The greater sage grouse, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act across its eleven state, 165 million acre range, is usually associated with public lands because 61% of its habitat is on federal land, compared to 31% on private land (with the remaining 8% split among state and Native American lands). Yet a groundbreaking new study by federal and state biologists of sage grouse habitat in California, Oregon, and northwest Nevada highlights the importance of private land for sage grouse.
According to the study, 81% of the critically important moist habitat-irrigated meadows, steamsides, and seasonal wetlands-sage grouse depend on for food in summer is privately owned, despite that it constitutes only 2% of the bird’s total habitat. In addition, “more than 92% of wet meadows in the study area were irrigated,” according to a summary of the study. And irrigated means people, not nature, are responsible for this.
Perhaps the study’s most important finding is the relationship between lowland and upland habitat. Sage grouse breeding sites, known as leks and which tend to be on dry, publicly owned uplands, are clustered around the areas of moist lowlands that are largely privately owned.
As the summary of the study states:
“In the arid West, life follows water. Habitats near water-streamsides, wet meadows and wetlands-support the greatest variety of animal and plant life, and attract wildlife during their daily and seasonal movements. In a water-scarce landscape, these lush habitats are also where people have naturally settled. A recent groundbreaking study reveals a strong link between wet sites, which are essential summer habitat for sage grouse to raise their broods, and the distribution of sage grouse breeding areas or leks. The authors found 85% of leks were clustered within 6 miles of these wet summer habitats.”
Additionally, leks with the highest densities of sage grouse are within 1.8 miles of moist habitat. The study summary notes:
“In other words, the scarcity of wet habitats in sagebrush ecosystems drive the location of grouse breeding sites on uplands: hens choose to mate and nest within a reasonable walk of where they can find late summer foraging for their broods.”
Due to the high percentage of leks on public land, sage grouse management tends to concentrate there. The recent study, however, strongly suggests this focus is misplaced. “Conventionally, sage grouse conservation has focused on management of sagebrush uplands, yet this study reveals that wet summer habitats and private land partnerships are vital for sustaining sage grouse,” asserts the study summary. According to Patrick Donnelly of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one of the study’s co-authors:
“How do you conserve grouse that split their time between private and public lands? With 81% of sparse summer habitat in private ownership, sage grouse success is inextricably linked to ranching and farming in the West [emphasis added].”
The study summary concludes with the following observations:
“Conservation must consider the connection between seasonal habitats on public and private lands and involve cooperative efforts with private landowners. By understanding the importance of privately-owned summer habitats to sage grouse, conservation practitioners can use existing volunteer and incentive-based programs to target conservation easements, and focus investment in cooperative programs to reduce threats to, restore, and enhance these habitats.”
The implications of this study are nothing short of profound. Privately owned moist habitat is just as important to sage grouse survival and conservation as publicly owned dry habitat. Yet as the study summary alludes to, there has been too much focus on publicly owned upland habitat and not enough on the importance of privately owned moist lowland habitat, as well as the complex, interconnected links between the two types of habitat.
More broadly, this study provides very strong evidence and makes a very strong case for the crucially important role of ranchers and farmers in any successful effort to conserve sage grouse. Ranchers and farmers not only own the vast majority of moist habitat, but they provide and maintain much of this habitat through irrigation. Furthermore, ranchers and farmers are best positioned to implement conservation measures, such as improving habitat, because they are on the land day-in, day-out, have detailed knowledge of their private land and the public land they use, and are the “eyes and ears” that can quickly detect issues, such as habitat changes, that can impact sage grouse.
These practical realities stand in stark contrast to the views of pressure groups and federal officials pushing to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act who think listing is necessary to regulate the harmful impacts of agriculture and livestock. But if listing occurs it will have two detrimental impacts on the sage grouse. One, listing may well force some ranchers off the land because they can no longer make a living due to decreased access to federal grazing lands. Without care and management, much of the high quality moist habitat will quickly become overgrown and of much less quality and quantity.
Two, the Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach will create barriers to the type of cooperative, voluntary conservation required to conserve the sage grouse (as I’ve written about here, here, and here). For example, one of the nifty aspects of the recent study is that the authors used the data to create an online Decision Support Tool, using mapping and spatial analysis software, to help public sector land managers and private sector ranchers figure out the location of moist habitat and better determine appropriate conservation measures. Recognizing that most ranchers will not have access to the software or know how to use it, the study summary points out landowners can contact their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for help.
Landowners generally have positive relationships with the NRCS because there is mostly upside-technical support and a conduit for receiving cash payments in exchange for conservation-and very little downside of doing so. By contrast, landowners tend to have negative relationships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over endangered species issues because the punitive nature of the Act creates tension, fear of losing property value and use, hard feelings and adversarial interactions.
If the greater sage grouse is proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, as may occur in September 2015, ranchers will retreat and become much less open and willing to work with federal and state officials on sage grouse conservation efforts on both private and public lands. How many ranchers will want to use the innovative Decision Support Tool if doing so means the information could be used under the Act to regulate their private property and reduce their ability to graze cattle on federal land? If listing occurs, how many ranchers will inform their local NRCS office if they notice something is negatively affecting sage grouse on the private land they own or public land they use, especially when they know their friends at NRCS are legally obligated under the Act to report this to the Fish and Wildlife Service? While landowners are obligated under the Act not to harm species or habitat, they have no obligation to help recover endangered species. If the sage grouse is listed, ranchers and farmers will have very strong incentives to clam-up, not volunteer information, and not be involved in conservation efforts for the sage grouse.
The observation by Patrick Donnelly, one of the co-authors of the recent study, bears mentioning again and is a good place to conclude because it encapsulates the crux of the issue:
“Sage grouse success is inextricably linked to ranching and farming in the West”