Don and Sheila Phillips – a Nevada sage grouse success story

November 28, 2012

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Cattle ranchers Don and Sheila Phillips of Ely, Nevada, are enrolled in SGI, improving their rangelands to benefit nesting sage grouse. They’ve also marked fences to prevent bird collisions. Don personally witnessed a sage grouse seeing the marker and flying over it instead of into the fence.

By Scott Scroggie, Range & Wildlife Conservationist, Pheasants Forever-NRCS-NDOW

Ely, Nevada – Cattle ranchers Don and Sheila Phillips want to help out sage grouse on their ranch, but Don wasn’t convinced those new white vinyl markers he’d agreed to add to the top strands of certain fences would do anything to prevent bird collisions.

A few weeks later, Don stopped in the Ely NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) office with big news.

“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!”

Don and his wife Sheila are participants in the Sage Grouse Initiative, a partnership program started by the NRCS that’s available to farmers and ranchers who want to improve their range or farmlands while simultaneously enhancing wildlife habitat.

The Sage Grouse Initiative launched in 2010 in response to the proposed listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (a decision due in 2015). The sage grouse currently occupies rangelands across 11 western states, including Nevada, where the western lifestyle and livelihood is very much alive. The overarching goal of this initiative is to conserve and improve wildlife habitat and prevent a listing of the species through sustainable ranching. It’s a voluntary, incentive-based approach that has become a new paradigm for conservation.

The Phillips own and operate the Steptoe Valley Ranch near Ely. They originally got started over in Roosevelt and Springville, Utah back in 1961. Ranching has been a way of life for the Phillips family for more than 50 years and continues to be an important lifestyle for them here in Nevada.

The overall ranching operation relies both on private deeded land as well as BLM issued grazing permits. The Phillips’ own approximately 3,800 acres of private land and 54,000 acres on BLM permitted grounds. This combination of private and public holdings has given the opportunity of a feasible grazing operation to exist.

Soon after the couple settled on the Steptoe Ranch in March of 2000, they immediately became active in the White Pine County Water Board, the Public Land Use Advisory Council, and the local conservation district. Don has been on the conservation district board for 10 years and has received the Outstanding Cooperator Award in 2002 and a Service Award in 2012.

They first signed up the Steptoe Ranch with NRCS in the spring of 2000 and have since carried out various conservation measures to improve their ground for both cattle and wildlife. Recently they applied to do more for the land through the Sage Grouse Initiative.

The Phillips say they signed up with the program to do their part to keep the bird from becoming listed. They feel that partnership-driven conservation is key to maintaining working ranches on the landscape. Don and Sheila suggest to others in the ranching and farming communities to get involved and become an active part of the solution.

The Steptoe ranch is a showcase for farm and ranch improvement projects that improve the overall quality of both their operation and wildlife habitat. Such projects include noxious weed control, brush management treatments, riparian improvements, range seedings, two pivot installations and just recently, fence marking and wildlife escape ramps in all existing water troughs.

These improvements have increased production on their rangelands, provided sufficient water, cover and forage for sage grouse, and have used fence markers and escape ramps as preventative techniques to reduce mortalities of sage grouse and other wildlife.

They’re thrilled to know firsthand the fence markers are working and already saving grouse. According to scientific studies, strategically marked fences can reduce collisions by 83 percent. Across the west, Sage Grouse Initiative participants have marked or moved 350 miles of high-risk fences near leks (breeding grounds), resulting in an estimated reduction of 1,500 to 1,800 sage grouse collisions.

Throughout the year the Phillips family enjoys watching the wildlife that their grazing operation attracts, including sage grouse. In fact Don keeps a count of the birds that use his fields throughout the year and takes notes on when sage grouse leave his ranch and head to the sagebrush flats nearby for winter. To date, Don has seen as many as 67 grouse at one time in his fields and takes pride in seeing that population grow with each coming year.

The Phillips’ have a strong passion for the ranching lifestyle, the natural surroundings and the hard work it takes to be successful. They’re equally passionate about keeping this operation viable into the future. Soon, their daughter’s family will begin to take the reins and continue the family ranching legacy.

The Phillips are constantly looking for new ideas and techniques to improve their operation as well as increase the wildlife value of their ranch. They realize that a listing of this bird could mean stringent restrictions on future operations and want to do everything they can to prevent the listing.

Learn more: NRCS report about fence marker tools and reducing collisions.