by Brianna Randall | This multi-media story about the Sage Grouse Initiative is the feature in the new issue of Wildlife Photographic Magazine. Learn more about SGI’s priorities and practices in the story.
This multi-media story about the Sage Grouse Initiative, written by Brianna Randall, is the feature in the new issue of Wildlife Photographic Magazine. To read the interactive story:
Picture yourself on a vast Western range, the glow of the spring sunrise tinting the gold-green landscape in shades of rose. Sagebrush rolls away on all sides toward craggy snow-covered mountains. Over the calls of cattle roaming through the native grasses, you suddenly hear it: pop, pop, pop!
The greater sage-grouse have arrived to start their mating ritual. Each spring across America’s sagebrush sea, these football-sized birds congregate by the dozens in areas called leks. The males strut and prance, inflate yellow air sacs on their bright white chests to make a champagne-cork pop, and fan their spiky tail feathers to entice nearby females. It’s a spectacle well-worth watching.
But these elusive upland birds aren’t just famous for their quirky courtship dance.
The largest grouse in North America, the greater sage-grouse is also the most threatened. Sage grouse have dwindled to ten percent of their historic numbers due to habitat loss. These birds rely entirely on sagebrush-dominated landscapes: it’s their primary food source, their breeding grounds, their chick-rearing sites, their safe zones from hungry predators.
And they’re not the only ones who depend on a healthy and intact sagebrush ecosystem. These wide-open spaces, characterized by a diversity of shrubs, grasses and flowering plants, are key to livestock grazing operations in eleven states. The sagebrush steppe is also home to 350+ species, including pygmy rabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and golden eagles. In turn, these animals draw hunters, birdwatchers, outdoor enthusiasts and other tourists who infuse dollars into local communities.
Unfortunately, the once-vast sagebrush sea is getting chopped up by invasive weeds, energy and housing developments, cropland conversion, and other human-generated intrusions. And the sage grouse are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that herald how this vital ecosystem is faring.
Populations of greater sage-grouse have declined by 30% since 1985 alone. This decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to add the bird to its “Candidate List” in 2010 for potential inclusion under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to focus Farm Bill resources on proactively conserving the private land where sage grouse roam.
The threat of an ESA listing—and the possible regulatory hammers that would follow—spurred unprecedented collaboration between a host of unlikely partners. Ranchers, industry leaders, nonprofit organizations, and local, state and federal government agencies banded together to begin voluntarily conserving the range, motivated by the concern that listing the sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species would disrupt a host of economic mainstays that rely on using the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.
“We wanted to pioneer a conservation paradigm that invites cooperation over conflict,” says Thad Heater, coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative. Our goal is to achieve wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.”
The collaboration paid off. SGI has partnered with over 1,300 ranchers to conserve over 5 million acres of sagebrush habitat (twice the size of Yellowstone National Park). Conservation practices put in place on private rangelands include implementing sustainable grazing systems, removing invasive conifers, keeping lands intact through conservation easements, restoring and protecting wet meadows, and marking fences to prevent bird collisions.
SGI’s shared vision of wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching is part of what’s working to recover the species. “Our win-win approach provides landowners solutions that are good for the bird and good for the herd,” says SGI coordinator Thad Heater.
Those solutions work. In September 2015, the USFWS announced that the greater sage-grouse did not require protection under the ESA, and that it was withdrawing the bird as a candidate for listing. Research from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies shows that sage grouse populations are rebounding across the range.
But that doesn’t mean that SGI is closing up shop. Quite the opposite, in fact. Partner-based efforts to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem are moving full-steam ahead.
The NRCS has committed an additional $211 million to continue SGI, detailing upcoming sagebrush conservation opportunities in its new Sage Grouse Investment Strategy, dubbed SGI 2.0. Combined with the contributions from its many partner organizations, SGI estimates it will conserve 8 million acres by 2018, an area seven times larger than the Great Salt Lake.
“SGI is looked to as a global model for how we can benefit agricultural producers while also benefiting wildlife,” says Tim Griffiths, the western coordinator of Working Lands for Wildlife, the NRCS program that houses SGI and aims to restore focal species across the nation.
The model is successful, he says, because SGI is built on the foundation of partnerships, voluntary cooperation, community support, and win-win agreements that improve not just wildlife habitat but also the way of life in the West.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently signed a funding agreement to adapt SGI’s successful model to public lands, as well. The agency’s financial commitment to enhancing habitat on BLM-owned lands will cooperatively leverage SGI’s ongoing projects with ranchers on adjacent private lands.
“Sage grouse are a landscape-level species that don’t stop at fences, so our conservation efforts need to push beyond property boundaries, too,” explains Griffiths.
Part of SGI’s recipe for success in engaging so many landowners in voluntary conservation stems from the group’s reliance on applied science to guide sage grouse-related project investments.
“The goal is to scientifically target practices and evaluate the resulting outcomes to ensure we’re getting the best bang for our conservation investments,” says SGI science advisor Dave Naugle.
Along with funding dozens of field staff who put projects on the ground, SGI also funds science-based targeting tools, research and evaluations on outcomes, and training for those field staff and all partners working to conserve the range. SGI releases regular Science to Solutions articles to keep partners abreast of the latest scientific findings. This year, SGI also released an interactive web app. This free online mapping tool provides landscape-level and site-specific data on fence collision risk, ecosystem resilience, tree canopy cover, and cropland cultivation risk, making it easier for partners and staff to plan and prioritize sage grouse conservation projects.
“We’re in this for the long term,” says Heater. “Conserving the sagebrush sea is about more than saving sage grouse. It’s about engaging everyone who has a stake in the future of the West.”