“Bird in a Bind” Shows Sage Grouse Initiative Success in the Field

December 18, 2013

Link to the Missoula Independent Article
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Related Story on the Lehfeldt Ranch
Out on the Land TV Show on the Lehfeldts and SGI

(Photo of Bob and Ben Lehfeldt at the branding chutes, by Marie Lehfeldt)

Bird in a Bind:
Farmers, Ranchers, Energy Corporations, Environmentalists and More are Trying to Save the Greater Sage GRouse. How Did One Species End up Everyone’s Business?

By Jimmy Tobias, Missoula Independent (Dec. 12-19, 2013)

Heading west on Highway 12, the mountains give way to the gold-gray plains of sagebrush and native grasses. It is a dry, monotonous landscape and it hides its treasures like the sea. Read more.

Note: Reporter Jimmy Tobias headed out to remote eastern Montana near Roundup to spend time with the Lehfeldt  ranch family, enrolled in Sage Grouse Initiative programs, and to track collared sage grouse with Mark Szcyzpinksi, a wildlife research technician with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Jenny Paddock, NRCS range specialist.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

The Lehfeldts, a ranching family in the small town of Lavina, population 187, run thousands of Rambouillet sheep on 12,000 acres of sagebrush plains. On a recent Friday, Ben Lehfeldt, stout, black-haired and boyish, sits at the family’s dining room table talking about sage grouse. Ben’s father, Bob, and mother, Marie, sit next to him. On the wall behind the table is a shrine to the Lehfeldt ancestors, black and white photos of the five preceding generations that called Lavina home. Ludwig Lehfeldt, Ben’s great-great-grandfather, built this house in the 1890s. Out the window, the Musselshell River flows east along the crooked valley.

The Lehfeldt family ranch is part of a major effort to avert the need for ESA protections in sage grouse country. The effort is called the Sage Grouse Initiative, or SGI, and it began in Montana.

Launched in 2010, SGI is a multi-agency strategy to promote ranching as a way to protect and improve sage grouse habitat. The initiative, spearheaded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, works with ranchers to reduce overgrazing of the native grasses and forbs that are a crucial part of sage grouse habitat. The birds rely on these plants for cover and food.

“The whole premise of SGI is that what’s good for ranching is good for sage grouse,” says Mark Szczypinski, a wildlife research technician with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks who works with SGI. “So if the range is healthy and productive for a rancher, it will more than likely be that way for sage grouse too.”

According to state estimates, 65 percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is privately owned. Much of that land is used for ranching, and so rancher cooperation is crucial for the bird’s survival.

The Lehfeldts signed up with SGI in 2010. With the agency’s financial assistance, they developed a grazing plan, fenced new pastures and built water tanks so they can rotate their sheep across the landscape more frequently. Additional rotation means less pressure on any one parcel of land.

They started lining their fences with shiny reflective markers to keep the grouse from flying into fatal strands of barbed wire. Szczypinski flagging fences reduces sage grouse collisions by an estimated 83 percent.

“We put 13 miles of flagging up, six miles of fencing and we added 13 water facilities,” says Bob Lehfeldt in a barely audible voice. “Another 2,400 acres are going into the SGI soon.”

“We couldn’t have done that type of project in a five-year period without the help of NRCS,” adds Ben, who speaks with authority. “Maybe we could have done it over the next 30 years.”

The Lehfeldts are clearly pleased with the program.

“It will improve how we graze over the next 30 years and then maybe we can add more livestock later,” says Ben. “As for the sage grouse, hopefully it will be a win for them like it was a win for us.”

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.