key for addressing what both critters—mule deer and sage grouse—need to thrive.

As for the Mule Deer Foundation, we plan to focus on the “stopover areas” that deer use as they migrate. Mule deer often stop to rest for a week or more at certain sites as they follow the “green wave” of emerging spring vegetation into their higher elevation summer range.

If we can figure out why they stop in these areas, we can hopefully replicate that high-quality mule deer habitat elsewhere.

How can NRCS help benefit mule deer habitat in the future?

I can’t say enough good about the NRCS and its role funding proactive conservation on private lands. We’ve been able to use Farm Bill programs and then extend the conservation work out to the public lands where ranchers have grazing permits.

The key, I think, is providing the flexibility to tailor conservation programs across such a large range. Meeting the needs of producers in New Mexico is much different than in Montana.

Miles Moretti is the President/CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation.

Miles Moretti is the President/CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation.

MEET THE EXPERT

How did your career lead you to the Mule Deer Foundation?

I was raised in southwest Wyoming during the “golden age” of abundant mule deer and sage grouse. After earning my degree in wildlife management from Utah State University, I went on to receive a Master’s from Brigham Young University. I worked for 30 years with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, focusing on endangered species, non-game and big game management.

When I retired as deputy director of the department 12 years ago, I wasn’t ready to quit working. This position with the Mule Deer Foundation came up and it’s been a great fit.

What are your hobbies?

I really like to bass fish from my boat here in Utah. While fly fishing is fun, too, I like to eat what I catch and you often have to release trout when fly fishing.

I also like to hike and hunt. In fact, I just got the grand slam for turkeys this year.

ABOUT OUR PARTNER

The Mule Deer Foundation ensures the conservation of mule deer, black-tailed deer, and their habitat. This non-profit organization is comprised of over 150 local chapters across the country and 25,000 active members, many of whom volunteer for on-the-ground habitat improvement projects.

MDF focuses on restoring, improving and protecting mule deer habitat to create healthy and huntable deer populations. In addition to partnering on habitat projects, MDF works closely with state and federal wildlife agencies to ensure mule deer are a priority, and we also advocate for funding to support wildlife management.

Learn more: www.muledeer.org

Read more Ask An Expert posts >

 

1,800 Ranchers and Counting!

The future is bright for conserving western working landscapes

As 2018 comes to a close, the Sage Grouse Initiative caught up with Tim Griffiths, NRCS’s Western Working Lands for Wildlife Coordinator, for a glance back and a peek ahead. Read on to learn how partners are making sagebrush rangelands more resilient for people and wildlife!

Can you first tell us about your role with the Sage Grouse Initiative?

Tim Griffiths, NRCS, helped launch SGI 9 years ago.

Sure thing. I work for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and helped NRCS and partners develop and launch SGI back in 2010. Our goal was simple. We wanted to find win-win solutions to threats impacting western rangelands. That meant strategically focusing conservation efforts to benefit sage grouse, other wildlife, and the ranchers who take care of—and depend on—these rangelands.

I served as SGI’s coordinator for six years, and was very fortunate to have a hand in shaping the three prongs of this landscape-scale effort: 1) shared capacity for conservation field staff who work with ranchers, 2) communication strategies that relay the success stories, and 3) co-produced science that helps target investments and track outcomes. I also served on several inter-agency committees to ensure SGI’s resources were leveraging and complementing the work of our partners.

What is your relationship with Working Lands for Wildlife?

About three years ago, I became the western coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) and began working with additional partners to help transfer the concepts and lessons learned through SGI to conserve other landscapes.

WLFW has proven very popular with private landowners.Through this cooperative effort, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners protect and improve agricultural lands that are also prime wildlife habitat.

These Farm Bill-funded projects have increased ag productivity and helped many imperiled species rebound and recover—from birds and rabbits to turtles and fish. I’m excited to report that WLFW has been recognized nationally and internationally as a successful model for species conservation.

Today, more than 6,000 producers participate. Together we have conserved 9.2 million acres of working landscapes across all 50 states!

