Range Conservation Across Continents: What Australia and America Have In Common

August 6, 2018

Field tour illustrates how voluntary conservation strategies working on behalf of America’s sage grouse can also help Australia’s plains-wanderer

Mandi Hirsch, Sage Grouse Initiative Range Specialist in Wyoming, recently hosted a two-day field tour for Matt Cameron (both pictured above), a conservation biologist with the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage in Australia. Matt visited the American West to learn more about SGI’s voluntary, partnership-based landscape conservation model.

Below is an interview with Mandi about her experience bridging conservation efforts between continents.

SGI: What are similarities between the North American sage grouse and the Australian plains-wanderer?

MH: Both are ground-dwelling birds that live in semi-arid grasslands. The plains-wanderer is smaller than a sage grouse, and lives in sparse native grasslands that occur on hard red soils in the eastern states of Australia. It has no close relatives, and is one of the most unique birds in the world!

This female plains-wanderer lives in the eastern states of Australia in sparse grasslands on hard red soils.

This female plains-wanderer lives in the eastern states of Australia in sparse grasslands on hard red soils.

Both bird species have drastically declined in population due to the loss of their habitat. Similar to sage grouse, grazing management is an important tool for securing the plains-wanderer’s future. Too much or too little grazing can both cause problems for plains-wanderers, which have very particular habitat requirements.

Like grouse, the plains-wanderer female breeds with several males. But unlike grouse, the males are the ones that incubate the eggs and care for the young! Interestingly, female plains-wanderers are the more colorful sex.

This tagged plains-wanderer chick was bred in captivity, a program designed to ensure the long-term security of this dwindling bird species.

This tagged plains-wanderer chick was bred in captivity, a program designed to ensure the long-term security of this dwindling bird species.

SGI: How did you introduce Matt to the SGI working lands conservation model?

MH: I first explained about sage grouse and their habitat, then discussed how SGI has been a paradigm shift in terms of conservation efforts. Next, I walked him through the details of how we work with ranchers on voluntary range improvement projects.  

Then Matt taught me about the issues facing the plains-wanderer “Down Under”. Matt works in the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, one of the few places that still has lots of plains-wanderer habitat. However, a long drought early this century meant that much of the bird’s habitat was overgrazed, causing a steep decline in plains-wanderer numbers. This resulted in the species being listed as Critically Endangered under Australia’s threatened species legislation.

Matt explained that they’ve established a captive breeding program to provide a safety net for the species, but improved management of its grassland habitat is critical to securing a long-term future for the bird. The Office of Environment and Heritage has partnered with Local Land Services to deliver a stewardship program known as “Paddocks for Plains-Wanderers”.

Land stewardship practices like prescribed grazing can help imperiled birds in both America and Australia. Photo: Mandi Hirsch

Land stewardship practices like prescribed grazing can help imperiled birds in both America and Australia. Photo: Mandi Hirsch

Like SGI, the Paddocks for Plains-Wanderer program assists landholders who voluntarily choose to manage paddocks for livestock production and conservation. The program has just started, but is getting good support from landholders, and the future is looking positive. Matt noted that the SGI provides a good example of what’s possible when government agencies and landowners work together to conserve declining wildlife species. 

SGI: Did Matt get to see any sage grouse on his visit?

MH: Yes! The first day, we toured a ranch in Fremont County, Wyoming, where the landowners were enrolled in an SGI prescribed grazing contract. Matt and I met with Archie and Lesa Chant, and their kids, Charlie and Hudson.

Wet meadows that abut sagebrush uplands provide prime habitat for wildlife. Photo: Archie Chant.

Wet meadows that abut sagebrush uplands provide prime habitat for wildlife. Photo: Archie Chant

This ranch is prime wildlife habitat, thanks in part to conservation practices put in place by Archie and Lesa. It has miles of wet meadows tied to sagebrush uplands that serve as a migration corridor for wildlife. Hundreds of sage grouse live there, too.

Archie was determined to show Matt his first sage grouse on our tour of the ranch, and was able to point out numerous roosters, hens, and even a clutch of four chicks! Matt was ecstatic.

During our tour, Archie and Lesa shared with Matt about what worked, what didn’t, and what they learned from their SGI contract. In turn, Matt asked for their perspective and feedback on Australia’s approach to working with landowners to assist the plains-wanderer.  

SGI: What other types of SGI conservation practices translate from America to Australia?

MH: Since herbaceous invasive species are a potential threat to the plains-wanderer, Matt wanted to see an invasive weed treatment project to learn more about SGI’s approach. We visited a second ranch in the midst of a six-year cheatgrass control plan, which includes a grazing plan that allows 15 months of rest following herbicide treatment.

We also looked at grazing management paired with NRCS-funded water developments on this ranch, as well as two pastures where the landowner has completed sagebrush thinning to improve plant species diversity and understory production. 

Lastly, I showed Matt several conifer removal project sites, and we discussed how this improves habitat and forage for both wildlife and livestock. One site was an active sage grouse lek where bird numbers have improved post-conifer cutting.

Invasion of grasslands by woody vegetation is a significant problem in the Riverina, and can make habitat unsuitable for plains-wanderers. Like us, the Aussies are trying different techniques for dealing with the problem, and Riverina farmers have embraced the assistance offered to remove woody weeds in and around plains-wanderer habitat.

SGI: Did you enjoy this cross-cultural conservation exchange?

MH: Definitely. I learned so much, and was grateful to have been able to participate in this amazing opportunity. It was eye-opening to see such conservation similarities between two difference continents, namely the challenges and opportunities facing the plains-wanderer and the greater sage grouse. We both gained new insights that we can share with our respective teams!

And it was also humbling to hear how widely respected the SGI working lands effort has become, even across the ocean! This experience made me further appreciate the passion and drive of our landowners, the SGI team, and our dedicated partners.

Proactive Conservation

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.