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RangeNet Project
Project Grouse


Discussion Bits

Bits from various "listserve" and email discussions about sage grouse will be posted here from time to time.

  1. A Question from a Falconer

    1. Reply by Phil
    2. Reply by Lance
    3. Reply by Larry
  2. A Question About Insects

    1. Reply by Phil

A Question from a Falconer:

I am a falconer who is very concerned about the decline of sage grouse populations and the possible call for protections through the Endangered Species Act. I would like to see effect efforts made to restore these populations without the use of these mandated protections if possible. I have read the report by Clait Braun on the problems. Do you have any programs or other ideas for effective solutions?

Reply by Phil:

Which do you think would be easier, get Sage grouse declared a T&E species or reduce public lands livestock grazing in half(or more depending on range health) and demand the remaining animals come under strict management?

It seems that the choice is rather limited. Getting the Sage grouse listed on the T&E list may be the only way to get public lands overgrazing under control, probably a little easier to accomplish than an overhaul of the grazing system.

It is my opinion and the opinion of a host of professional wildlifers(they being unable to speak publicly since their wildlife agencies are still controlled by western pro-rancher politicians) that the root problem with Sage grouse is livestock overgrazing compounded by the seven year drought in the late 80's early 90's and that on top of a century of overgrazing. (By the way, BLM employees in a PEER report say that livestock grazing actually increased during the drought years.)

You might want to contact Oregon Natural Desert Association and get a copy of Belsky, Matzke and Uselman's "Survey of Livestock Influences On Stream and Riparian Ecosystems in the Western United States". ONDA's address is 732 SW 3rd Ave., Suite 497, Portland, OR 97204 or call 503-228-9720(I hope the address info on the publication is still correct). When you know that something less than 5% of all western public lands are riparian in nature and the dependancy of Sage grouse and a host of all the other species on those areas, plus the need for chicks to have insects associated with grass species and those grasses gone from overgrazing, you can get some idea of the effect of livestock overgrazing on our Sage grouse population. Wyoming Game and Fish personnel know of all this but are muzzled by their Director and the Governor.

On top of that, in most areas in the arid parts of Wyoming, historical prime Sage grouse habitat is now composed of mostly decadant sagebrush plants with new plants making up less than 3% of the plant population. In the absence of extremely wet years and survival of young sagebrush seedlings, there is an overall habitat problem. Again, livestock grazing is taking out the young plants.

The answer to solving the declining Sage grouse populations is pure and simple: Habitat improvement. But you will have little luck with habitat improvement projects if livestock overgrazing continues.

Reply by Lance:

I was giving some thought to making the sage grouse a poster child for upping the price of beef. Overgrazing is, after all, overproduction, and overproduction of beef knocks prices upside the head. And low prices hurt ranchers.

By this logic, the ranchers gain from raising less cattle. Trouble is, not many of them will buy it. And I notice that when ranchers do attempt to up the price by cutting back on the herd, the meatpackers just start importing beef from the rainforests or elsewhere, as South Americans and others start lining up big herds of cattle for export.

I haven't had the time to push these ideas, and haven't found a lot of interest in them except for a few ranchers here in Montana who take an interest in what's happening to ag producers worldwide. From where I sit, a top priority is to find a selection of ways to help ranchers out of overgrazing. Getting the Sage Grouse listed might help ranchers as much as it helps the bird.

Reply by Larry:

I forwarded your inquiry to the members of RangeNet and you have already received a couple of their replies. One of those replies was from Phil Riddle who is a retired Regional Wildlife Supervisor from the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game. Rather than re-invent Phil's very excellent reply, I'll expand upon it with my perspective as a retired Range Conservationist from the Bureau of Land Management.

