Science Reveals Sage Advice: Cut (the Right) Trees to Save Bird and Herd

cows and sage grouse hens sharing wet meadow ken miracle

January 16, 2017

A cow and sage grouse share a pasture on a ranch out West. New science shows that removing conifers has positive impacts for both wildlife and working lands. Photo by Ken Miracle.

Val Anderson, President, Society for Range Management: (303) 986-3309
Christian Hagen, Science Advisor, Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative: (541) 410-0238
Dave Naugle, Science Advisor for Sage Grouse Initiative: (406) 240-0113

[Missoula, Mont.] – Woody species—namely juniper and pinyon pine trees in sagebrush country and red cedar and mesquite in the southern Great Plains—are encroaching onto rangelands across fifteen western states to the detriment of both working ranches and wildlife. Luckily, new research shows that removing conifers can restore habitat for at-risk birds like the greater sage-grouse and the lesser prairie-chicken, and improve water availability and forage production for agricultural producers.

The Society for Range Management’s (SRM) scientific journal, Rangeland Ecology & Management, just released a special issue focused entirely on this landscape-level threat. Fifteen new research papers describe the impacts of the woody invasion of western rangelands, using grouse as focal species. This cutting-edge research will also be presented at a symposium on January 31 as part of SRM’s annual conference in St. George, Utah.

“Conifers have been steadily invading sagebrush and prairie country for the past 150 years, drying up precious streams, taking over habitat for wildlife, and replacing valuable forage for livestock,” says Val Anderson, president of SRM. “Now we can better target where and how we remove trees to benefit the bird and the herd.”

With a shared vision of wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching, hundreds of partners—from state and federal agencies, to local and national non-profits, to counties and community members—have worked together to address the growing threat encroaching woodlands pose to America’s rangelands.

For USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), removing encroaching woody plants is a conservation priority through its Sage Grouse Initiative and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, both focal species under the umbrella of NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife.

“This conifer research is a great example of how we can work collaboratively to define the right questions in order to produce actionable science. These studies provide on-the-ground solutions for working lands and wildlife,” says Dave Naugle, science advisor for the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Since 2010, thousands of ranchers have made voluntary, proactive improvements to more than 6 million acres in the West – including removing woody plants from a total of 600,000 acres – benefiting sage grouse and prairie chickens while also improving livestock forage on private land.

Highlighting a range of cross-disciplinary topics, the Range Ecology & Management journal and the symposium include findings such as these:

Sage grouse and prairie chicken avoid conifer-dominated areas, which provide perches for predators that threaten the viability of their eggs and chicks.

New online mapping tools provide site-specific information that helps landowners and resource managers more effectively targets conifer removal projects.

Collaborative models proactively conserve sagebrush habitat, such as a diverse partnership on the California-Nevada border that precluded the need for listing the bi-state population of greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Three species of sagebrush-dependent songbirds increased in abundance by 50-80 percent after conifers were removed on project sites that included both public and private land.

Water stays on the ground an average of nine days longer in sagebrush ecosystems compared to juniper-dominated landscapes, providing ranchers and wildlife with much-needed water later in the summer.

“Using this new research will help partners better target conifer and range management practices in order to maximize the return on conservation investments,” says Christian Hagen, science advisor for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative.

The full-day symposium on January 31 will feature 20-minute presentations on these latest scientific findings about how woodland invasion is affecting grouse, wildlife, and people living in sagebrush and prairie ecosystems. All presentations will be broadcast live on the Sage Grouse Initiative’s website.

To live-stream presentations from the SRM symposium or access free links to all research papers visit:

Read the special issue on woodland expansion

Learn more about the symposium

Download free photos for media

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.