PHEASANTS FOREVER Magazine | Making Room Out West

lesser prairie chicken WLFW

February 5, 2018

Lesser prairie chickens are one of several grouse species that avoid trees. NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife partners with Pheasants Forever to remove invading conifers and restore wide-open grassland and sageland wildlife habitat.

Removing encroaching trees benefits upland gamebirds, ranching and wildlife

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by Hannah Nikonow, Intermountain West Joint Venture

Did you know that some iconic western game birds hate trees? A long-time champion of habitat restoration and enhancement, Pheasants Forever is helping pioneer recovery of upland game bird habitat by removing woody shrubs and trees from places they don’t belong.

Why? Because good habitat means more game and non-game birds, and better hunting.

Cooperative recovery efforts are targeting three prized species: the greater sage grouse, greater prairie chicken, and lesser prairie chicken. Although they inhabit vastly different parts of the country, these prairie grouse share common needs — all require wide-open habitats to survive and an intolerance for woody encroachment on their home turf.

Today, invasive trees are capitalizing on 100 years of “Smokey the Bear” policies that have largely removed historic fire regimes that used to keep trees where they belong. Key offenders taking over grasslands include western juniper, eastern red cedar and mesquite.

sage grouse rick mcewan

Greater sage-grouse avoid areas where trees grow. Photo: Rick McEwan

Beating these woody species back is crucial for both sagebrush and prairie-loving gamebirds to thrive. Left unchecked, they steal water, sunlight, and soil nutrients from native flora. Their unnatural expansion depletes grasses and local groundwater stores, all of which are critical resources for upland birds, big game and  scores of other wildlife, not to mention livestock.

As a result, both ranchers and hunters have a shared interest in combating this joint threat.  People are now learning to effectively manage the invasion with prescribed fire and mechanical removal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has committed Farm Bill resources to restoring grassland and sagelands through its Working Lands for Wildlife partnership.

Here we celebrate a few stories about how this partnership with conservation-minded producers and land managers is restoring upland habitats with thoughtful and targeted tree removal.


The greater sage grouse, largest of the prairie grouse, relies on healthy sagebrush rangelands for every aspect of its life. In winter, these birds rely on a diet of solely sagebrush and actually gain weight from the nutritious leaves.

Similar to pheasants, sage grouse also ‘follow the green line’ during the dog days of summer in search of wet meadows that provide insects and succulent grasses for hungry chicks.

Every invading tree in sagebrush habitat acts like a giant straw in the ground, robbing arid  rangeland habitats of precious water. A single juniper can suck up to 30 gallons of water a day. This in turn robs the range of native plants — in severely tree-invaded landscapes, only bare dirt remains beneath trees, leaving entire landscapes devoid of sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers.

Sage grouse also evolved in a treeless landscape and naturally avoid vertical structure. In fact, new science confirms that most grouse leave tree-infested lands, and birds that do remain, suffer high mortality rates. Unsurprisingly, these impacts extend to big game populations, degrading the hunting experience for all enthusiasts.

In the American West, with its wealth of public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is taking a proactive approach to invasive tree removal. In 2017 alone, BLM restored habitat for sage grouse, elk, mule deer, antelope and songbirds on a half-million acres by removing encroaching juniper.

In southeast Oregon, sagebrush songbird populations increased by 50-80% on BLM lands following tree removal. Pheasants Forever replicated this success in Burley, Idaho, through an innovative partnership with NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative, BLM, and two dozen ranchers, restoring an entire watershed by cutting trees on private and public lands.

“In some places, beneficial cuts end at the fence line, but with our partnership, treatments now span ownership boundaries to achieve whole watershed benefits,” said Michael Brown, Sage Grouse Initiative Field Capacity Coordinator and Pheasants Forever employee.

“Wildlife response is almost immediate — when invading trees are pulled out, sagebrush-loving grouse, songbirds and big game come right back in.”


“Pheasants Forever’s ability to combat woodland encroachment is vital to conservation in the West,” said Tim Griffiths, western coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife, a program of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Their partnership puts the boots on the ground that make large-scale conservation happen.”

By identifying priority landscapes for restoration, Working Lands for Wildlife uses an incentive-based, partnership-driven approach to conserve whole landscapes. This kind of collaboration efficiently stretches limited resources to achieve impactful conservation outcomes. These prairie grouse initiatives are powered by Pheasants Forever field staff, in addition to other conservation professionals and their organizations.

“Much of our country has game birds that are suffering from invading trees,” Griffiths said. “Science has shown us the negative impacts of the invasion — now it’s our job to help restore these rangelands for the wildlife and rural economies that depend upon them.”

Working Lands for Wildlife and Sage Grouse Initiative will be at Pheasant Fest this year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, February 16-18. Make sure to stop by our booth to learn about the initiatives and opportunities in your state.

Read more about removing conifers in sagebrush country >

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.