Field & Stream Magazine Films “Hero for a Day”: Sage Grouse Volunteers Lend a Hand on Bequette Ranch
May 19, 2014
(photo: Isiaih Brown, Little Bighorn FFA, volunteers with his team to build and install escape ramps for livestock water tanks).
By Deborah Richie, Sage Grouse Initiative Communications Director
Dave Bequette couldn’t be happier with the conservation results on his family ranch south of Laurel, after the May 11th “Hero for a Day” volunteer project that will become an online film for Field & Stream Magazine. The release date is tentatively set for late July and will highlight the Sage Grouse Initiative as a win-win solution for ranchers and wildlife.
“It was a total success,” Bequette said. “They were all wonderful people, and we met our goals too. We are trying to do everything we can here to benefit the grouse and all the upland birds.”
In one day, 40 volunteers marked three miles of barbed wire fence to prevent sage grouse collisions near leks (breeding grounds). They clipped on white vinyl markers made at COR Enterprises in Billings, a nonprofit industry that provides meaningful work for developmentally disabled adults. Others hammered in long nails on wood fence posts to deter raptors from perching close to the two leks on the ranch.
The Little Bighorn FFA (Future Farmers of America) from Lodge Grass built and installed eight bird escape ramps in livestock water tanks. The Montana Conservation Corps removed a difficult quarter-mile of partially fallen-down fence that posed hazards for wildlife, including mule deer. Other volunteers planted 100 sagebrush in a burned area. The plants were grown at the Special K ranch near Billings that, like COR Enterprises, helps disabled adults.
Tim Griffiths, Sage Grouse Initiative national coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, gave the overview to the volunteers. He spoke against a dramatic backdrop of windswept range with a low-slung rock building on the far hillside marking the original Baquette homestead.
“What works for sage grouse is simple,” Griffiths said. “They need large, intact sagebrush habitats and that’s why sustainable ranching is a win-win for landowners and the bird.”
In four years, the Initiative has enrolled roughly 1000 ranchers who have willingly stepped up in 11 western states to put conservation projects on 6000 square miles of important sage grouse habitat, or about twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, Griffiths said. Those efforts are adding up to change the story for a bird that’s lost half its habitat and has seen population declines of 90 percent rangewide. Projects range from conservation easements that prevent subdivision to prescribed grazing for increased nest success and removing invasive conifers.
While the Bequette ranch lies outside Montana’s highest priority sage grouse habitats, it is home to both sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse that will have a better chance of survival after Saturday’s work.
Bob Marshall, the conservation editor for Field & Stream and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist based in Louisiana, interviewed participants throughout the day for the film.
“Hero for a Day is a chance to honor the landowners and the volunteers who are conserving habitat and to inspire others to step up to help wherever they live,” Marshall said. He and the team spent Friday filming at COR Enterprises and Special K ranch before heading out to the Bequette Ranch.
Bruce Waage who serves as the NRCS/BLM liaison for sage grouse orchestrated the several-pronged events, working closely with Bequette who offered a cooler full of sandwiches for the group.
“Dave is a real pro-bird landowner who grew up watching sage grouse display on his land and wants his son and wife and grandkids to have that opportunity too,” Waage said.
Down in a far draw by a livestock watering tank, the Little Bighorn FFA group wrestled a heavy cutting torch and press from the back of a pickup truck. Livestock tanks can be deadly for heavy birds like sage grouse that fly in for a drink and can’t get out the slick sides. A sturdy piece of metal grate bent to specifications and installed in a tank gives birds traction to climb out.
Isiaih Brown, 15, the youngest FFA member there rose at the crack of dawn and spent the day volunteering.
“I always want to be outdoors,” he said. “I like to raise animals and fix fences and do projects like this.”
His father Pernell Brown works at the Lodge Grass school and is proud of the FFA and especially his son Isiaih, who he added is an excellent tractor driver and metal welder too.
“Our FFA helps the community ranchers as much as we can,” he said, “It’s our way of giving back to them,” noting that ranchers near Lodge Grass donate a steer every year for the group to raise.
Tori North Piegan is the vice president of the Little Bighorn chapter and high school sophomore.
“I’ve grown up around ranching,” she said as she held the metal grate in place while Isiaih measured, “but only since I discovered FFA in eighth grade did I have a passion for agriculture.”
A mile away from the livestock tank, volunteers walked a fence line with packs full of vinyl markers, clipping them on the top strand at three-foot intervals.
The selected fences are in the vicinity of two sage grouse leks, where birds are likeliest to strike wires when males fly in at low angles in pre-dawn hours. Marking fences can reduce collisions by 83 percent, according to University of Idaho research.
Sam Johnson saw the article about Hero for a Day in the Billings Gazette and decided it beat building his home deck that day. He’s an avid hunter who brought his two dogs Leah and Casey along.
“If we can help the landowners help the birds, it’s in the interest of both sage grouse and hunting,” he said as he snapped on another white marker into place.
For more information:
Field & Stream Hero for a Day
PHOTO GALLERY FROM SGI HERO FOR A DAY
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.