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Over 7,000 sage grouse feathers were collected to study how sage grouse disperse across the landscape.

Brave Sage Grouse Strike Out Solo Over Long Distances

Photo by John Carlson – Over 7,000 sage grouse feathers were collected to study how sage grouse disperse across the landscape.

New research shows that greater sage-grouse travel further than previously suspected

Greater sage-grouse are thought to return to the same breeding ground, or “lek,” every spring. But some scientists wondered how populations avoid becoming isolated and inbred.

A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications used thousands of DNA samples collected at leks across four states to reveal that some sage grouse travel more widely than anyone suspected.

By dispersing across larger distances, a few individual sage grouse make the overall population stronger by tempering inbreeding and isolation. This genetics study opens an exciting new door into understanding the landscape dynamics of this bird.

A few individual sage grouse venture further than average each breeding season, spreading genes and boosting the health of the population as a whole. Photo by John Carlson.

A few individual sage grouse venture further than average each breeding season, spreading genes and boosting the health of the population as a whole. Photo by John Carlson.

Using genetic markers in DNA extracted from 7,629 feather and blood samples, Todd Cross, a Sage Grouse Initiative scientist in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, worked with colleagues to identify more than 3,000 individual sage grouse that visited leks across the northeastern portion of the birds’ range over seven years.

The study used samples collected from 835 leks in Idaho, Montana, and North and South Dakota between 2007 and 2013. Seven birds made movements of over 30 miles, six of which occurred within a single breeding season.

“Our research demonstrates that greater sage-grouse are an even more mobile species than we had realized before, moving large distances of up to 120 miles in a single breeding season,” says Cross. “These findings highlight the importance of landscape-scale efforts that conserve movement corridors.”

Todd Cross explains research on genetic diversity within Montana sage grouse populations.

SGI science team member Todd Cross explains his seven-year study on genetic diversity within sage grouse populations.

While the results support the idea that most grouse are faithful to their chosen lek sites, some individuals clearly make long-distance movements, which could help prevent inbreeding within leks and expand the size of the genetic neighborhood.

“Even contemporary telemetry techniques woefully underestimate animal dispersal,” says Sage Grouse Initiative coordinator Thad Heater. “New molecular techniques employed here for the first time enable us to quantify the appropriately large scales at which to deliver conservation strategies.”

Stay tuned this spring for the Sage Grouse Initiative’s upcoming Science to Solutions article, which will feature: 1) a summary of Todd Cross’ long-term sage grouse genetics research, 2) what it tells us about the health of the species as a whole, and 3) how proactive, voluntary conservation on private land is making a difference to conserve the large landscapes these birds need to thrive.

Read the new study: Genetic recapture identifies long-distance breeding dispersal in Greater sage grouse

Learn more about sage grouse


Webinar: Cheap and Cheerful Stream and Riparian Restoration | Beaver Dam Analogues As Low-Cost Tool

Photo: Beaver Dam Analogue on Birch Creek, Idaho; upstream view (left) and cross section (middle). Drone image (right) showing expansion of riparian vegetation in green after BDA installation.

When: March 22, 2017 | 12:00 – 1:00 pm EST

Host: USDA NRCS Science and Technology


  • Joe Wheaton, Ph.D., Professor, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University, Logan, UT
  • Jeremy Maestas, Sagebrush Ecosystem Specialist, USDA NRCS West National Technology Support Center, Portland, OR

Watch the On-Demand Replay

Description: Participants will learn how beaver-assisted restoration techniques can be applied as a low cost alternative for restoring riparian areas.

Stream and riparian area degradation is widespread across the Intermountain West, yet restoration resources are limited. Relatively simple and low-cost alternatives are needed to scale up to the scope of the problem.

A renewed appreciation of the role of the once widespread beaver has revealed insights about how this ecosystem engineer affects stream hydrology, geomorphology, riparian vegetation and habitat for other species with its dam building activities. Drawing upon lessons learned about how nature heals degraded systems, conservationists are increasingly seeking ways to recreate beneficial effects associated with beaver dam-building activities where appropriate to achieve a variety of stream and riparian recovery goals.

