Grazing Management In Perspective: A Compatible Tool For Sage Grouse Conservation

August 28, 2017

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New research shows that — done right — livestock grazing may help conserve sage grouse habitat by keeping working ranches profitable and sustainable

Photos by Joe Smith

Improper livestock grazing has been proposed as a contributing factor to habitat degradation since overgrazing can reduce concealing cover provided by vegetation around the birds’ nests. Consequently, identifying ways to manage livestock that maintain high-quality habitat for sage grouse is a priority across the range.

New research from a team led by Joe Smith from the University of Montana is beginning to answer the question of whether rotational grazing systems and resting pastures benefit sage grouse.

A study conducted by scientists from Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project evaluated the effects of livestock grazing on sage grouse nest survival suggests that a variety of locally-appropriate range management strategies support grouse populations.

livestock grazing on sagebrush rangelands

A new study on SGI vs non-SGI enrolled ranches shows that, overall, livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse habitat needs.

This Montana study comparing effects of specialized grazing systems on ranches enrolled in the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative to ranches not enrolled in SGI grazing programs found no difference in nest survival: in both cases, long-term nest success (40-49%) was consistent with the rangewide survival rates of a stable sage grouse population.

Smith’s team cautions not to interpret their findings as diminishing the importance of good grazing management. Rather, grazing in sage grouse habitat should continue to focus on fundamental rangeland management principles. Although the effects of SGI grazing systems were negligible in Montana, studies should be replicated in other geographies across the range to account for ecological context.

SGI science team researcher Joe Smith

SGI researcher Joe Smith studied the impacts of local grazing practices on sage grouse nest survival in Montana.

The biggest takeaway message from Smith’s research is to not sweat the small stuff: done right, grazing is a land use that is highly compatible with healthy sage grouse populations. Alternately, converting sagebrush grazing lands to more intensive land uses such as cultivation, housing, or energy development typically spells the demise of sage grouse.

Most importantly, properly managed grazing — regardless of the specific management system — keeps mixed land ownerships stitched together across the West. Farm Bill-funded assistance provided by SGI through the NRCS to enhance grazing practices can help conserve sage grouse habitat by keeping working lands profitable and sustainable.

By promoting robust, diverse, native plant communities, managers can ensure that rangelands remain resistant and resilient so that severe threats such as drought, exotic annual grass invasion, and fire have less chance of making an impact on the birds.

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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.