Sage Grouse Recovery in Washington Takes Giant Stride Forward

December 6, 2012

Washington NRCS

Contact: Kelli Bartholomew, SGI Range & Wildlife Conservationist, 509.754.3023 x1120

The Sage Grouse Initiative, launched by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, applies Farm Bill dollars strategically where the funding will make the greatest difference. The goal is to recover sage grouse through voluntary, incentive-based programs rather than a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“What’s good for ranching is good for grouse” is the guiding principle behind the Initiative. Sage grouse need vast, intact shrub-steppe with a mix of sagebrush and perennial bunchgrasses, and healthy wet meadows.

In 2012, ranchers enrolled 14,400 acres in grazing programs designed to improve range health for livestock and habitat for this species in jeopardy. The proximity of the lands to each other will provide the landscape-level conservation that sage grouse require.

“We’re on the gain here for sage grouse,” says rancher Kay D. Leander, who lives in Douglas County near Leahy Junction, about 30 miles west of Grand Coulee Dam.

Leander keeps his eye on the sage grouse that use his ranch, along with other wildlife. He’s pleased that with Sage Grouse Initiative funding, he’s able make improvements that he wouldn’t be able to afford on his own. For instance, new fencing allows him to rest more pastures.

“We always take good care of our grass,” Leander says.”You can’t starve a profit out of a cow.”

Range and Wildlife Conservationist Kelli Bartholomew serves in a partnership position with NRCS and Pheasants Forever to apply Sage Grouse Inititiative funds on the ground. She and fellow field staff have focused efforts on Leander’s and neighboring ranches that are critical habitat located around leks (sage grouse breeding grounds).

“We’ve developed a program to work for producers and sage grouse,” says Bartholomew. “That’s the key. We listened to what they wanted first.”

In Washington, sage grouse inhabit only eight percent of their historic state range. Unlike other parts of the west, private lands harbor the best remaining habitat that has not been converted to cropland. Recovering sage grouse populations require improving and connecting these vital lands.

Landowners enrolled in the Sage Grouse Initiative are developing rotational grazing plans that alternate pastures over two growing seasons. The result will be higher residual cover left in the spring for nesting sage grouse and their chicks, and better range for cattle operations.

“It’s good for the whole community,” Leander says. He explains that jobs are few and hard to come by in their rural area. Every contract for fencing, drilling wells and adding pipeline is an economic boost to the close-knit community.

Living far from town where dark skies glisten with stars and the nearest neighbor is several miles away isn’t for everyone, he says. For Leander and his family it’s a way of life that is enriched by the wildlife around them.

“I like the deer. I even like the coyotes,” he says. “I figure any guy that can make it out here deserves to live.”

He leaves water running in pastures when cattle are gone, so grouse will have a place to drink. When driving his combine through the fields at night, he keeps a sharp look out for wildlife, especially as he nears the unplowed Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands.

“The biggest bunch I ever saw was two years ago,” Leander says. “I saw 35 or 40 of them. I couldn’t believe it. If we can keep the sage grouse numbers going up, that’s good.”

Read more, NRCS PDF.

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.