Beaver Dam Analogues (BDAs) are one low cost, ‘cheap and cheerful’ technique used in beaver-assisted restoration to mimic natural beaver dams, promote beaver to work in particular areas, and accelerate recovery of incised channels. This webinar will provide a brief overview of beaver ecology and hydrogeomorphic feedbacks, beaver-assisted restoration, BDA design and application, and NRCS planning considerations and resources.

Read more about cheap and cheerful restoration

USDA Announces Landmark Commitment to Improve Bi-State Sage Grouse Habitat: Nevada-California Ranchers to Benefit

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA’s landmark agreement to accelerate and focus conservation efforts benefitting ranchers and the Bi-State population of sage grouse straddling the Nevada/California border. USDA will provide up to $25.5 million of conservation investments as part of its contribution to delivering the federal, state and local 2012 Bi-State Action Plan. USDA’s announcement was bolstered by Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) companion announcement which provided an additional $6.5 million boost to proactive bi-state recovery. This combined announcement marks the single largest sage grouse restoration commitment in history and serves as a shining example of proactive conservation at its best.

View the press release, commitment letters and detailed action plans here:

USDA Press Release
USDA’s NRCS and Forest Service

For more information, contact Tim Griffiths, SGI National Coordinator, 406.600.3908.

Photo: Rick McEwan

Removing Junipers Benefits Wildlife and Range in Owyhee County

By Joshua White, Range & Wildlife Conservationist, Pheasants Forever/NRCS

208.590.9527  | 

When Owyhee County, Idaho, rancher Chris Black walked into the Mountain Home Service Center last November, he seemed to have read my mind. (That’s Chris on the right.) He’d been high on my list to contact about planning a habitat project with the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a highly targeted and science-based landscape approach to enhance and conserve rangelands for sage grouse. It works by helping ranchers improve and conserve their lands for wildlife and for livestock across 11 western states. Since the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Initiative in 2010, more than 700 ranchers have enrolled and hundreds of partners have participated.

Black’s property is one of the remaining pieces of the puzzle needed to connect a large stretch of NRCS juniper removal and grazing projects to a substantial breeding population of sage grouse, part of the larger Great Basin Population of sage grouse.

As a range and wildlife conservationist serving in a partnership with the NRCS and Pheasants Forever, I assist landowners like Black to carry out the SGI on the ground. Prior to moving here from South Dakota last March, I had put my wildlife ecology degree to work on projects for waterfowl and pheasants, but I was a novice of the Idaho landscape and sage grouse. Fortunately, the NRCS and partnering agencies had laid the foundation for the Sage Grouse Initiative. Through working with our participating landowners and area staff, I quickly grew to appreciate the importance of ranching to good wildlife habitat.

Currently, through the SGI, ranchers have treated approximately 3,400 acres of western junipers and are slated to remove another 13,000 acres in the upcoming years on rangelands in Owyhee County, Idaho (reported acreages are not exact). Through partnerships between participating ranchers, the Owyhee Sage Grouse Local Working Group, Pheasants Forever, Idaho Department of Fish & Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Department of Lands, The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and the NRCS, these successes will continue in Owyhee County. Linking these restored sagebrush-steppe habitats to existing sage grouse populations is the next step.

Josh White (left), Sean Black (center), and Chris Black (right) discussing juniper treatment area and project goals while on a January habitat tour of the property via snowmobile.

Josh White (left), Sean Black (center), and Chris Black (right) discussing juniper treatment area and project goals while on a January habitat tour of the property via snowmobile.

That’s where willing ranchers like Black are vital for success. The Black family settled in southern Idaho and northern Nevada in 1875. Black, a 5th generation rancher and model land steward, has been a long-time advocate for healthy grazing lands, ranching and wildlife. Black was the past president of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association, is the Chairman of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, and a county supervisor for the Bruneau River Soil and Water Conservation District. He has earned awards from the Society of Range Management for Excellence in Range Management and the President’s Award, as well as the 2008 National Bureau of Land Management Rangeland Stewardship Award.