Can you describe how Working Lands for Wildlife looks on the ground?

We work with landowners across the country on everything from establishing sustainable grazing systems, to improving fish passage, to restoring healthy forests.

Although the types of projects developed through WLFW vary, each has a primary goal of conserving working landscapes in a way that meets the needs of both people and wildlife. Or, as we like to say at SGI, the projects provide win-win solutions that “benefit the bird and the herd”.

As one of the longest-running and the largest initiative within WLFW, SGI is often used as the national ‘proof of concept’ to demonstrate the outcomes that can be achieved though voluntary conservation. That’s pretty cool.

What has SGI accomplished over the past 9 years?

Since 2010, SGI has ‘neighbored up’ with more than 1,800 ranchers to conserve over 7 million acres of sagebrush rangelands. To put that in perspective, that’s bigger than the entire state of Vermont. You can literally see the results from space!

Cooperative partnerships are the foundation for SGI’s success on the range—we couldn’t have done all of this without the dedication of hundreds of conservation professionals and thousands of landowners, all rallied around a shared vision of achieving world class wildlife through sustainable agriculture.

We believe that people are key to healthy rangelands and SGI continues to dedicate time and resources to building trust, bringing on new partners, and keeping field staff in rural communities to help conserve America’s vast sagebrush country.

Participation in SGI continues to grow on a very consistent basis. We just enrolled a comparable amount of new acres in 2018 as we did in 2010.

Will SGI continue working to conserve sagebrush country in the future?

Without a doubt! We’re in this for the long haul, and are excited about the opportunities moving forward.

Rangelands are a very large and important component of western landscapes. They provide the lifeblood for many of our rural communities and economies. Simply put, if we want a bright future, we have no choice but to conserve these working landscapes.

As SGI has shown, conservation in the West equals profitable agriculture and productive ecosystems. Increasing rangeland resiliency also makes good sense for the other 350 species that rely on healthy sagebrush habitat.

Through WLFW, SGI will continue to strategically implement Farm Bill resources to deliver effective conservation solutions on these important landscapes. We’re also working with partners on much broader opportunities to conserve additional western rangelands—prairie, grassland, and sagebrush—ensuring that benefits extend across fence lines, entire watersheds, and even span across several states.

What changes are in store for the new year?

We’re in the process of making some exciting staffing changes that will further increase our abilities to conserve rangelands not only in sage grouse range but across the West. 

Greg Peters

We’re very excited to announce the hiring of Greg Peters as our brand new Western Working Lands for Wildlife Communications Coordinator! Greg will be helping us deliver broader private land conservation success stories by linking several landscape-related WLFW efforts together. He will coordinate communications focused on conserving habitat for sage grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, and the southwestern willow flycatcher. Welcome aboard, Greg!

Brianna Randall, who has done an exceptional job as SGI’s full-time communications lead for the past four years, will transition to a new part-time role as our dedicated WLFW storyteller. Brianna will write about the people and projects making a difference across all western grazing lands. By working closely with Greg and our incredible NRCS public affairs team and partners, these stories will keep working lands conservation featured in the mainstream.

WLFW key staff: David Naugle, Thad Heater, and Tim Griffiths.Thad Heater, who has been an awesome SGI coordinator since 2015, is shifting to a slightly broader role within NRCS as he moves to the new Conservation Outcomes branch. Thad will remain heavily involved with SGI, but will also lend a hand with other outcome-based efforts such as the conservation of grazing lands in the southern Great Plains.

My position has also shifted, as I now work in the new Area-Wide Planning branch. Like the others mentioned before, I too will be focused on continuing the great conservation work associated with the broader western WLFW priorities, and I will also reassume day-to-day coordination of SGI.

In addition to staff changes, we also plan to continue rolling out new innovations like the Rangeland Analysis Platform across the entire West. These free online mapping tools provide resource managers and landowners access to cutting-edge information that helps prioritize and plan projects, ensuring we put conservation dollars where they’re needed most.

