The work of Pheasants Forever and key partners is keeping sage grouse wings beating over the modern western prairie
BEFORE RING-NECKED PHEASANTS FILLED A MANMADE HABITAT NICHE, PRIAIRE GROUSE TEEMED ON AMERICA'S UNBROKEN GRASSLANDS. IN TANDEM WITH KEY PARTNERS NRCS (NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE) AND SGI (SAGE GROUSE INITIATIVE), PHEASANTS FOREVER IS WORKING HARD TO CONSERVE THE HABITAT OF THIS ICONIC GAMEBIRD.
Story By Brianna Randall, Photos By Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media
Sunset drapes across the wide-open western range, tinting the snow-covered sagebrush pink. The fading light silhouettes a herd of elk against distant peaks, while the call of cattle echoes over the whistling wind. If you zoom in closer, you’ll spy coveys of football-sized birds beneath the sagebrush, eating the silvery-green leaves and staying warm during the harsh winter.
These are sage grouse, North America’s largest grouse. And this scene could be taking place in any one of a dozen states in the western U.S. in winter on rangeland treasured by bird hunters.
As the snow starts to melt, sage grouse herald spring by congregating to mate in open areas called leks. Males strut and prance, inflate yellow air sacs on their white chests to make a champagne-cork pop, and fan their spiky tail feathers to entice nearby females. Some leks boast hundreds of birds. It’s an impressive natural spectacle for those lucky enough to witness it.
Sage grouse might be most famous for their quirky courtship dance. But they’ve also become known as an indicator for how their namesake ecosystem is faring.
Characterized by a diversity of shrubs, grasses and flowering plants, the sagebrush steppe covers 250,000 square miles across western North America and is home to 350 species, including pygmy rabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, elk and golden eagles. Sage grouse are considered an “umbrella species” for all the flora and fauna in this beautiful country because these upland birds rely entirely on sagebrush-dominated landscapes to eat, mate, hide from predators and raise their chicks.
In short, without healthy sagebrush habitat there would be no sage grouse. And for a while, it was a close call for the birds.
Sage grouse have dwindled to a mere 10 percent of their historic numbers due primarily to substantial habitat loss. Over the past century, the sagebrush sea has been chopped up by invasive weeds, roads, energy and housing developments, and cultivated croplands. Sage grouse haven’t adapted well to these human-generated intrusions, since the birds avoid roads, tall structures and loud noises.
The bird’s decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to determine in 2010 that greater sage grouse were warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with a final decision on whether to list the bird due by 2015.
SAGE GROUSE INITIATIVE
Immediately following that announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to proactively conserve the private land where sage grouse roam. Ranchers, industry leaders, nonprofit organizations, and local, state and federal government agencies, formed an unprecedented coalition to voluntarily conserve sagebrush rangelands. This coordinated effort was primarily motivated by the concern that listing the sage grouse would disrupt a host of economic mainstays that rely on the sagebrush ecosystem — including hunting.
Over half of all remaining sage grouse habitat is privately owned, much of it as working agricultural lands. Recognizing that “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” SGI focuses existing Farm Bill programs to help ranchers implement sustainable ranching practices that conserve wildlife habitat while also benefiting their agricultural operations.
From the outset, Pheasants Forever has been a key partner with NRCS for efficiently converting SGI-allotted Farm Bill dollars into improved habitat for sage grouse.
“Our ethos has long been that working in harmony with agricultural producers to maintain healthy habitat is what supports healthy upland bird populations on a landscape level. With SGI, we saw an opportunity to help the NRCS — as well as ranchers and bird hunters in the West — with a habitat conservation paradigm that invites collaboration instead of conflict,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever.
That paradigm has proven its worth and then some. Over the past decade, SGI has partnered with more than 2,100 ranchers to conserve nearly 8 million acres of sagebrush rangelands in core sage grouse habitat — an area three-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
“Our role is to help NRCS and other partners deliver conservation dollars, contracts and field capacity as efficiently as possible, so that grouse get the best bang for the buck,” says Ron Leathers, a wildlife biologist who also serves as Pheasants Forever’s director of public finance and has been involved with SGI since its inception.
FARM BILL BIOLOGISTS
Leathers points to PF’s investment in hiring and managing biologists across sage grouse range as one example of the organization’s long-term commitment to improving habitat. PF employs more than Farm Bill biologists across the country who work with landowners to protect and restore wildlife habitat, and 20 of them are based in sagebrush country. Many of these positions are cost-shared by the NRCS, state wildlife agencies or other nonprofits.
“Our field biologists are local ‘boots on the ground’ who can help farmers and ranchers plan conservation projects that boost their agricultural operations while also improving wildlife habitat,” says Michael Brown, the SGI field capacity coordinator for Pheasants Forever.
