From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 103, Number 20 - January 18, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

How to save the sage-grouse: Working Group releases conservation plan
Grazers disagree
by Julia Stuble

The Upper Green River Basin Sage-Grouse Working Group has released its sage-grouse conservation plan for public review, and braved staunch opposition by grazers when they presented it to the public last week. The plan provides background information on sage-grouse, and identifies issues central to their management. It also makes recommendations for research and management actions to address the population decline.

The working group was designed in 2004, along with six others across the state, to address declining sage-grouse populations and to prevent the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. Its members represent an array of interests, and currently are: chair Bob Barrett (Sportsmen), Cally McKee (Oil and Gas Operators), Suzy Michnevich (Agriculture/Ranching/County Planning), Jim Bousman (Agriculture/Ranching), Dean Clause (Wyoming Game and Fish), John Dahlke (from Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, LLC), Aimee Davison LM), Ruben Vasquez (Natural Resources Conservation Services) and facilitator Mark Gocke, from the Wyoming Game and Fish.

Range-wide, the sage-grouse population in Wyoming’s basins has been declining for the last 50 years. This decline has occurred hand-in-hand with the loss of both quantity and quality of their sagebrush steppe habitat.

In the Upper Green Basin, sage-grouse habitats are split between public and private lands, occurring largely on BLM-managed sagebrush deserts and irrigated agricultural land. About 91 percent of the active leks counted in the basin were on BLM land, as were most of the nesting and brood-rearing habitats. However, for late brood-rearing, the birds seek wet, grass-filled meadows which are predominantly on private lands, or on a public/private interface.

There are approximately 125 active leks in the Upper Green Basin. The number of active leks has steadily declined since 2000, according to the plan. This decline can generally be attributed to increased abandonment of these critical areas due to increased activities from oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management will apply stipulations to lease holdings that contain important sage-grouse habitats, such as nesting, brood-rearing, and mating areas. However, multiple studies have shown that the birds have nevertheless not responded well to increased development. One study has shown that hens on disturbed leks were less likely to nest, had to travel farther than normal to nest, and searched for deeper sage-brush canopy cover under which to nest. Another suggests that the BLM lease stipulations placed on sage-grouse habitats are not adequate enough to protect the population.

The plan addresses a wide range of impacts to the grouse, and the recommendations which may alleviate some of the pressures on the grouse. Addressing habitat losses on the sagebrush steppe from the oil and gas fields in the region, the plan asks that industry limit its amount of habitat fragmentation, reduce surface disturbance and limit disruptive activities like noise and traffic.

The plan does note that the recentlyreleased SEIS to the Pinedale Anticline decision is intended to “reduce surface use to maintain habitat function, minimize habitat fragmentation, and reduce human activity to lessen disturbance.” It does not acknowledge the proposed expansion of drilling on the field. The two industry representatives on the working group, McKee from Ultra and Davison from Shell, work for two of the companies who, along with Questar, submitted the plan which became the SEIS.

The plan also addressed grazing on public rangelands, which are vital habitats to sage-grouse. It asks that grazing on yearlong or spring to fall patterns be limited and that “during periods of forage drought [grazers] utilize grazing schemes that reduce impacts to sage-grouse e.g. adjust intensity, timing and/or duration of grazing.”

For agriculture and ranching operations, the plan acknowledges that these venues “can be both beneficial and detrimental to sage-grouse.” Recommendations include different haying practices, and maintenance of sage-grouse habitats.

The plan places quite a bit of emphasis on scientific studies on sage-grouse populations, to determine effectiveness of management actions, develop others, and monitor the bird numbers.

In particular, ravens and their effects on grouse are recommended as any area of study. At the same time, to address the burgeoned raven population in Sublette County, the plan describes several methods to reduce non-natural food sources to ravens, like trash, and asks for plans to enable the quick disposal of carcasses from highways.

At the public presentation, the working group appeared a bit taken aback by responses from the public, which was almost completely from a grazing/agriculture contingent.

“I was surprised and disappointed by all the dissension from one interest group because they were represented on this group by two members. They had time to put in their input.

Grazers need to keep in mind that our goal is to prevent listing of the grouse, not just pick on a certain group,” noted chair Bob Barrett in a later interview. Barrett noted that the representatives on the group were “supposed to take the pulse of their constituents.”

This interest group was overwhelmingly unsupportive of the plan as it stands, and had no hesitation telling the working group exactly what should be changed. Referring to the sage-grouse as the Game and Fish’s “livestock”, one comment addressed the plan’s disapproval of yearlong grazing, asking for assistance “since your livestock is grazing on our private land.”

County Commissioner John Linn noted that he could not endorse this plan, especially in light of “all the benefits that the agriculture industry has provided” in this area. Linn noted that this plan “could be a great chance to dispel rumors that grazing is bad for grouse.”

Linn added that this plan did not address the raven population as it needed to, and added that “window-dressing projects like picking up roadkill and studying ravens,” do not help. Sublette County has funding for a poisoning project to reduce the raven population.

Other comments also decried the emphasis on studying the grouse and the impacts on them, and asked for incentives to help maintain sage-grouse habitats. Though Barrett was surprised by the negative response from grazers, he commented that, “We’re here to facilitate funding for projects to help grouse and to help the ranching community, if we can, as we help the grouse,” and added, “There were some good, solid comments that I want to go over and incorporate into this plan.” Still sounding a bit taken aback, Barrett mused, “Industry and ranchers have the most to lose by the sage grouse being listed. They ought to step up and be proactive.” “I was surprised that one interest group showed up acting like they had an ax to grind,” he concluded.

The sage-grouse plan is available online at, and hard-copies are available at the county libraries.

Comments will be accepted through January 31, and can be sent to Mark., or sent to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, PO Box 67, Jackson, WY, 83001.

Photo credits:  Nikki Mann

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