Learn more about Working Lands For Wildlife >

Read about SGI’s proactive conservation >

Meet our staff >

How Can Emerging Technology Help Conserve Rangeland?

Thanks to the new Rangeland Analysis Platform, decades of on-the-ground vegetation data can be accessed quickly and easily to help conserve working lands. Photo: Steve Stuebner

Ask An Expert: Dr. Matthew Jones, Research Scientist, University of Montana

Why does monitoring plants matter?

In the western U.S. rangeland plants provide the foundation for a healthy ecosystem. In turn, this ecosystem provides the livelihood for hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers, and supplies food and resources for millions more people.

It’s important to efficiently and effectively monitor vegetation changes over time to ensure rangelands are productive and that we conserve these valuable resources. 

For instance, it’s really critical to know if ranches or public lands are transitioning from nutritious forage like native perennials to annual invasive grasses that don’t sustain livestock or wildlife.

How do we collect information on rangeland vegetation?

For the last several decades, field technicians from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have collected on-the-ground data on the type and abundance of plants at tens of thousands of field plots across the West.

While these field plots are critical for monitoring, they are only a snapshot and do not provide a big-picture view of overall vegetation cover through time.  Until recently, it’s been a challenge to monitor vegetation over multiple years and across large landscapes—including the sizable ranches managed by many western agricultural producers.

Gay Austin, BLM, and others conduct vegetation monitoring at the Wolf Creek, BLM site Photo Renée Rondeau CNHP

Gay Austin, BLM, and others monitor vegetation at Wolf Creek in southwest Colorado. Photo: Renée Rondeau/CNHP

Is there a better way to monitor rangelands?

Yes! It’s called the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), a free user-friendly web app that—for the first time ever—allows anyone to quickly see trends in rangeland vegetation over both time and space.

RAP utilizes a combination of innovative technology to provide annual percent cover maps at 30m resolution—roughly the size of a baseball diamond—and depicts changes in vegetation over time. This revolutionizes our ability to monitor and manage valuable grazing lands.

How is RAP revolutionary?

Monitoring range plants is critical for ensuring grazing lands remain productive ecosystems and profitable livestock operations.

RAP is the only platform that provides a view of vegetation across space, from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, and time, from 1984-present, all at a resolution useful for monitoring and management. For every 30m pixel across the West, RAP shows the percent cover of five different vegetation types: annual forbs and grasses, perennial forbs and grasses, shrubs, trees, and bare ground. People can see vegetation cover at a broad watershed scale, or zoom into any area of interest, such as a ranch or pasture.

RAP and the land cover maps are a huge leap in technology. Before this free, easy-to-use tool, we only had cumbersome categorical static maps of vegetation for certain areas, which were produced every five years, not annually. While valuable those maps didn’t provide the mix of vegetation types over an area—a critical component if you want to see if conifers were taking over a ranch, or if annual grasses were beginning to invade your pasture.

Now RAP now gives everyone all of that information in less than one minute with a couple clicks on the computer.

Top: Aerial photography shows tree cover in the Loess Canyons of Nebraska in 2014 (Image: Google Earth) and 2016 (Image: USDA NAIP). Middle: RAP-produced maps calculating the percent cover of trees pre- and post-burn within the treatment boundary (red polygon). Lower: Time series of mean perennial forb and grass as well as tree cover from 1984 to 2017 within the burn boundary (gray bar in 2015 denotes treatment year).

Top: Aerial photography shows tree cover in the Loess Canyons of Nebraska in 2014 (Image: Google Earth) and 2016 (Image: USDA NAIP). Middle: RAP-produced maps calculating the percent cover of trees pre- and post-burn within the treatment boundary (red polygon). Lower: Time series of mean perennial forb and grass as well as tree cover from 1984 to 2017 within the burn boundary (gray bar in 2015 denotes treatment year).

What technology does the Rangeland Analysis Platform use?

Working with the NRCS and BLM, we created RAP by using over 30,000 field plots and over three decades of Landsat satellite imagery, gridded climate data, and other land surface information like elevation and soil types.

