In the chilly light of an early April morning, bubbling sounds fill the air above Oregon’s high desert. A dozen sage-grouse roosters strut and puff across an open patch of short-cropped grasses, their tail feathers spread in spiky fans. Each bird looks like a dancing feather pillow, two yellow air sacs ballooning from their ample fluffy bosoms. They swish their wings and gurgle their air sacs, creating a bubbling pop.
Greater sage-grouse cut the rug in flamboyant courting rituals each spring in open areas of the sagebrush grassland across eleven Western states. The birds depend on sagebrush and the grasses growing among these shrubs to provide food and a safe haven to raise their young.
Ranchers depend on this sagebrush country, too. Four southeast Oregon counties contribute 80 percent of the state’s $535 million beef cattle industry. Those same Oregon counties—Baker, Malheur, Harney, and Lake—contain some of the nation’s last, best sage-grouse habitat.
But this ecosystem, on which ranchers and wildlife both depend, is not healthy. Precipitous declines in sage-grouse numbers is just one symptom. The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that sage-grouse have experienced a 90 percent decline in their numbers and a 50 percent decline in their habitat over the last century. As a result, the greater sage-grouse is now a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. It’s easy to see another showdown brewing between a resource-based industry and an endangered bird. (Think: the Northwest timber industry and spotted owls.) But look again. Ranchers in southeast Oregon are working with land managers and conservation groups to develop immediate plans to protect sage-grouse, improve habitat, and ultimately restore health to the sagebrush grasslands for the benefit of both wildlife and ranch life.
“The decline of the sage-grouse is an ecosystem problem, not a species problem,” says Chad Boyd, a rangeland scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Burns. “The decline of sage-grouse is a symptom of an ecosystem that is not functioning as well as it could. And we can’t fix the ecosystem problem by fixing one symptom at a time.”
Much of the original sagebrush grassland was transformed generations ago into the West’s iconic amber fields of grain. Where sagebrush rangelands have persisted, in southeast Oregon and parts of the Snake River Plain and Great Basin, the ecosystem has been hard hit by previous decades of unmanaged grazing and altered fire patterns. In lowland areas, large swaths of cheatgrass, medusahead, and other noxious weeds have increased soil erosion, reduced rainfall infiltration, and displaced native plants.
Farther upland, western juniper has spread across the landscape, sucking up surface water and crowding out sagebrush, native grasses, and small plants. In places, juniper has become a dense woodland with no value for sage-grouse and little value for cattle or other wildlife, from mule deer to vesper sparrows.
Another symptom of an ecosystem out of balance is the change in the region’s wildfires. Encroaching juniper in the uplands has elbowed out undergrowth, making wildfire less frequent but more intense. In lower elevations, large swaths of invasive cheatgrass have fueled ever bigger, more frequent fires. There, annual weeds lead a fast life: sprout early, grow fast, set seeds, and wither to dry stems by midsummer, ready to burn. This cheatgrass-wildfire cycle has increased the frequency of wildfire in low elevation sagebrush communities from the historic 30 to 100 years to a vicious cycle of 1 to 5 years.
The 2012 fires across southeast Oregon, the most extensive fires in the state for almost 150 years, burned more than 870 square miles south of Burns. Although the fire cleared out some juniper in higher elevations, it left much of the lowlands scorched, killing hundreds of cattle and incinerating grazing land and sage-grouse habitat.
Juniper, cheatgrass, and out-of-control wildfire are bad for people, livestock, and ultimately bad for sage-grouse, too.
The loss of sage-grouse habitat is far from just an Oregon problem. Historically, the birds numbered in the millions and ranged across most of the northern plains of the U.S. and southern Canada. Today just a few hundred thousand remain. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the sage-grouse was worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the ESA waiting list was backlogged with more than 250 other species waiting to be considered. So federal officials announced they would delay final consideration of the greater sage-grouse until 2015.
Listing under the ESA is seen by many people as a last-resort, emergency-room action. Citing “environmental and economic trainwrecks” from the past, former U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbit said, “the only effective way to protect endangered species is to plan ahead and protect the ecosystem upon which they depend.”
The delayed decision on the sage-grouse listing gave agencies and landowners the time to develop conservation plans that could possibly preclude listing if they could demonstrate that the plans they draw up are effective. Rather than wait for the big stick of the Endangered Species Act, a group of ranchers in Harney County are developing strategies to protect habitat on both public and private lands, and in turn, sustain their ranches.
Harney County is the ninth largest county in the nation, larger than several eastern states. Its 71,000 cattle outnumber its people nearly ten to one. As head of the Harney County office of Oregon State University Extension, Dustin Johnson knows most of those people on a first-name basis. So when it came to bringing together a potentially contentious group of ranchers, resource managers, and environmental groups, Johnson had the relationships to do it.
“They wanted information about ‘Candidate (species) Conservation Agreements with Assurances’,” Johnson said. So-called CCAAs are voluntary agreements that private landowners make with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before a candidate species is listed. CCAAs outline specific management practices and conservation measures the landowner agrees to undertake to conserve the species and its habitat on private land. The last “A” —Assurances—distinguishes these plans from conservation plans developed for public lands. Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances assure that the landowner will not be held to any higher standard if the species is listed under the ESA as long as the landowner continues to meet the terms of the original agreement.
