Round-up of Ranching Success Stories for Sage Grouse

May 20, 2015

(Photo left by Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partners with private landowners to put in place conservation projects that protect the sagebrush sea, western rangeland, and all of the people and wildlife who depend upon these landscapes.  Our voluntary projects focus on proactive, on-the-ground solutions that restore or preserve the unique sagebrush-steppe habitat in 11 western states.

Below is a roundup of a few example projects that showcase how SGI-enrolled ranchers have been able to improve their livestock operations and benefit sage grouse.

MIKE AND DEB DELANEY, Montana: Grazing Improvements

deb&mikedelaneyWe’ve always wanted to be good stewards of the land,” Deb said. “We’ve never thought of owning the land, but rather of taking care of it and growing grass, not cows.”

The Delany 44 Ranch, along with adjacent public and private neighbors, forms a significant haven for sage grouse in central Montana. Mike and Deb put in long days to pass down a successful and sustainable ranch to their daughter and son.  Profitability and passing on their legacy are two key reasons that the Delaneys worked with the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) when the NRCS first launched the partnership in 2010.

Sodbusting is one of the main threats to sage grouse populations, and this farming technique has already devastated range near the Delaney’s ranch.  To prevent this threat from impacting their property, Deb and Mike leveraged SGI funds to install new fencing and water pipelines that help them better manage livestock grazing.  As part of the NRCS-approved grazing management plan, 20 percent of the ranch is rested at a time.

They’re already seeing results they hadn’t counted on across their sizeable ranch: their cattle don’t have to range as far to find excellent forage and water, and are in better shape for calving season. The Delaneys currently graze about 75 fewer head of cattle, but with higher profitability: calf weights have gone up from about 500 to 600 pounds.

SHEILA AND BRYAN MASINI AND SON BRYSON, Nevada: Conservation Easements


Bryson Masini (son of Bryan)

Sustainability is where it’s at,” Bryan says. “Everything in these easements are good practices for raising our cattle as well as for the sage grouse. If we want to run cattle in the West, we have to be thinking about managing for all of the different critters that are out there. And we have found that we can do that while maintaining the business side of our operation.”

South of the Lake Tahoe region in Nevada, the Masini Family raises 2,000 yearlings on an irrigated cattle ranch under the shadow of the Sweetwater Mountains. Their property is literally an oasis in the desert, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of rangeland, meaning it’s a big draw for wildlife and sage grouse.

Another threat to the sagebrush-steppe habitat is the conversion of agricultural lands to residential or commercial developments.  This is particularly acute in areas of the Bi-State region, where a geographically distinct population of sage grouse depends upon an intact sagebrush sea to survive. Luckily, easements provide financial benefits for working ranches, as well as immense ecologic benefits for the critters that call the range home.

SGI funded conservation easements that cover the Masini’s Sweetwater Ranch. In addition to working with NRCS officials on a variety of conifer removal and grazing improvement projects, the Masini family has also signed conservation easements covering more than 4,150 acres, ensuring that the conservation measures they’ve put in place will be sustained in perpetuity.

GARY BEDORTHA, Oregon: Conifer Removal

Gary Bedortha (left) and Chris Mundy of the NRCS take a close look at native plants prospering in the sagebrush steppe. (Stuebner photo)

Gary Bedortha (left) and Chris Mundy of the NRCS take a close look at native plants. (Photo: Steve Stuebner)

Sage grouse concerns provided the reason to get the job done, but there’s a tremendous amount of other benefits,” Gary says.  “We’re going in the right direction for the bird, the land, and future generations.

Gary Bedortha runs cow-calf operation on prime sage grouse habitat in Central Oregon, using a deferred-rotation grazing plan to keep his grasses and his livestock healthy. He was the first rancher in the Paulina and Crook County area to enroll in SGI conservation programs, focusing on cutting down the invading juniper trees on his private ranch lands to restore habitat and the range.

Encroaching conifers are another top-tier threat to conserving sage grouse and their ecosystem.  Junipers and pinyon pines have expanded their range some 600 percent in western states since the 1800s, affecting Oregon, northern California, Idaho, Utah and parts of Colorado. When the conifers converge on sagebrush rangelands, they crowd out other native plant and animal species, consume large amounts of water, and convert wet meadows to dry landscapes devoid of diversity.

On Bedortha’s ranch, the NRCS has provided cost-share contracts that allowed him to treat 12,000 acres since 2010.  Gary prefers limbing the trees, so that the woody material lays flat on the ground, blending into the landscape and providing nutrients for the soil. Bedortha has led the way for other nearby ranchers to get involved, resulting in more than 60,000 acres of juniper removal in eastern Crook County over the past four years.

Plus, these conifer removal projects also give a boost to the local economy, and can keep money in the community, too.  The first year that Bedortha participated, he contracted with his sons who had recently graduated from high school along with several of their friends. All of the boys had grown up on ranches, so they knew how to run chainsaws and were hard workers. Bedortha had a half-dozen young men staying at his house, all summer long, and they treated about 5,000 acres of land.