In order to process and analyze this massive amount of information—the Landsat data is comprised of over 231,000 images alone!—we’re using the geospatial cloud computing power of Google Earth Engine.

Until now, gathering and processing an amount of data that large was simply not feasible, but with this new cloud computing technology we were able to harness all that data and make major strides for mapping rangeland plants.

To make the maps, we used a well-established machine learning algorithm—known as Random Forests—to make sense of this large collection of data. Random Forests examined the patterns, trends, and relationships between all of the data to create a model, or equation, that makes predictions of vegetation cover in areas where no field plots exist.

The result: online maps of five different types of land cover from 1984 to present.

Maps produced by the Rangeland Analysis Platform show the percent vegetation cover estimates of five different types of ground cover, as well as a composite map for three vegetation classes.

Maps produced by the Rangeland Analysis Platform show the percent vegetation cover estimates of five different types of ground cover, as well as a composite map for three vegetation classes.

Why is this monitoring technology helpful?

By pairing the maps and time-series charts produced by RAP with local on-the-ground knowledge, ranchers and land managers can quickly see outcomes of past land management actions to help inform future decisions.

For instance, you could compare the impacts of a drought year and a wet year on perennial forage. Or you can evaluate how much cheatgrass expanded after a wildfire. Or you could plan future conifer removal projects by checking out where trees have encroached into shrublands over the last decade.

In a nutshell, RAP can help all of us sustain or improve the plants that are the backbone of America’s rangelands.

How reliable are these maps?

First off, any sort of model is going to have errors associated with it, since it’s making predictions. However, the maps and charts provided through RAP have comparable or lower error rates than any other vegetation maps created to date. 

When using RAP, people should think of the percent cover values as best estimates.  So, if you’re looking at your pasture’s cover for 2017 and RAP calculates it was 35% annual forbs and grasses, then you should use the mean absolute error for that type of cover as the range around that estimate. In other words, annual forb and grass cover has a mean error of 7.8%, which means you can be confident the annual forbs and grass cover in your pasture was between 27.2% and 42.8% (35% plus or minus the 7.8% error). 

Check out this RAP User Guide to learn more.

The errors in Table 1 provide an assessment of accuracy. In basic terms, if the vegetation cover value of a mapped area is 35% AFG, then there is confidence that the annual forb and grass cover of that pixel is between 27.2% and 42.8% (35% +/- the mean absolute error of 7.8%).

The errors in Table 1 provide an assessment of accuracy. For instance, if the vegetation cover value of a mapped area is 35% annual forbs and grasses, then there is confidence that the annual forb and grass cover of that pixel is between 27.2% and 42.8% (35% +/- the mean absolute error of 7.8%).

Will the Rangeland Analysis Platform be expanded?

We’ll update the online app every year with the new land cover maps…the 2018 maps will be available by approximately February 2019.

We’re also working on incorporating plant productivity data into RAP. This would combine percent land cover with the plant productivity of that pixel, giving estimates of the amount of growth of each type of vegetation during any given year within your area of interest.

This has never been done before and will be another huge leap forward in monitoring technology. Plant production is the basic building block of ranch planning across the West. Our goal is to empower land managers with even more information for planning effective conservation projects.

Meet The Expert

Why did you choose remote sensing science and ecology as your career?

The combination of remote sensing (using satellite or airborne imagery) and ecology gives a comprehensive view across space and time that you simple can’t get with ground observations. And over the last decade, with advances in remote sensing and processing technology, our understanding of natural systems has evolved as never before. This type of technology allows everyone—even those who aren’t able to get out on specific parcels of land—to see how ecosystems are faring as well as determine the effects of our actions across the landscape.

How else have you applied your skills?

Just out of college I learned how to use airborne imagery to track the spread of blister rust on whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone National Park, which got me hooked on using remote sensing for ecology research. After getting my Master’s degree, I went on to work at Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology where I used remote sensing to track invasive species and canopy biodiversity in Hawaiian rainforests. 

