Bird in a bind 

Farmers, ranchers, energy corporations, environmentalists and more are trying to save the greater sage grouse. How did one species end up in everyone's business?

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"It will improve how we graze over the next 30 years and then maybe we can add more livestock later," says Ben. "As for the sage grouse, hopefully it will be a win for them like it was a win for us."

Among other things, the SGI has dished out more than $234 million to flag 500 miles of fencing and secure conservation easements on 240,000 acres in prime sage grouse habitat across the West. The organization plans to spend an additional $24 million in 2014.

Some are skeptical of SGI's approach, however. They worry about the continued impact of grazing on grouse and want to see the cows and sheep go away.

"So far what we are seeing is just the same old stuff—more fences, more water development, more funding for ranchers to do things that hurt sage grouse," says Katie Fite, biodiversity director of the Western Watersheds Project. "You ask, why in the world wouldn't they use the money to buy up the land, rather than to build fences and develop water sources that keep the cows out there trampling habitat?"

Fite's concerns stem from history. Ranching has not always been friendly to the sagebrush steppe.

When conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, she included a lengthy diatribe about the plight of sagebrush country. In the middle of the 20th century, range managers across the West began a campaign of "range improvement." In their eyes sagebrush was the mortal enemy of productive rangeland and successful ranching. Thus began the era of sagebrush eradication that continues to the present day, though much diminished.

click to enlarge Each spring male sage grouse gather on the lek, an ancestral breeding ground where they dance and fight for female attention. - PHOTO COURTESY JEREMY R. ROBERTS, CONSERVATION MEDIA
  • Photo courtesy Jeremy R. Roberts, Conservation Media
  • Each spring male sage grouse gather on the lek, an ancestral breeding ground where they dance and fight for female attention.

"One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands," wrote Carson. "Several government agencies are active in it ... the newest addition to the weapons is the use of chemical sprays. Now millions of acres of sagebrush lands are sprayed each year."

The pamphlet "Controlling Sagebrush on Rangeland", published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1960, offers a view of the past policy. It presented a laundry list of sagebrush eradication methods endorsed by the federal government. For the mechanically inclined, the pamphlet recommended using a one-way disc plow to ensure "good sagebrush kills." For those who wanted a high-tech solution, it noted that "experimental spraying with 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T has produced good kills" of the pesky bush. The pamphlet boasted a smattering of before-and-after pictures to drive home the message.

For the organizers of SGI, however, the past is mostly past. Very few agencies or private landowners still engage in sagebrush eradication, they say. And ranching, they argue, is benign compared to other contemporary land uses.

"In eastern Montana the big threat is row crops," says Joe Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Montana who works with the initiative. "SGI's main strategy is to keep ranchers ranching rather than tilling up the land, because there is no comparison between ranching and row crops when it comes to the impact on sage grouse."

Smith studies how "sod busting," as it is known, impacts sage grouse in eastern Montana. His research shows that when landowners convert native sagebrush grassland to wheat or corn or another commodity crop, it reduces the population of sage grouse within a five-mile radius of the freshly tilled ground. It is habitat fragmentation par excellence. And row crop conversion consumes more land in Montana every year.

A July 2013 study by the Environmental Working Group uses government data to estimate that farmers in Montana converted 323,539 acres of highly erodible lands—including large swaths of sagebrush steppe—into row crops in the last five years alone. The study, titled "Going Going Gone: Millions of Acres of Wetlands and Fragile Land Go Under the Plow," reports that lavish federal crop insurance subsidies and record-high grain prices are largely to blame for the uptick in sod busting. Row cropping is lucrative and a constant temptation, even for the Lehfeldts.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

"When you're ranching you have to leave yourself as many possibilities as you can," says Ben Lehfeldt as he points over his shoulder. "The big chunk right out north of here would be conducive to farming. It's always a possibility."

Already, the Lehfeldts have a few plots of corn and turnips and alfalfa in the bottomlands of their vast ranch.

Tilled farmland has zero value as sage grouse habitat. Well-maintained sagebrush rangeland, on the other hand, can support plenty of birds. Naugle, who is also SGI's science advisor, sums it up like this: "Cows not plows." If that message doesn't take, the birds will continue to diminish.

"We used to have big groups of sage hens out there, oh yes," says Bob Lehfeldt. "When I was a boy you would go hunting and there would be groups of 50 or 60 birds that would rise out of the brush, especially in the fall."

"It was a meal for us," remarks Marie. "They are big birds."

When noon arrives the Lehfeldts serve lunch, though sage grouse is not on the menu. The birds are too scarce. The Lehfeldts don't hunt them anymore. Instead, Bob and Marie, Ben and his wife, Jamie, and their young son, Luke, dig into homegrown lamb and homemade gravy, with a salad and a plate of croissants to boot.

Then it's time to go. In the driveway, as the ranch recedes in the rearview mirror, a sheep dog gnaws on a stack of raw venison ribs. Fifty feet to the right, a coyote lies dead in the grass. Tough country.

On a wind-whipped afternoon, Jenney Paddock, a NRCS range specialist, and Mark Szczypinski, the FWP research technician, drive out to the plains near Lavina in search of sage grouse. They turn down a dirt road and disappear on foot, armed with telemetry equipment that Szczypinski will use to track down radio-collared grouse in the area.

Along with Paddock, Joe Smith and a handful of other scientists, Szczypinski studies the nesting habits and childrearing success of sage grouse hens. They've collared a number of local birds and monitor their movements regularly. Szczypinski stops on top of a tawny hill and scans the landscape for a signal. He and Paddock get a slow beep from the southwest. Off they go.

The scientists cross the land, splotched here and there with cow dung and deer tracks, and drop into a grease brush bottom where the birds like to congregate in winter. Pepper weed, a scrumptious forb, lies under stiff clumps of brush. The telemetry equipment beep beeps as they approach the camouflaged creatures. The scientists see the flash of a white wing and pause.

click to enlarge Ben Lehfeldt is a fifth-generation rancher in Lavina. His 12,000-acre ranch contains prime sage grouse habitat. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Ben Lehfeldt is a fifth-generation rancher in Lavina. His 12,000-acre ranch contains prime sage grouse habitat.

Szczypinski and Paddock inch forward quietly when 100 yards due west 20 birds burst into motion like cottonwood seed on the wind, disappearing into distant brush. Paddock and Szczypinski follow. Again they burst and disappear. And again. At each approach, the birds tease the pair with their movements, always out of reach.

"They're hermits," says Szczypinski.

The birds' skittishness is understandable. A lot of things eat the greater sage grouse. Szczypinski, for example, shows off a piece of dung he carries around with him. Sticking out of the matted excrement is a mangled radio antenna. It belonged to a collared grouse chick before it turned into a coyote chew toy. Such is a grouse's fate.

"Chick survival rates are somewhere around 20 percent," says Szczypinski, his voice struggling against the roaring wind. "And that's if the eggs hatch."

But don't blame a particular predator or a single industry for the decline of the sage grouse. "It's death by a thousand cuts," says Paddock. Habitat fragmentation and grouse mortality happen every day in a thousand different ways.

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its 2010 announcement, federal and state land management agencies began work on a flurry of plans to stem the hemorrhaging.

In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and then Gov. Steve Bullock convened advisory councils to help develop a sage grouse conservation strategy. On Nov. 1, Bullock's Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Advisory Council, which includes representatives from a wide range of interest groups, released a draft habitat conservation plan that lays out the state's regulatory framework for protecting the bird.

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