Livestock Producers Step Up For Sage Grouse

Rancher Mike Byrne and Bridget Nielsen,USFWS, look for sage grouse together at Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge-- an SGI restoration success story in the making.

March 3, 2015

Photo to the right: Rancher Mike Byrne and Bridget Nielsen, USFWS, look for sage grouse together at the Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California.

A new article in Western Livestock Journal by editor Traci Eatherton came out this week, and features an outstanding story of ranchers and partners joining forces to conserve sage grouse in northern California, the result of a Sand County Foundation project that’s sharing new stories from the field demonstrating proactive conservation for the at-risk bird. The article also discusses why Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is “guardedly optimistic” that habitat plans developed and implemented by several states will keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List.

Over the past five years, we’ve learned time and again that what’s good for ranchlands is also good for sage grouse.  The Sage Grouse Initiative has partnered with 1,129 ranchers and 40 different organizations in 11 western states.  The results of these partnerships? Healthier landscapes that provide good forage for livestock and wildlife, and enhanced habitat that will help dwindling sage grouse populations survive in the sagebrush sea long into the future.

One reason the NRCS and other partners have invested over $425 million in proactive sage grouse conservation efforts is to prevent the need for listing the species under the Endangered Species Act, a decision slated for later this year.

An excerpt from Eatherton’s article is below, or read the full story here.

Sage grouse take flight in east-central California, home to the Bi-state distinct population of the species.

Sage grouse take flight in east-central California, home to the Bi-state distinct population of the species.

With populations spanning 11 energy- and agriculture-rich western states, the sage-grouse is considered an icon of the West. By some estimates, its population has been reduced from millions to perhaps 500,000 today. But groups encouraging habitat plans have concluded that what is good for the sage-grouse is good for the land. Pronghorn, mule deer and hundreds of other plants and animals, including cattle, thrive where sage-grouse thrive.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce plans for the Bi-state sage grouse [a population unique to parts of Nevada and California] by the end of April, and landowners are hoping that doesn’t include a listing. A congressional rider to the 2015 federal spending bill forestalled any immediate action to list the showy, chicken-sized bird as endangered, according to Christina Schellpfeffer, Director of Communications & Outreach at the Sand County Foundation. 

“This hasn’t stopped determined people in the West from working to restore millions of acres of habitat,” Schellpfeffer shared. “What’s good for the bird is good for the range.”

Conserving rangeland in western Nevada is crucial for improving numbers of the Bi-state population of sage grouse.

Conserving rangeland in western Nevada is crucial for improving numbers of the Bi-state population of sage grouse.

Matt Byrne, a rancher in Northern California, notes that northern California has “one of the simplest sage-grouse problems to solve.” The key has been habitat restoration. Once the Byrnes and other landowners removed juniper, “the habitat repaired itself.” Other Western states such as Wyoming and Idaho, by contrast, face pressure to develop land for subdivisions or energy infrastructure, which can be a more difficult conservation barrier.

While the process has not always been easy, the longterm possibilities of a listing make it not only worth it, but necessary, Byrne said. A listing would possibly shut down any and all grazing. “There is very much a mutual benefit to restoring the landscape” for the bird, Byrne said.

Part of the restoration plan has included juniper cutting. “When we designed our juniper cutting programs with the botanist and the biologist, we’d look at the data and say ‘Well, they really like it there.’” Another important step the partners took was to ignore property boundaries between private and public land. This allowed the group to view the landscape from the point of view of sage-grouse, not the county assessor. The group worked on creating habitat corridors and reducing perches for birds of prey. As a result, the grouse populations began to increase.

According to Bridget Nielsen, with USFWS, “We’ve gone from almost nothing to coming back toward a sustainable population. And that’s the key to this.”

Partnerships like Byrne’s have USDA paying attention. The result, according to a new report, is that these rancher-based partnerships have helped protect millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat.

As the battle for the bird continues, the Sand County Foundation is working diligently to share success stories such as Byrne’s, and to help stakeholders ask the right questions, instead of just focusing on whether or not it is going to be listed.  

– Read the entire story here in the Western Livestock Journal.


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.