“Ranching Gone Right,” Thanks To Partners Like The Nature Conservancy

May 8, 2017

The following excerpts are from The Nature Conservancy’s blog as well as their “High Divide Headwaters” webpage on sagebrush grasslands. As a valued partner in the Sage Grouse Initiative, The Nature Conservancy works with landowners across the range on innovative grazing systems, conservation easements, and scientific research that helps to achieve lasting conservation outcomes for working lands and wildlife.

Recovery: Ranching Gone Right‘ by Ted Williams in Cool Green Science 

“What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” declares Jay Tanner who, with his brothers Blaine and Brent, runs the Della Ranches in northwestern Utah. He’s referring to the greater sage grouse which the three brothers, other green ranchers, NGOs, state and federal agencies are striving to recover before it declines to the point that the Fish and Wildlife Service is forced to list it under the Endangered Species Act.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the Tanners, four other ranches and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to secure $3.7 million in public funding to restore and protect 9,312 acres of sage-grouse habitat. For the Tanners’ leadership in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program called Partners for Fish and Wildlife and their work for sage grouse and other wildlife, Della Ranches received the Environmental Stewardship Award in 2011 and the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation award in 2009.

Conservation easements are the Conservancy’s main tool for saving open space and wildlife. For instance, it holds close to 85,000 acres of easements on ranchland around Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains, another sage grouse stronghold. And in southwest Montana’s “High Divide” country, the Conservancy is partnering with NRCS and Montana State Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Program to provide funding to encourage more conservation easements.


Master scene of Silver Creek by Guiseppe Siata. (From Cool Green Science post, “Recovery Ranching Gone Right”)

Protecting high elevation sagebrush habitat for a working wilderness

Among the High Divide Headwaters lies vast sagebrush habitat, unique and distinct from other’s in the Great Basin and Montana’s Great Plains due to its altitude. These high elevation sagebrush grasslands support a wetter mosaic of habitats, many of which are essential for species that are declining across their broader range, like the greater sage-grouse.

Approximately 90 bird species and more than 85 mammals have come to rely on these high elevation sagebrush grasslands for habitat, which when healthy, are more resistant to invasive plants, have a higher percent of cover to hide from predators, and produce more seasonal forage. In the future, we can look to these landscapes to serve as a refuge in a warmer and drier climate.

Yet, wildlife are not the only ones that call the sagebrush-steppe home. Ranchers also rely on the remote and wild grasslands for livestock grazing, making this critical habitat a delicate but dynamic working wilderness.

The typical good stewardship demonstrated by livestock grazers in these high elevation pastures, such as not grazing in areas when sage-grouse are nesting, has long supported a place where ranchers and wildlife can live in harmony. This is one of the reasons why greater sage-grouse populations are stable in the High Divide, while rapidly declining elsewhere.

Rather, the primary threats to Southwest Montana’s sagebrush grasslands include habitat fragmentation caused by residential development and exurban expansion. Invasive plants, conifer encroachment, and barriers such as fences, are also responsible for the loss of these otherwise intact and resilient intermountain sagebrush seas.

To preserve this landscape and ensure it can remain a working wilderness for both ranchers and nature, the Conservancy provides resources to help landowners improve their management practices and restore degraded habitat. For instance, using funds from the Sage Grouse Initiative, The Nature Conservancy collaborated with two ranches in the High Divide to provide socio-economic and ecological benefits on over 45,000 acres of sagebrush grasslands.

This thriving sagebrush landscape in the Centennial Valley of Mountain includes big sagebrush, Idaho fescue, and Indian paintbrush. Photo: Jeremy Roberts.

This thriving sagebrush landscape in the Centennial Valley of Montana includes big sagebrush, Idaho fescue, and Indian paintbrush. Photo by Jeremy Roberts.

Learn more about The Nature Conservancy’ work on sage grouse

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.