I read the recent article noting that our new Secretary of the Interior was directing mangers of the public lands to include flexibility in their plans to improve on sage grouse habitats. This, and in other articles I have read, continue to reference “livestock grazing” as one of the reasons for the decline of the sage grouse. In one article, they cite the main reasons for the decline of the sage grouse: “In 2013, the FWS identified 14 threats to the greater sage grouse: nonnative invasive plants, energy development, sagebrush removal, improper grazing, range management structures, wild horses and burros, pinyon-juniper expansion, agricultural conversion, mining, recreation, urbanization, infrastructure and fences.” Interestingly enough, they always leave out the one reason that probably has the most impact on sage grouse populations and that is “Predators.”
We have more predators of the sage grouse now than ever before and still most will not recognize them as a major factor. One predator in particular whose population has grown by a thousand percent is the raven. University studies since 1948 have shown ravens as major predators of ground nesting birds and a 2003-2005 study “The Effects of Raven Removal on Sage Grouse Nest Success” by Peter S. Coates and David J. Delehanty of Idaho State University confirms the benefits of taking Raven’s out of the picture for improved nest success.
Why not give credit where credit is due? Some believe it is because controlling predators won’t give the public lands managers the control on other resource users that using “critical habitat” does. There are organizations in the West whose main goals are to interfere with livestock grazing on public lands. In Idaho, they are trying to have dirt tanks (ponds created to store water for livestock) filled in because they are used as breeding grounds by mosquitoes since they are carriers for the West Nile disease which is found to also kill sage grouse. Any of us who spend a lot of time in the habitat will tell you that these same ponds are frequented by many species of wildlife that benefit from them, just a livestock do.
Many argue that there has been entirely too much time and money spent on improving “habitat” for sage grouse. Historical records indicate there were very few sage grouse in the Great Basin before man settled. The journals of early day settlers such as Peter Skeen Ogdon (1828-1829); Jedediah Smith (1827); John Charles Fremont (1843-45) pay a lot of attention to wildlife and the diets of the native American’s they encountered. In all these journals, there was one record of sage grouse found as a diet item (RE: testimony of Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen 2011). In the meetings in 2012, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWL) was conducting a hearing on the potential listing of the sage grouse, they noted that they were using as a starting point the mid 1800’s and the areas they identified as sage brush areas at that time. They were also using a two-million bird prediction based off that number of acres of sage brush. In other words, the number of Sage Grouse being managed for is based on poor data that is not substantiated by historical records.
Livestock grazing can actually be a benefit to sage grouse and, if you look at the records, you will see that at the same time we had the most livestock on public lands is when we had the largest sage grouse populations. I believe mainly for two reasons: first, we had an active predator control program at that same time; and second, over grazing of grass species allows shrubs to encroach onto those areas being overgrazed.
Livestock grazing kept the excess fuels down and we had fewer range fires. Managing for grass required leaving excess grass to reseed and I can tell you we have a lot more grass now than when I was a kid in the 1950’s and 60’s. In those days, we didn’t have government fire centers that did the firefighting, we did it ourselves. All the ranchers and other county residents would drop what they were doing when a fire started to put it out. That meant bull dozers being loaded and put on fire lines, it meant filling barrels with water, grabbing soaked seed sacks to slap out flames, and not stopping even at dark. In fact, we usually got the fire under control at night as the winds calmed down and the moisture content of the air went up. We don’t have forests to deal with so fighting fires at night isn’t much danger. Unfortunately, even today, the agencies who now control firefighting shut it down at dark and wait until after their 7 am fire meeting is over the next morning to get back to it. Changing this one policy would keep the size of our fires down considerably. To their credit, however, this year they are getting on the fires much sooner that they have in the past.
In summary and in my opinion a)the sage grouse are not at a low enough population level to justify being listed as threatened or endangered; b) the Critical Habitat Provision of the Endangered Species Act is being abused to list species whose populations don’t warrant listing; c) Livestock grazing is not a negative to the sage grouse; d)Predators are not even sited as one of the main impacts on the population even though there are numerous studies that show they are a large factor; e)the agency’s policy of not fighting fires in the Great Basin at night has burned literally hundreds of thousands of acres unnecessarily. On the other hand, I just sold a 10,000 acre ranch I had listed for over eight years to be used for sage grouse meditation with federal agencies. Suave on the sore!
About the author: Paul Bottari, ALC, is Owner/Broker for Bottari & Associates Realty Inc. in Wells, NV. Paul serves on the REALTORS® Land Institute 2017 Government Affairs Committee.