I also worked as a member of the Landscape Ecology Team at the National Marine Fisheries Service, where I helped monitor the landscapes that influenced salmon runs.  I then returned to the University of Montana to earn a Ph.D. in Systems Ecology by focusing on using remote sensing data to monitor and model vegetation.

In addition to serving on the USDA-NRCS Working Lands For Wildlife science team, I’m also a science advisor to NASA and NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network) working groups.

What do you do in your free time?

I enjoy the outdoors in Missoula, Montana where I live by fly fishing, hiking, biking, snowboarding, and playing soccer. At least I try to do those things as much I can, given that now much of my time is spent playing games in the backyard with my three and five year-old kids. Luckily, I’ve already got my five-year-old fishing and skiing, so that’s a start!

Launch the app >

Read the article in Ecosphere >

New Technology For Landowners And Resource Managers Revolutionizes Rangeland Monitoring

Breaking News: SGI Unveils Interactive Web Application To Bolster Wildlife Conservation Work

 

sage grouse chick in wildflowers

Grazed Rangelands Produce Sage Grouse Chicks’ Preferred Food

New research shows that grazing lands grow more bugs for birds to eat

Download this Science to Solutions report >

Read this Farmers.gov blog >

Arthropods, like beetles, ants, and caterpillars, are a key food source for greater sage-grouse and lesser prairie-chickens. Research shows that virtually 100% of the diet of one- to four-week-old sage grouse chicks is composed of arthropods.

However, studies also indicate that only a few types of ground-dwelling arthropods make up the bulk of the food important for sage grouse survival.

A sage grouse hen takes her chicks out to feed. Video courtesy of Tyler Dungannon with Oregon State University.

Land use such as livestock grazing—the most common use of rangelands—influence the abundance and composition of arthropods, which may have far-reaching effects on rangeland ecosystems.

Researchers from Montana State University (MSU) investigated relative abundance and diversity of ground-dwelling arthropods in sagebrush habitats in central Montana from 2012–2015.

Samples were collected weekly in three types of pastures: grazed, idle, and deferred (pastures in the “rest” phase of a rest-rotation grazing system implemented through the USDA-NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative). Special thanks to USDA’s CEAP Wildlife program for funding this research.

Grazed rangelands produced more sage grouse food compared to idled pastures where predatory spiders were most abundant.” -Hayes Goosey, lead researcher, MSU

Although total arthropod catches were twice as high on idle pastures compared to managed pastures, researchers discovered that the specific classes of arthropods preferred by sage grouse were 13% more prevalent on managed pastures.

Plus, managed rangeland supported a more diverse assemblage of ground-dwelling  arthropods, which may be particularly beneficial for birds that rely on this critical food resource.

In the American West’s grazing-adapted ecosystem, long-term absence of grazing or other disturbance dramatically alters the structure of arthropod communities, ultimately resulting in reduced availability of important food resources for shrubland and grassland birds.

Livestock grazing that incorporates rest-rotation or other conservation practices may provide a valuable ecosystem service. Well-managed livestock grazing of native plants is one of the best ways to benefit wildlife and working lands.

Rangelands with lush native grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush and wet meadows are the best habitat for arthropods, as well as sage grouse and hundreds of other species. Plus, managing for diverse, healthy plants puts more pounds on livestock, too.

Download the Science to Solutions report >

cows and sage grouse hens sharing wet meadow ken miracle

Oregon Ranchers Sustain “Heart Of The Desert”

Maintaining an “emerald island” in the middle of the desert is no small task. Here’s how the Fitzgeralds do it.

Eleanor Fitzgerald, Joseph Utley, her son, and Colin McKenzie, her nephew, stand on a dusty outcrop among sage and bitterbrush. Below them, 12 Mile Creek paints a dark green ribbon across the otherwise drab landscape.

Sights like this are rare in Oregon’s sagebrush country. Wet meadows occupy less than 2 percent of the sage-steppe region, yet provide habitat for over 350 dependent species, and support cattle grazing.

The Sage Grouse Initiative led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partners with ranchers in Oregon and across the West to enhance habitat for sage grouse and improve working lands.

