Where the Sage Grouse Roam: Ranching for Conservation in Colorado

June 29, 2015

Photo to the left by Lauren Blair: Moffat County rancher Wes McStay helps create healthy sagebrush habitat through sustainable grazing practices.

The story below is excerpted from Where the sage grouse roam by Lauren Blair. This 3-part series appeared in the Craig Daily Press in June 2015.

Preserving landscape and grouse

“The big empty. Wild country,” McStay said of the land. “And the sage grouse, they’re an icon of it, of the West.”

The West is home to countless multi-generational ranches, which run in size from several thousand to more than 100,000 acres in size.

Just as the sage grouse is faced with myriad challenges to its survival, so is the family ranch, which is disappearing throughout the West due to impossibly high estate taxes, estate planning challenges, and younger generations leaving the ranch for a more modern lifestyle.

The result is often subdivision of the ranch into smaller, more highly developed parcels, breaking up the vast tracts of uninterrupted landscapes afforded by the large, working ranch.

“We need to understand, these are the people that hold this land together,” Rutledge said. “We’re dependent on them and they’re dependent on us.”

Ranching for conservation in Northwest Colorado

rancher with livestock

Rotational grazing is good for the bird and good for the herd. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

McStay is one of more than 1,100 ranchers across the greater sage grouse’s 11-state range who has signed up with SGI to implement conservation measures in the name of preserving the bird and other wildlife. SGI, currently represented in Craig by Yarbrough, has worked with 15 Northwest Colorado ranchers since its inception in 2010.

“Rotational (cattle) grazing, I think, is one of the most beneficial things for grouse,” McStay said. “One of the things we’ve been working on is water development, where you can actually concentrate the animals into a larger herd into a single pasture and then when that’s grazed, you move ‘em.”

The cattle stay on a single pasture for a few days or weeks and then the McStays move them to the next grazing spot. In so doing, the native plant life has a chance to recover, thereby providing nourishment and the necessary ground cover that sage grouse and other wildlife need.

By making water available in pastures that were once dry, ranchers can let pastures with better water resources rest. Yarbrough also often helps ranchers install additional fences to subdivide pastures so livestock can be more easily rotated throughout the range.

“A lot of people… just know they want to manage their property better and improve grazing management,” Yarbrough said. “It just happens to meet the needs of sage grouse, leaving more residual cover on the ground. It’s all accomplishing the same goals.”

Read the full article by Lauren Blair in the Craig Daily Press.

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.