In 1992, Black adopted a holistic style of grazing to employ short duration, high-intensity grazing management. He has witnessed a substantial improvement in the health of his range, higher yearly gains on his cattle, and a positive response by sage grouse in his region.

“The sage grouse, as other wildlife, have really have benefited from our grazing strategy,” Black told me as we chatted about his new project. “The grouse usually follow our rotation, and use areas near some of our reservoirs that have been grazed for lekking (breeding) purposes.” Under Black’s grazing strategy, the range has time to rest after the cattle have moved through, providing an ideal location for insect production for foraging grouse.

Black also noted that in drought years such as 2012, private lands are extremely important for the bird because that is where water is located. Black noted several hundred birds congregated on his deeded riparian areas during fall this year versus years when water was better dispersed across the landscape.

The key for both wildlife and livestock in this part of the country is water, he stressed. In drought years such as 2012, this region will like never meet what most scientific literature suggests as ideal grouse habitat, yet Black’s deeded property and adjacent allotments support a large, stable population of grouse, largely due to his prescribed grazing system and distribution of water.

Besides managing his cattle herd, water and range to support a healthy grouse population, Black partnered with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to construct 13 ponds for the Columbia Spotted Frog, a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In one year there was documented breeding frogs in the ponds.

With that success under his belt, Black is ready to tackle the junipers encroaching into the meadows and associated uplands that were once treeless landscapes supporting sage grouse and livestock.

“Traditionally, we used fire to suppress encroachment of junipers, but that just hasn’t been feasible for the past 15-20 years with the current restrictions on fire”, said Black.

Black’s property borders other juniper removal projects that are planned or being implemented. Adding his rangelands will open up a large expanse of riparian areas and meadows as well as associated uplands.

Josh White (left), Sean Black (center), and Chris Black (right) discussing juniper treatment area and project goals while on a January habitat tour of the property via snowmobile.

Past fire management of encroaching junipers has helped maintain a quality forage base on Black’s property. Currently, most of the planned treatment area is in phase 1, which consists of a low density of junipers and a healthy grass, forb, and shrub understory; this provides an ideal location to implement juniper removal where the ground has great potential for restoration. In contrast, larger trees can consume increased quantities of water (e.g., >40 gallons/day) and outcompete grasses and shrubs from growing beneath them. Fire suppression over the past century allowed thick stands of junipers to take hold over a large region. The trees continue to expand into some of the best remaining sage grouse habitat left in Idaho. Conifers reduce the quality and quantity of habitat for sage grouse and other sagebrush obligate species.

Today, ranchers and partners are helping the land heal. Removing phase 1 and 2 junipers infringing upon areas of highest sage grouse importance offers the highest return on the conservation dollar. Although, cutting junipers is not a one-time fix, it is part of the larger toolbox to manage these systems in the absence of fire. The price tag can be high and the need to come back with follow up treatment is crucial for the investment to pay off. Black appreciates the financial support of the Sage Grouse Initiative funds, while looking down the road to future needs. He believes re-introducing fire into some of the higher elevation rangelands is a must for the long-term health of the land.

Developing a project that works for Chris Black is part of a landscape-level effort across private and public boundaries to maintain the vast areas sage grouse depend upon for nesting, brood-rearing, and over-winter purposes. Every rancher like Black is making a difference. Every partner helps. Putting the right conservation practices to work in the right places is our best bet for the future of sage grouse, and for ranching as well.



