North Dakota Sage Grouse Initiative Partnership: Planting Wyoming Big Sage on Brooks Ranch Enhances Sage Grouse Habitat

April 22, 2014

Update July 2014: North Dakota Outdoors published this story and added more photographs–Thanks!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Deborah Richie, SGI Communications Director, 406-721-6609, or 406-370-7556, deborah.richie@sagegrouseinitiative.com

or: Byrhonda Lyons, Acting NRCS Public Affairs Officer, Bismarck, North Dakota :701-530-2096,  Byrhonda.Lyons@mt.usda.gov

This is the first in a series of SGI success stories featuring a rancher from each of the 11 western states in 2014.

(To right: Planting sagebrush on the Brooks ranch, NRCS photo) 

By Steve Stuebner, for the Sage Grouse Initiative

 

On a cool October day, a westerly wind made waves in thrifty, knee-high grasslands as it blew across the rolling hills of the Brooks Ranch, near Rhame, North Dakota. Located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, the Brooks Ranch lies on the eastern fringe of native sage grouse range in North America.

Sage grouse populations are declining – most recently because of a big hit from West Nile virus. But historically, there were dozens of sage grouse leks (breeding areas) in southwest North Dakota. Another limiting factor is the loss of Wyoming big sagebrush habitat in this region of the mixed grass prairie, which straddles the nexus between shrub-steppe habitat and the Dakota grasslands. Local ranchers like Rob Brooks are working together with local, state, and federal agencies to restore sage grouse habitat by planting Wyoming big sage, Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis, on private lands.

It’s all part of the Sage Grouse Initiative launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010. The Initiative is a national partnership that aims to proactively conserve sage grouse and habitat on private ranches in 11 western states in hopes that the federal government won’t have to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. A proposed decision on the listing is expected in 2015.

Wayne Duckwitz, NRCS Plant Materials Center, plants sagebrush on the Brooks Ranch. (NRCS photo)

That fall morning was a planting day. Brooks and David Dewald, an NRCS biologist who organized the project, led a convoy of vehicles across the ranch to preselected planting sites amid native grasses such as green needle grass, western wheat grass and little bluestem.

A diverse group of agency professionals and volunteers tagged along to help. The planters came from several NRCS offices  (the Plant Materials Center in Bismarck, the local office in Bowman, the Dickinson Area Office, and the state office in Bismarck) and from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Pheasants Forever, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They all were eager to participate in the experimental project to learn how to plant Wyoming big sage in the best way possible in grasslands that historically had sagebrush, as well as in former croplands, and in fields planted with crested wheatgrass.

“Everyone was enthusiastic about being out there, working on something that wasn’t totally proven,” says Wayne Duckwitz, manager of the Bismarck Plant Materials Center. “It strengthened our partnerships working together in the field, and we all had a common goal of improving the habitat.”

Duckwitz credits Dewald with pulling together all of the partners for the planting project. “He had all of the connections, his heart was in it, and it was good PR to work with all of the other agencies.”

Prior to setting up the planting projects, Dewald and Duckwitz searched for information about best practices for planting Wyoming big sage. “There wasn’t much in the literature about planting sagebrush, so we were kind of leery about what we’d get accomplished — at the least at the outset,” says Dewald, who recently retired from NRCS and works as a wetlands mitigation specialist for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

“One thing we knew is that it’s very labor-intensive,” Duckwitz adds.

Part of the sage grouse conservation strategy in western North Dakota is to improve the habitat for sage grouse near existing and historic leks. Fish and wildlife experts know that sage grouse prefer to select Wyoming big sage plants for spring nesting cover, brood hiding cover and winter cover. The shrubs would provide habitat for other wildlife such as songbirds and deer.

The game plan for that day was to plant about 600 Wyoming big sage seedlings at four different sites on the Brooks ranch. At some sites, the planting crew dug holes by hand with narrow spades to plant the seedlings. Where they had access, they used a Giddings probe with a four-inch hydraulic auger attachment that made fast work of the hole digging. “We liked using that auger as much as possible,” Dewald says. “It made it go really fast.”