By managing wet meadows, combating invasive species, and grazing strategically, sage grouse and other wildlife flourish. It just so happens these practices also benefit livestock by way of higher quality food and more variety throughout the year.

Learn how:

Beavers, Water, and Fire—A New Formula for Success

National Wildlife Federation Blog: Low-tech stream restoration works wonders for people and wildlife

The following excerpt is from a blog written by Brianna Randall for the National Wildlife Federation

Conservation partners increasingly work with nature to heal streams. Rather than big, expensive construction equipment, they’re using more cost-effective, low-tech methods.

Some of these methods recreate the work that was once performed over large parts of our country by beavers, and simultaneously prepare the landscape for beavers to move back in. These include, but are not limited to:

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partnered with Utah State University to host field training workshops around the West to teach resource managers how to build low-tech restoration structures to repair streams.

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partnered with Utah State University to host training workshops around the West that taught resource managers how to build low-tech stream restoration structures.

Blue collar conservation

Low-tech restoration approaches are less risky, less expensive, and easier to install than traditional highly-engineered restoration projects.

Since the best practice is to use natural, locally-sourced ingredients to feed the stream, such as branches from recently cut trees, turf and mud, or existing rocks, the materials are often already on site…and free!

“We think of low-tech restoration as ‘blue collar conservation’ because anyone can build these structures,” explains Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “That means we get more people involved in conservation, plus we can repair more streams in need.”

And, importantly, these “emerald refuges” provide valuable wildlife habitat during wildfires, which are burning more frequently and more intensely across western landscapes.

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Water doesn’t burn

Ranchers have plenty of anecdotal stories of wildlife and livestock flocking to wet, green places when wildfires sweep across the West.

Recent wildfires in the West proved that wet habitat is invaluable as a refuge, and possibly as a firebreak, too: the only remaining green areas amidst miles of scorched rangeland were active beaver ponds that kept the flames at bay.

“Beavers and beaver dam analogs make a lot of sense for mitigating impacts during a fire,” says Joe Wheaton, Associate Professor and Fluvial Geomorphologist at Utah State University.

It also makes sense to incorporate low-tech stream restoration into post-fire recovery efforts as a tool to protect and improve existing wet habitat. For instance, the Bureau of Land Management is planning to build low-tech structures to accelerate riparian recovery and mitigate mudslides during runoff after the Goose Creek Fire in Utah.

Beaver ponds provide an “emerald refuge” in a landscape burned by the Sharps Fire, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver ponds provide an “emerald refuge” in a landscape burned by the Sharps Fire, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

In northeast Nevada where the South Sugarloaf Fire scorched 230,000 acres this summer, the U.S. Forest Service is planning to use low-tech restoration to protect critical habitats that didn’t burn from potential damage during post-fire runoff and debris flows.

Similarly, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is using low-tech restoration not just to protect critical habitats post-fire, but also to aid in ecosystem recovery on the recent Sharps Fire near Hailey.

In all these examples, the agencies hope to also study the effectiveness of low-tech restoration and to document the vegetation response at restored sites versus unrestored control sites.

“If we’re making a difference at a scale that matters, then we should be able to see the positive impacts of low-tech stream restoration from space,” says Maestas.

Especially, he adds, as restored wet places stay greener longer.

Read the full NWF blog >

Low-Tech Riparian And Meadow Restoration Keeps Rangelands Greener Longer

What Is Low-Tech Stream Restoration?

Starter Guide For Healing Degraded Meadows With Hand-Built Structures In Sagebrush Country

#FridaysOnTheFarm | For Future Generations of Ranchers and Sage Grouse

Meet David Sceirine, a rancher protecting key wildlife habitat on his family’s ranch near Bridgeport Valley, California.

David and his brother Joe enrolled 2,375 acres into a conservation easement, safeguarding Sceirine Point Ranch from future development while helping an at-risk bird.

While developers eyed the ranch for subdivisions, conservationists were eyeing it for a different reason: it is prime wildlife habitat. The ranch is home to this geographically distinct population of the greater sage-grouse — the Bi-State sage-grouse — that reside only along the California-Nevada state line.