These local field staff help establish habitat improvement projects ranging from sustainable grazing systems, to marking barbed-wire fences to prevent bird collisions, to conservation easements.
Habitat loss through development is the most irreversible threat to sage grouse. Conservation easements are an important tool for keeping sagebrush rangeland intact. In Wyoming, estimates show that a $250 million investment in targeted easements can slow grouse declines by nearly two-thirds within population strongholds.
Through NRCS Farm Bill programs, partners have now secured over 200 individual easements that permanently conserve 620,000 acres of working western ranchlands. In Montana alone, partners have protected 198,000 acres of at-risk range through SGI since 2010, a six-fold increase in easements over all years prior. These voluntary, incentive-based agreements with private landowners also maintain working ranches and keep this vast landscape whole for future generations.
In addition to permanently protecting land from development, SGI has also helped ranchers improve range health across 3.6 million acres of prime sagebrush habitat through sustainable grazing strategies. By working with individual landowners to adjust the timing, intensity and duration of livestock use, grazing strategies promote diverse, native plant communities that provide food and shelter for grouse and other animals. This makes the land more resilient to drought and wildfires, and increases its productivity for livestock too.
“SGI’s win-win approach provides solutions that are good for ranchers and good for grouse,” says Tim Griffiths, the western coordinator for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife, which includes SGI. “That means we’re not only working to improve wildlife habitat, we’re also helping sustain rural communities and maintain our way of life out West.”
ELIMINATING WOODY COVER
Another big threat to sage grouse is the encroachment of woody species. Typically found in higher-elevation forested areas, trees like juniper have steadily marched across historically open sagebrush range over the past century due to fire suppression efforts.
Sage grouse hate trees and research shows that they avoid nesting in areas where there’s more than a single tree per acre. Invading trees provide perches for predators like raptors. Trees also crowd out the native low-to-the ground plants and shrubs that sage grouse prefer for brooding, nesting and chick-rearing.
SGI has helped landowners strategically remove encroaching trees to restore over a half-million acres of sagebrush habitat. Projects on private lands are often paired with complementary conifer removal work on adjacent federal- or state-owned land, which restores big chunks of habitat to health — to the advantage of everyone who values clean water, healthy soils and open horizons.
“Sage grouse don’t stop at fences, so we try to work across entire watersheds by including multiple property owners in conservation actions,” explains Brown. “At the end of the day, what’s most important is to build resilient, functioning landscapes that also work for agricultural families.”
The science indicates that this watershed-scale conservation is working. For instance, research shows that in southern Oregon, sage grouse populations were 12% higher in areas where advancing trees had been removed. Plus, 29% of GPS-tagged sage grouse hens were nesting in or near restored sagebrush rangelands within three years of conifer treatments.
WATER IS CRITICAL
Speaking of nests, research also shows that sage grouse cluster 85% of their breeding sites within 6 miles of wet habitats so that hens and chicks can feed on the “green groceries” found near water. As the sagebrush uplands dry out in the late summer, the birds seek out protein-rich plants and insects found along streams, springs and wet meadows. More than 80 percent of vital wet places in the West are located on privately owned ranchlands; but many of them are degraded.
SGI helps resource managers and landowners use simple, cost-effective methods that restore these precious wet habitats. NRCS, PF and other partners have led 11 hands-on field workshops that trained over 400 people in low-tech methods of restoring wet habitat (such as hand-built stone structures, mimicking beaver dams or grazing management). Once implemented, these restoration projects have been proven to increase vegetation productivity by up to 25 percent and keep riparian areas greener longer. That’s another win-win for grouse and ranchers.
BIG COUNTRY, BIGGER VISION
All these habitat improvements stem from one source: a shared vision of wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching. This vision, endorsed and practiced by Pheasants Forever and its partners, is undoubtedly working to revitalize sage grouse populations: In September 2015, the USFWS announced that sage grouse no longer warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act.
This positive news didn’t spur conservation partners to close shop though.
Instead, PF has partnered with NRCS to scale up the sage grouse model to benefit other at-risk animals. Working Lands for Wildlife — the umbrella for SGI — now allocates Farm Bill resources to conserve 23 other keystone species and their habitats across 48 states. Partnership-based efforts are enhancing private farms, forests and ranches from coast to coast, and are being replicated globally too. Through Working Lands for Wildlife, PF is now involved in 9 landscape-scale conservation initiatives across the country, including bolstering habitat for prairie chickens and bobwhite quail.
“We’re in this for the long term,” says Howard Vincent, president & CEO of Pheasants Forever. “It’s about more than saving birds. It’s about saving the beautiful wide-open spaces that define America.”
Writer Brianna Randall grew up in California but found herself in Montana and has never looked back.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 Issue of
Pheasants Forever Journal.