Could Abandoned Homesteads Help Keep the Sage Grouse Off the Endangered Species List?

Commentary

Could Abandoned Homesteads Help Keep the Sage Grouse Off the Endangered Species List?

While the most memorable word from the movie “The Graduate” is famously “plastics”, a key word for keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list may be “homesteads.” According to an article in the current issue of Progressive Rancher, by a professor and three extension personnel at the University of Nevada, long-abandoned homesteads in Nevada may well be the solution to the state’s efforts to conserve the sage grouse more effectively in order to keep it off the endangered species list.

Much of the effort to conserve the sage grouse, both in Nevada and elsewhere, is focused on managing livestock that graze in the grouse’s sage brush habitat. Yet, as the article in Progressive Rancher points out:

“[A]ppropriate livestock grazing management alone does not seem to be appreciably improving the plight of sage-grouse. Better management of sagebrush ecosystems is always paramount for any number of reasons, including sage-grouse, but the ranching industry should become proactive and look at specific vegetation management actions that could directly improve the sage-grouse habitat in shortest supply: mid- and late-summer brood rearing areas. Instead of lamenting what is out of the ranching industry’s control, let’s ask a very important question. If, according to wildlife biologists, the big general bottleneck for increasing sage-grouse numbers at population levels in Nevada is a shortage of late-season brood habitat, and if numbers were once much higher than they are today, just what has changed in the intervening period? What on the landscape has changed that may account for the bottleneck and the numerical decline? The answer may be found in one word, homesteads.”

According to the article, from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of small homesteads scattered across large portions of Nevada. These homesteads almost invariably were located on a spring or stream that the owners used to irrigate meadows in order to feed a few livestock and grow hay. The homesteaders also vigorously shot and trapped predators, such as coyotes, ravens and badgers. The result, according to the article, was a higher sage grouse population than exists today and a distinct geography to the grouse’s high quality water-dependent habitat: lots of it in small pockets scattered widely across the landscape.

As it turned out, families could not eke out a living from these small landholdings, and as a consequence during the early-to-mid-1900s these homesteads were either abandoned or bought-up and combined in to bigger ranches. Without people to maintain the land, the meadows often became overgrown and were no longer suitable, or were of much lower quality, sage grouse habitat.

The intriguing point raised by the article in Progressive Rancher is that if many of these meadows were restored they could provide an enormous amount of the crucial late-season sage grouse habitat that is currently in short supply and perhaps the most important limiting factor for the bird’s population. If these meadows are to be restored, ranchers are the crucial link, as the article explains:

“It is our contention that efforts to increase sage-grouse populations in Nevada will be marginal unless the ranching industry comes to the rescue. Ranchers own much of the land that provides a significant part of the answer. They control many of the homestead sites that were once productive meadows and they own the water needed to improve those meadows. Animal agriculture to a large degree created the conditions that allowed sage-grouse to darken the skies, and animal agriculture holds at least one important key to solving the riddle today. Furthermore, the redevelopment of historic homestead meadows can provide additional feed for livestock, and research has clearly shown that sage-grouse prefer moderately grazed meadows over both ungrazed and heavily grazed meadows.”

Note the attribution of higher historical sage grouse populations to the meadows managed by homesteaders. The article also has more general insight on how the Endangered Species Act’s punitive nature is counterproductive to conservation, including creating uncertainty, one source of which is the behavior of federal regulators. According to the article:

“If we are going to manage sagebrush ecosystems as though the greater sage-grouse is listed as threatened or endangered, in order to keep it from being listed, then what’s the difference? When people ask this question in public meetings, it has been our experience that they receive blank facial expressions from those tasked with the determination.”

Nevada, like all eleven states in the sage grouse’s range, has a very robust conservation program. Nevada published its first sage grouse conservation plan in 2004, which was updated in 2012 by separate plans for the greater sage grouse, the bi-state sage grouse population that inhabits the Nevada-California border, as well as a detailed action plan for implementing sage grouse conservation measures (all these documents are available online from the Public Lands Council’s Sage Grouse Conservation Library).

While the article in Progressive Rancher is critical of federal officials in charge of determining whether the sage grouse will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the article also recognizes that ranchers need to take a more proactive role to prevent the sage grouse from being listed. “The critical question is what can public land ranchers and the Nevada livestock industry do for sage-grouse that would also improve their odds of maintaining viable businesses, and perhaps even increase the production and efficiency of their operations?,” the article asks. It adds:

“Is it time that Nevada ranchers, as a professional community, realize they have an important role to play in removing the greater sage-grouse from either consideration or actual listing as a threatened or endangered species? We believe the ranching industry may control much of its own destiny. A concerted movement by the industry, accompanied by an appropriate public relations effort, would go a long way toward delisting efforts.”

There are several lager implications of this thought-provoking article. First, much of the focus, especially by the federal government, is on sage brush habitat, which is largely on federal lands. But so much focus on sage brush may be misplaced because of the importance and high potential for dramatically improving the historical meadows that played such a key role sustaining the sage grouse in Nevada and likely elsewhere.

Second, sage grouse conservation, at least in regions like those in Nevada where there are historical meadows, could potentially be much more effective if these meadows were restored. The meadows that remain today on working ranches are still crucially important to sage grouse, but the prospect of substantially more of this habitat is a tantalizing prospect.

Third, ranchers are the linchpin to successful sage grouse conservation because they own almost all the crucially important water-dependent meadow habitat. Furthermore, ranchers, by dint of living on the range, are best positioned to implement actual “boots-on-the-ground” conservation measures over the vast majority of the sage grouse’s habitat-as opposed to the armchair “paper” conservation (e.g., listing petitions and lawsuits) at which advocates of listing the sage grouse under Endangered Species Act excel. Conservation is often difficult work that occurs far from the urban areas in which many proponents of the Endangered Species Act live and work.

Driving ranchers off the land, by making it difficult if not impossible for them to earn a living due to increasingly onerous regulations combined with reductions in grazing lands and the number of cattle allowed on these lands as a result of laws like the Endangered Species Act, is not in the best interests of the sage grouse. The grouse needs people to implement conservation measures for it. For evidence, look no further than the article in Progressive Rancher about the importance of ranchers maintaining meadows. Without people living on and working the range, the sage grouse has diminished prospects.

Furthermore, a key part of conservation, in addition to protecting and improving habitat, is monitoring data on species. No matter what business you’re in, whether it’s oil and gas or wildlife conservation, good data on which to base decisions is essential. Conversely, bad data generally leads to poor decisions. Unfortunately, because the Endangered Species Act punishes conservation, landowners with endangered species on their property or even habitat suitable for endangered species have enormous incentives to keep quiet and hope they go undetected by regulatory authorities and groups that support the Act. Such is the fear of being clobbered by the Endangered Species Act. As a result, data on endangered species is generally of very poor quality, which contributes to flawed decisions about what to protect and why, as well as how to conserve species effectively, both before and after they are listed under the Act.

Fourth, if the sage grouse is listed, or even proposed to be listed, under the Act, much of the outstanding work done by states like Nevada, and especially by its ranchers, will be undone as ranchers withdraw from state and federal conservation initiatives for the grouse and take shelter from the coming Endangered Species Act storm. Let’s hope for the sake of the sage grouse and this country’s increasingly embattled western ranchers that this does not happen.

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.