For David and Joe, who are carrying on a family tradition of ranching, the easement with Eastern Sierra Land Trust (funded by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service) made sense.

Scroll through this story map to learn more:

#FridaysOnTheFarm

From the kitchen table to the boardroom table, the USDA brings people together across the nation for: healthier food, natural resources, and people; a stronger agricultural industry; and economic growth, jobs, and innovation.

Each Friday, meet those farmers, producers, and landowners through our #FridaysOnTheFarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests, and resource areas where USDA customers and partners do right and feed everyone.

Partnering To Conserve A Sagebrush Landscape

Innovative partnerships with private landowners and public land managers on working rangelands in Southwest Montana are conserving sagebrush country

Southwest Montana is home to a sagebrush landscape that is the heart and soul of the working ranches found here, and vitally important to the many species of wildlife that call it home.

It is here, on the western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, that a newly formed partnership has emerged, focused on conserving and restoring the sagebrush ecosystem. The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership was born out of a desire to advance cross-boundary conservation efforts in a landscape with a complex landownership pattern.

This partnership aims to implement conservation practices to improve and protect valuable sagebrush-steppe habitat. Specifically, projects will:

  • remove invading conifers
  • reduce the spread of cheatgrass
  • modify fences to make them wildlife friendly
  • restore wet meadow habitats

Learn more by scrolling through the story map below:

High School Students Help Restore Montana Sagebrush

Collaborative Partnerships Yield Big Gains in Montana’s Centennial Valley

Working With Water: Restoring Wet Meadows in the Sage

Many partners made onservation projects possible on the Stoebeckis ranch, including the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative.

New Nevada Agreement Paves The Way For Landscape-Scale Conservation

The Stoebeckis have implemented several conservation projects on their Nevada ranch, thanks to many partners working together to leverage funding.

Public and private partners sign an MOU to collaboratively enhance sagebrush habitat in Nevada

Several partners in Nevada signed a landmark agreement to leverage funding across state, federal, and private property to accelerate sagebrush conservation.

The cooperative agreement allows public and private partners in Nevada to pool resources to reduce threats to sagebrush country and improve working rangelands on a landscape scale.

Scaling up proactive conservation efforts across property boundaries in Nevada will benefit sagebrush-dependent wildlife and the agricultural communities that depend on healthy, intact rangelands. 

Sagebrush rangelands in Nevada span across state, private, and federal lands, which means partners must work together to make a difference at a landscape scale.

The Nevada agreement was signed by Pheasants Forever, Nevada USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nevada Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife,Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Nevada Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The partners will prioritize funding projects such as:

  • removing encroaching conifers
  • treating invasive weeds
  • reducing the threat of wildfire
  • rehabilitating rangelands post-wildfire
  • restoring wet meadows

The Nevada agreement is modeled on the Burley Landscape Habitat Restoration Project in Idaho, which is a shining example of how organizations can effectively pool resources to conserve wildlife on public lands in ways that complement projects on adjacent private land. 

Many partners are working collaboratively across public and private property as part of Idaho’s Burley Landscape Habitat Restoration Project to remove encroaching conifers from sagebrush range.

The success of the Burley Project shows how much can be accomplished through public-private collaboration — to date, partners have improved habitat by removing encroaching conifers from 28,000 acres in half the time allotted in their plan. Now partners are treating an additional 47,000 acres of sagebrush rangeland in Idaho.  

The new agreement in Nevada allows partners to leverage funds not only for conifer removal projects, but also for projects that 1) reduce the spread of fire and invasive species, or 2) restore and enhance wet meadows.

Both the Nevada and the Idaho agreements are part of a larger MOU between the NRCS, BLM, and USFS to develop models that conserve sagebrush at a landscape scale by working seamlessly across public and private land ownerships.

Public Land Partnership

BLM-Idaho Nominates Burley Landscape Sage Grouse Habitat Restoration Project

Wildfire Management Strategies | New Video Shows Projects that Protect the Sagebrush Sea