Why Rob Brooks Wants to See More Sagebrush on His Cattle Ranch

Cattle rancher Rob Brooks was supportive of the project after participating in a workshop that the NRCS presented in cooperation with partner agencies about the need to improve sage grouse habitat in western North Dakota. “I told the guys whenever you’d like to try it, let’s try it,” Brooks says. “I gave them the green light.”

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Rob Brooks (center with stick) enjoyed participating in the planting of Big Sage on his private land to benefit sage grouse, and his rangeland health.

The big-picture strategy of restoring sage grouse populations in the area by enhancing their habitat — a strategy recommended by NRCS and North Dakota Game and Fish — made sense, he adds.

“We’re trying to establish habitat seed sources to create larger areas of quality habitat in the sage grouse core areas,” says Aaron Robinson, grouse coordinator for North Dakota Game and Fish, who explained the strategy during a workshop that Brooks attended several years ago.

Brooks, whose father purchased the ranch in 1961, remembers hunting sage grouse as a kid when the birds were more numerous. In addition to improving sage grouse habitat, he likes the idea of adding more Wyoming big sage to his property to help trap the snow, provide cover for his calves in the spring, and provide benefits for other wildlife.

Brooks participated in the sage-planting day, and enjoyed it. “I love being out there, trying to make improvements to our land,” he says.

So far, preliminary results show that on Brooks’ property, as well as at a half-dozen other participating ranch properties in the vicinity, the Wyoming big sage seedlings are doing well, with a high degree of survival — about 60-70 percent. Approximately 5,000 shrubs were planted over a three-year period between 2009 and 2011. The seedlings are still young and emerging, standing about 4-6 inches tall.

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Planting sagebrush seedlings on a North Dakota grassland takes many hands. (photo, NRCS)

“They’re still really small above ground, but I’m hoping that they’re putting some roots down,” Duckwitz says. “Usually that’s what happens with a plant like this before you see that much growth above ground.”

Initially, the planters placed biodegradable cones around the seedlings, and some planting sites were spot-sprayed with an herbicide to prevent grass species from out-competing the seedlings. Over time, the Plant Materials Center dropped the use of herbicides and cones because those practices didn’t seem to enhance survival, compared to seedlings planted without those measures.

They found that the best time to plant was in the spring, when rain is most apt to fall in western North Dakota. October or November, before the onset of winter and snow proved to work well too. They also tried broadcasting some seeds in the snow. Southwest North Dakota receives about 16 inches of precipitation annually, the majority in the spring.

Planting in loamy or sandy soils did better than plantings in clay. Surprisingly, wildlife hasn’t caused any problems with the seedlings as yet, Duckwitz says. They anticipated that antelope, deer and livestock might eat the seedlings, and they expected that rodents might cause trouble, too. “We noticed that the voles were girdling the mature silver sage plants, but we didn’t notice any problems with our Wyoming big sage seedlings,” Duckwitz says. Girdling means cutting a ring around the circumference of a tree or shrub, piercing the cambium layer, to kill it.

NRCS has produced a summary report explaining the experience of their sagebrush-planting field trials at the Brooks ranch and others, explaining which practices worked best.

The NRCS Plant Materials Center Collects Seed and Raises Sagebrush Seedlings

Before the sagebrush planting could begin, officials with the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Bismarck had to collect the seeds from native Wyoming big sage on BLM lands in shrub-steppe habitat of SW Bowman County, about an hour south of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Seed collection

It’s labor-intensive to strip sagebrush seeds from plants and gather them to plant later in greenhouses (NRCS photo)

BLM officials researched the best seed-collection sites for NRCS. Nancy Jensen, an agronomist with the Plant Materials Center, gathered the seed along with several folks from the BLM and NRCS state offices. They hand-picked the seed in the late fall, when the sagebrush branches were heavily laden with seeds, drooping over with the weight of them. They also waited until the weather had dropped below freezing. That made it easier to strip off the seeds from ends of sagebrush branches. “It only took us a couple of hours,” Jensen says. “After the seeds freeze, it makes them dry, and they’re easier to strip off the branch.”

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Growing Big Sage in the Plant Materials Center, NRCS, in Bismarck, ND (NRCS photo)

They placed the tiny seeds in bags and transported them to the Plant Materials Center. Jensen started the plants in January and raised them until May, when it was time to plant them in the ground. The Plant Materials Center didn’t have any experience with raising Wyoming big sage seedlings, but they knew the plant grew in a dry environment in a natural setting, so they didn’t want to overwater them or raise them in humid conditions. The plants germinated nicely, Jensen says, and she placed them in long, narrow tubes where they could grow into “plugs” for planting.