Ground-breaking Watershed-scale Grazing Project, Utah

In the far northeast corner of Utah dwell more sage grouse than in any other part of the state. Here, a ground-breaking grazing management plan is underway. The Three Creeks Project in Rich County applies new grazing systems over 150,000 acres (covering four land ownership types and 29 livestock permittees). The goals are to increase numbers of grouse, as well as pygmy rabbits, mule deer, and cutthroat trout and to heal riparian areas, improve water quality and sustain range health. Livestock grazing is one of the tools for success. At the helm is SGI Coordinator Taylor Payne, who serves in a partnership position to help the NRCS put more “boots on the ground.” When it comes to a project this immense, it takes skillful coordination to keep all the moving pieces together.

To learn more, contact: Taylor Payne – SGI Coordinator Rich County, office: 435.793.3905 ext. 14.  |  cell: 435.757.6115  |  .
See also: Conservation Practice: Grazing Systems.

Media Contact: Ron Francis, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist, Idaho; 801.524.4557  |  .

Dennis Sun, Casper, Wyoming: Ranching with Hundreds of Sage Grouse

Dennis Sun, owner of the Sun Ranch west of Casper, Wyo., and publisher/owner of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, knows sage grouse better than most people. After all, he has more than 600 wintering grouse on the ranch, and one breeding lek where more than 300 birds have been counted.

But he’d like to see even more birds flourish there, and do more to contribute to a proactive conservation. While his range is in great shape overall, he has enrolled in SGI to take on improvements on many fronts, with a goal of improving both the pounds of forage per cow and assuring even more birds can find a home on his ranch.

Learn more at the Wyoming NRCS Newsroom.
See also: Conservation Practice: Grazing Systems.

Media contact: Brenda Ling, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist, Wyoming; office: 307.233.6759  |  cell: 307.251.4357  | 

SGI Juniper Removal Adds to Biofuel Industry, California

Twenty-one California ranchers in Lassen and Modoc Counties have signed up for SGI programs to remove juniper that has encroached on sage grouse habitat and reduced forage for livestock as well. “We’ve participated in NRCS programs for over 20 years,” says Darrell Wood of Wood Ranches. “So when I heard about the Sage Grouse Initiative here, I was the first one to sign up.”

Some SGI participants are chipping juniper for use as biofuel to produce electric power. This led to a welcome additional benefit during last summer’s wildfire season, when fire damaged PG&E power transmission lines in the Feather River Canyon and caused recurring power outages. To turn the lights back on in Susanville, the local utility district switched to the nearby Honey Lake power biomass/geothermal plant. This provided 30 megawatts of electricity, nearly half generated from juniper chips removed as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Read the Range Magazine feature, “Win Win. Keeping the Lights On, Thanks to Juniper.”

Media Contact: Anita Brown; Public Affairs Director, NRCS California; 530.792.5644  | 

Ranchers Pass on a Legacy in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains

“You don’t own the ranch. The ranch owns you,” says John Peavey, a third generation rancher and former state senator. He joins other voices of Idaho ranchers taking historic steps to assure a future for working lands. They’re voluntarily placing portions of their properties in conservation easements to protect them from subdivision that could signal an end to viable ranching and threaten some of the best sage grouse habitat in Idaho and one of the longest pronghorn migrations. More than 33,000 acres of conservation easements  in the Pioneer Mountains to Craters of the Moon region are one facet of a remarkable story of partnerships that tie to the economic revival for the community of Carey. The Pioneers Alliance is the spark that’s igniting the effort to sustain the nature and economic future of spectacular country southeast of Sun Valley.

Download PDF articles from the Sun Valley Blog and Idaho Magazine.
See also: Conservation Practice: Grazing Systems.

Media contact: Alexis Collins, Public Affairs Specialist 
Natural Resources Conservation Service 
Boise, Idaho; 
208.685.6978  |  .

State of the Birds Features Sage Grouse Initiative

The Sage Grouse Initiative is featured on page 16-17 of State of the Birds – Birds on Private Lands and our photographs appear throughout. We are also highlighted in the Foreword. Please see the press release (on the above website) and download the landmark report. Share widely.

Contact: Tim Griffiths, SGI National Coordinator, NRCS: 406.587.6812 or