Johnson, a tall, lanky redhead with a calm demeanor, laid out the details of the agreements to the Harney County community. He explained that regional CCAAs have been successfully negotiated in Idaho for the greater sage-grouse and in Colorado for the Gunnison sage-grouse; a statewide CCAA is under development in Wyoming. By the end of the meeting, Johnson said that agency representatives and landowners were talking about working together on a Harney County CCAA to conserve the species and sustain ranching operations. “If enough landowners are interested in developing these agreements, their conservation efforts could preclude the need to list the greater sage-grouse,” he said.
The clock is ticking. Each landowner must enroll through a certificate of inclusion before any listing is announced. Community engagement is most important now, according to rancher Tom Sharp, who quickly saw the advantage of CCAAs. As chair of the Harney County Sage-Grouse CCAA Steering Committee, Sharp is working to help his neighbors organize their individual efforts into a comprehensive plan.
“Ranchers and environmentalists came to realize that they wanted the same thing,” Sharp said. “Juniper and weeds hurt sage-grouse and cattle grazing. By approaching the problem as a land management problem, not a species problem, we could develop plans that would benefit grazing and sage-grouse. And ranchers are land managers, so the approach made sense. Cattle across the West stand to benefit from rangeland improvements. What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”
The committee has met monthly for a year. Supported by state and federal funds managed by the Harney Soil and Water Conservation District, their goal is to achieve sage-grouse conservation through sustainable ranching: managing grazing, controlling weeds, and removing juniper. Tactics to protect sage-grouse include moving cattle at critical times away from leks and nesting areas and removing fences and trees where predators could perch.
In Harney County, where more than three-quarters of the land is state- or federally owned, most cattle ranchers rely on grazing public lands for part of the year. They move their herds from winter pastures to summer range, often onto allotments they lease from the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. Sage-grouse, too, move across the landscape, using a mix of public and private land for mating, nesting, or wintering.
So, Johnson and Sharp are working with public land agencies to make sure the conservation plans and monitoring methods are consistent across a landscape of many ownerships and managements. Johnson developed inventory and monitoring guidelines for landowners based on criteria he developed for the BLM that focused on the overall health of the ecosystem over time. “The best single indicator of overall ecosystem health is the condition of the rangeland bunchgrasses,” Johnson said. Healthy bunchgrasses, moderately grazed, can reduce fire hazard and weed invasion and increase available water.
“Private landholders and government agencies are sometimes like oil and water, but we’ve done a good job with the CCAA,” Sharp said. “Extension was instrumental in bringing all groups together. When you have relationships and trust already in place, it’s easier to come to some agreement because people are already talking and working together.”
And much of the science that will be used to develop conservation plans comes out of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, a dusty collection of low-slung buildings on the outskirts of Burns, where OSU researchers share work with USDA scientists in the Agricultural Research Service. Some of that work goes back 75 years, when scientists fenced a series of exclosures on the Northern Great Basin Experimental Range west of Burns to compare grazed and ungrazed rangeland.
Production of grasses and shrubs was similar in both grazed and ungrazed areas. But the ungrazed plots accumulated three times the amount of dead grass and had built up a huge fuel load by the 1990s when the ARS researchers burned both sides of the exclosures. Years following the burn, when the researchers inventoried these sites, they found the ungrazed areas had lower abundance of perennial grass and higher abundance of annual grass than the grazed areas. Apparently, the accumulated grasses in ungrazed areas burned hot enough to kill the perennial grasses, which opened the ground to cheatgrass invasion.
“Conservation is not fencing off land and never touching it,” said ARS scientist Boyd. “When you eliminate the small disturbance, the larger ones accumulate and become more threatening.”
Other studies suggest similar advantages of moderately grazed land to sustaining habitat critical to sage-grouse. A 2004 interagency report concluded that, beyond the open areas for mating displays, sage-grouse prefer to nest under a protective canopy of grasses (at 7 or more inches tall) and sagebrush (at 15 to 30 inches tall). They need a supply of small plants and associated insects when their chicks are young, and they need access to succulent streamside plants through the dry season. The researchers concluded that “these conditions can be enhanced by light to moderate grazing early in the season.”
A report produced by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife concurs that light to moderate levels of grazing can have a positive impact on sage-grouse habitat. So it’s not surprising that some of the best remaining sage-grouse habitat is in southeast Oregon, home to Oregon’s cattle industry, where more than 700 leks are known and mapped, according to the ODFW report.
The report’s author, wildlife biologist Christian Hagen, sees additional advantages to conserving sage-grouse habitat. “Because sage-grouse require many different habitats for mating, nesting, feeding, and wintering across extensive home ranges, they really occupy habitat that’s home to a whole host of other species like elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and a lot of neotropical migrant songbirds, too.”
But habitat is not static. Fires, drought, and floods can all affect the condition of rangelands. Big disturbances, like the 2012 fires, hurt ranchers and wildlife and open more land to weedy invasion.
The approach the Harney County ranchers are taking is community-based: keep the plant community functional, keep the ranching community functional, over the long haul. This kind of large-scale adaptive management could become a new model for the scientific management of sage-grouse. It also has the potential to create a new model for rallying unconventional allies in efforts to recover endangered species. Whereas some past efforts have been delayed and politicized by conflict and court battles, the future may involve more people working collaboratively—rather than at loggerheads—to come up with solutions.
And when the conversation comes to community, common ground is easy to find in Harney County. “Ranchers are land managers,” Sharp said. “If we can find a land-management approach to conserving sage-grouse, we have a community of people who understand how to do this.”