It is no contest that the most dramatic reductions in the amount of habitat available to sage grouse has been due to the conversion and development (including farming) of private lands. However, federal public lands make up 48% of the 753 million acres of land in the "11 western states" (WA 27%, UT 64%, ID 62%, OR 60%, WY 50%, CO 36%, NV 83%, AZ 45%, NM 34%, MT 28%, CA 47%). Even granting that the best lands are in private ownership, there is absolutely no excuse for such a widespread species as the western sage grouse declining as rapidly and extensively as it has where there is such a vast natural heritage in public ownership - if that public estate were being managed for public values such as sage grouse (and other wildlife) habitat, sustainability of endemic biological diversity, maintenance of water quality, and so forth.

If the western sage grouse becomes "listed" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)(and I believe that it will be listed as "threatened" within two years), it will be solely because the custodians of our public lands have continued to subsidize fewer than 18,000 public lands ranchers with a level of environmental degradation that renders any monetary subsidy value small by comparison. It is bitter irony that those same public lands ranchers would be among the first to feel the effects of an ESA listing through restrictions on the use of their private lands. And it's not just the western sage grouse; it's also the goshawk, Gila trout, bull trout, willow flycatcher, lesser prairie-chicken, Sonoran pronghorn, Mearn's quail, scaled quail, masked bobwhite quail, golden trout, burrowing owl, yellow-legged frog, Yosimite toad, desert tortoise, and on and on and on - all being sacrificed on public lands to perpetuate the tragedy of the grazing commons.

Phil is "right on" that grazing is the primary cause of degredation of sage grouse habitat on public lands, that grazing needs to be totally removed from a very large proportion of those lands with management greatly improved on the remainder, and that the agencies responsible are just plain not going to repair the track until after the train-wreck!

Phil pointed out a couple of the impacts of grazing on sage grouse habitat (loss of perennial grasses and increases in decadent sagebrush). I'll point out a couple more. Creation of a "fire cycle" resulting in an absence of sagebrush in areas prone to cheatgrass domination, and the opposite effect in more moist/cool areas where removal of herbaceous cover through grazing reduces fire frequency and allows juniper expansion.

And, it's not just grazing induced/maintained type conversion that is a problem. In areas that would otherwise be suitable for nesting and brooding, there is the issue of the height of herbaceous vegetation and standing litter during nesting and brooding. In 1989 I worked on an unpublished/incompleted analysis of 10% of Oregon BLM's largest allotments and found that 70% of the pastures were being grazed during June of any year, with only a slightly lower figure for May. In addition, one of the currently favored strategies for improving riparian areas "with grazing" is based on late winter/early spring grazing. Both situations reduce the amount and height of herbaceous cover during nesting and brooding.

With regards to your desire to "see effective efforts made to restore these populations without the use of these (ESA) mandated protections", let me offer this:
1. The western sage grouse currently appears to warrant listing as "threatened" throughout its range under the ESA, but not as "endangered" except for a few populations on the fringe of its range.
2. The causes for population declines appear to be so overwhelmingly habitat based that regulated hunting is not a causative factor in view of the reproductive potential of the species. Regulated hunting can be allowed for "threatened" (but not "endangered") species where this is the case.
3. Public lands are key to the long-term health and viability of the species over most of its range.
4. Grazing is THE primary threat on public lands.
5. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that the public land management agencies will take adequate and necessary steps in time to assure the recovery and long-term health and viability of the species in the absence of pressure such as that provided by listing under the ESA.

It is unfortunate that management of the public lands is not held to a higher standard under our general environmental laws (such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act) than is management of private lands. If it were, protections could be two-tiered with restrictions on commercial use of public lands being readily imposed that were as severe as necessary while leaving private lands as unencumbered as possible for as long as possible.

