Lara Fondow enjoys working with birds and people. That’s why she currently works as a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) Range and Wildlife Conservationist in Rexburg.
Fondow became interested in the private land side of wildlife ecology while working on her masters degree in Florida. While working on her degree, she studied whooping crane habitat selection. Most of the whooping cranes ended up using privately held cattle ranches in Florida, so to collect her data and monitor the birds, she had to work closely with agricultural producers.
“Not only did I discover firsthand how important those lands were for wildlife, but also, I really enjoyed working with the private landowners. From that point forward, that’s really what I wanted to focus on,” said Fondow.
About a year ago, Fondow came to Idaho, where she has been working with landowners to proactively and voluntarily improve sage grouse habitat and eliminate threats to the birds.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that sage grouse warranted protection on the Endangered Species Act. However, the listing was precluded at that time because other species took higher priority on the list. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in September 2015 whether to officially list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
For Fondow and her colleagues, whatever happens, it will be business as usual.
“We’re going to continue to put proactive conservation on the ground and continue to show that we’re having positive benefits to the bird,” Fondow said.
Fondow’s goal now is to address threats to sage grouse through existing Farm Bill — the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government — programs and practices. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program each target funding to benefit sage grouse through the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative. There are plenty of threats to sage grouse, and the threats vary by location throughout the western United States.
In the Upper Snake River area, a primary goal is to manage for sustainable range conditions over long term periods. Residual grass cover and plant health and diversity are important for successful nesting and brood rearing.
“Grass really helps to provide ground predator cover for them when they’re nesting,” Fondow said.
Related to declining range conditions is the encroachment of junipers. Junipers are water thirsty shrubs. A single juniper tree can draw 25 gallons of water out of the ground. By ridding these, it opens the country area back up. The sage grouse are affected because they need wide open habitats. Anything that threatens wide open sage-steppe, whether it be junipers, roads, or housing developments, can drive the sage grouse away.
“We don’t have Juniper encroachment much up here as a threat, but that is a big one in other parts of the range,” Fondow said.
Wildfires present another threat to the sage grouse. In eastern Idaho, the threat isn’t as large due to a more resilient landscape and moister climate, but in the southwestern part of the state, wildfires are a huge threat, mainly due to cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an invasive grass that is native to much of Europe, the northern rim of Africa, and southwestern Asia, but it is now common in North America.
“It comes in early and greens up early in the spring, so it looks great. But then it dries out really early, right around lightning season and hot dry days. This stuff is dried out and ready to burn,” Fondow said. “It really changes the fire behavior. With repeated wildfires, entire landscapes can be converted to annual grasslands, and the sagebrush and native perennial grass components can be lost entirely.
Other threats, such as fence collisions, are easier to prevent, but still remain a concern. During lekking season in March, the sage grouse enjoy doing so in open areas — farm fields, open pasture, etc. They want to be seen by a potential mate.
But livestock fences around lekking areas pose problems because the grouse are constantly flying in and out at daybreak. When they’re flying in and out at low light conditions, they don’t see the fences, and they can strike it.
One of the things that Fondow and her colleagues do is mark the fences, similiar to how power lines are marked with reflective units for swans, cranes and other birds. The markers that Fondow installs on fences are often made of vinyl material. She is currently working on a project with the Clark County School District to produce and install several markers around leks on the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.
“Fence marking has a proven positive benefit for the birds and is a nice thing to involve the community in,” Fondow said.
Another threat to sage grouse and other wildlife is the threat of drowning in stock tanks.
“Because it’s pretty arid and water is limiting and drying up, animals will go to get water in the stock tanks and will occasionally drown. It fouls up the stock water,” Fondow said.
The solution is to fit the tanks with escape ramps. The birds are essentially able to crawl up the ramp ladders to escape.
With all of these threats, one may wonder whether there is a solution to all of the issues. How can everyone — ranchers, environmentalists, government agencies — be happy? How can sage grouse be ensured the protection they need as a species?
There may not be an easy answer, but there is optimism that a solution can be reached.
“The BLM and Forest Service, they’re all updating their resource management plans to address sage grouse. Hopefully, even if it gets listed, at least in our ranching and agricultural community, there won’t be too many adjustments to make,” Fondow said.
The BLM and Forest Service are just a few of the groups taking a closer look at what can be done to help the animals.
“A lot of groups are getting together. SGI represents a pretty big part of that in coming to the table and working toward solutions and trying to get this thing figured out,” Fondow said. “There are probably some groups that might never be happy. But I think overall, it’s been really encouraging that all these different partnerships are coming together and trying to make it work.”
There are many different opinions on what needs to be done about the issues facing the sage grouse. For Fondow, there are plenty of benefits to helping the sage grouse.
“Sage grouse are an icon of the west,” Fondow said. “Because they are such a landscape bird, they serve as an umbrella species. Conserving the sage grouse ends up conserving a lot of other animals.”
The bottom line?
“We can work together to find solutions that work for everybody, that keep the bird on the land and keep the ranchers on the land. The ranchers are really the stewards who maintain these large swaths of habitat across the checkerboard of land ownership we have out here,” Fondow said. “It’s something we need to address. Doing it proactively and cooperatively is one of the best ways to do it.”