“We didn’t want to get them too wet,” she says. “Those plants like it dry. So you don’t water them as much. They came out fine; they had nice long roots.”

Seeing the sagebrush-planting project’s success so far, Dewald, Duckwitz and Brooks all had a good sense of accomplishment. “The Plant Material Center did a great job collecting the seed and growing the seedlings in the greenhouse,” Dewald says.

Duckwitz liked working with all of the partner agency people on the project. “It was a good way of showcasing the importance of working together to save a species that’s been native to this area for a long, long time,” he says. “It was kind of neat to get to meet all of the other agency people and learn something about sage grouse, too.”

Landowner Partners Key to Success for Sage Grouse Habitat Restoration

It was key to find ranchers who were willing to plant wildlife habitat on their private land to help an imperiled species. “Mr. Brooks is one of our top landowner partners,” says Robinson of North Dakota Game and Fish. “He understands this project will benefit his ranch, sage grouse and other wildlife species.”

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Sharp-tailed grouse inhabit the Brooks Ranch, along with many other kinds of wildlife. (photo Richard Baetsen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Brooks family, which raises Black Angus cattle in a cow-calf operation, is accustomed to doing a variety of projects to improve the land, says Wendy Bartholomay, District Conservationist in the NRCS Bowman Field Office. “If you took a walk on his property, you’d be able to see that he does a lot for the protection of the land and the resources. Rob really believes that whatever improvements he makes for his operations are also good for wildlife. He practices what he preaches,” she says.

Wildlife thrive on the Brooks Ranch, Bartholomay says, adding that on a given day, one might see antelope, deer, songbirds, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants and wild turkey. The family manages its cattle herd with a prescribed grazing management plan to ensure that the pastures are not overused, she says.

Brooks hopes that the habitat-improvement project will help bring back the sage grouse in western North Dakota. Robinson thinks it will, along with other projects to return big sage that was lost over the past century for a variety of reasons.  “Eventually, the habitat will increase and establish in areas that have supported sage grouse in the past,” he says.

For now, however, North Dakota Game and Fish officials are watching sage grouse populations closely. The birds’ numbers have dropped significantly since the onset of West Nile virus in 2007 and 2008. Brooks still remembers when that occurred. “The birds really took a hit from that,” he says.”I’ll never forget driving around the ranch and seeing songbirds lying dead all over the place. The local biologists said it took a big hit on sage grouse, too.”

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Sage grouse depend on sagebrush to flourish. (photo, Ken Miracle)

Since that time, Robinson says the stars have not aligned for a really productive brood year for sage grouse. The bird populations have been declining about 5 percent per year until 2012, when they increased about 15 percent, he says. “Our populations are at a critical juncture. We may not be able to recover the population without augmentation.”

While Game & Fish monitors that situation, Brooks hopes that the habitat-improvement work on his property will show federal wildlife authorities that he is trying to do his part. “My biggest fear is I’d hate to see them listed as an endangered species and have to deal with that,” he says. “There could be new restrictions that limit how I use my land. There are a lot of unknowns associated with that. But I feel real strong that there’s nothing we’re doing as ranchers that’s detrimental to sage grouse. We’ve got habitat coming out of our ears now.”

At the very least, the NRCS Plant Materials Center and NRCS field offices are learning how to raise Wyoming big sagebrush in the field with solid success rates so far, and the best practices that came out of the experimental habitat-improvement projects can be shared with agency professionals who might have a similar goal elsewhere in sage grouse range.

“We did it at a large-enough scale to know that it works, and it could be applied at a bigger scale,” Dewald said. “It was a fun project — one of the most-rewarding things I did in the tail end of my career with the NRCS.”

For more information on the Wyoming big sage planting project, here are two online links:

Briefing paper on planting Wyoming big sage: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/ndpmctn7087.pdf

Technical report on sagebrush planting, discussion starts on page 130: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/ndpmctr11925.pdf

  Steve Stuebner is a professional writer specializing in natural resources issues, based in Boise, Idaho.

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.