A Question About Insects

1. I much appreciate your comment on "insects associated with grass species". Can you provide some more specific info/references? In one of my earlier lives as "noxious weed and pesticide coordinator for Oregon/Washington BLM", I received a promo video for an herbicide (I forget which one). Part of their sales pitch was a claim that an insect survey where their product had reduced (not eliminated) sagebrush and allowed grasses to increase (at least until the cows got it again?) showed a substantial increase in insect populations compared with the unsprayed control. This is the only reference I remember seeing where the difference in insect populations had been documented. As problems with sage grouse brood survival due to inadequate nutrition has emerged as a primary concern (along with nest predation due to limited herbaceous cover), I think it would be helpful to pull together any available information on the rangeland condition - rangeland insect relationship.

2. Although ants are said to be the most prevalent insect eaten by the chicks (possibly due to availability?), current news from Utah brings to mind the question of grasshoppers (I assume that chicks do savor them when available?). Are you aware of any work done that might show some "predator/prey" correlation of sage grouse population fluctuations with grasshopper "outbreaks"? Despite rancher/farmer perceptions, BLM/APHIS have been VERY aggressive on Mormon cricket and grasshopper control over the past 15 years or so - and a lot of that control has been to protect ALFALFA to winter more cows to overgraze more rangeland!

Reply by Phil

It's interesting. Professionals in all areas of expertise seem to pick up information over the years and when asked to supply verification, it brings forth a little anxiety because as a professional, you wonder, "Did I state something that was not valid?" Considering the literally millions of words a person reads during their formal training and over the years of his career, it sometimes becomes a chore to determine exactly where you got your information on a particular subject.

However, your questions are legitimate and here's my response:

In Wyoming, Robert L. Patterson's, "The Sage Grouse in Wyoming" is kind of "the Bible". In that publication, there is quite a bit of reference to the importance of insects in the Sage grouse diet and on page 201, "Juvenile sage grouse relied heavily upon insects as food during the first few weeks of their existence. During late May and throughout most of June, insects composed as much as 75 per cent of the juvenile bird's diet, although as the summer waned, the volume of consumed insect material decreased; by fall it represented less than 10 per cent of the total food items selected (Table 54). On a yearly basis, plant material furnished 88 per cent, and animal matter(insects) provided 12 per cent of the immature bird's diet (Table 27)."

As you read the book, it's documented that grasshoppers and other grass dwelling insects (emphasis supplied) are being talked about. Now somewhere along the line in my formal or practical training, it was relayed to me that insects to chicks are much like milk and colostrum are for babies, providing not only valuable food nutrients but also a level of protection from incidental infections and a high energy boost, etc. I don't know where I got that from. But there can be no question that if Patterson is correct on the 75 per cent factor and grass is so sparse that associated insect populations are down, chick sage grouse are not going to be able to get their normal dietary level of insects. Not good.

Ants are a good portion of sage grouse insect consumption. On page 202 of Patterson's book, a table shows that ants are a large portion of the chick insect diet but grasshoppers are a close second and beetles(Coleoptera) are third. Moths, Hemiptera and other insects are lesser in volume by far.

Patterson also has a good section on some work that was done determining the effect of insect control programs on sage grouse, particularly control of grasshoppers. In short, areas where Toxaphane and Chlordane bran bait was used for grasshoppers, game bird mortality was 23.4 per cent on baited areas and only 10.1 per cent on the control area. There is a lot of discussion but again, there should be little doubt that beside removing insects through overgrazing of grass species, poison injested from insects killed by chemicals can impact overall numbers.

Actual work done that might show some "predator/prey" correlation of sage grouse population fluctuations with grasshopper "outbreaks"?, I am not aware of such.

Patterson's book is in three parts, The Sage Grouse and Its Environment, The Natural History of Sage Grouse Populations and Sage Grouse and Man. It's a must reading for anyone interested in the big picture on sage grouse. It was copyrighted in 1952 by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and was a Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Project, 28-R. Whether the Wy. G & F can still provide it or not is unknown.

Clait Braun of Colorado might be able to give more information on the subjects you mention. As Patterson's book is "the Bible" on sage grouse in Wyoming, Clait Braun seems to be the current authority in Colorado and much of the west.