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NRCS Program Helps Ranchers Help Sage-Grouse

The loss of sagebrush-grasslands, important habitat to sage-grouse throughout their life cycle, in some western states has approached 50 percent. One rancher near Sand Springs, Montana, is doing something about it. Using management practices that keep his rangeland healthy, Dave Witt has seen a marked increase in the number of sage-grouse on his property.

Sage-grouse strongholds remain in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. However, even in these states, changing land uses have raised concerns over the species’ future. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered adding the species to the threatened and endangered species list.

Sage-grouse habitat can be improved by establishing diverse plant communities that include native forbs, grasses, and shrubs. Studies have found that sage-grouse populations and habitats are very compatible with livestock and grazing management. Practices, such as rotational grazing systems and exclusion of riparian areas, can enhance plant community vigor, suppress noxious weeds, and sustain diverse plant communities with forb components that benefit sage-grouse.

“Montana landowners work to manage their property in a manner that is both economically viable and environmentally sound,” said Dave White, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state conservationist. “We can help them address their livestock grazing needs and sage-grouse habitat as compatible land uses.”

The NRCS offers both technical and financial assistance to landowners wishing to implement conservation practices. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), landowners may be eligible to receive cost-share assistance for practices such as prescribed grazing to manage livestock utilization of forage, fencing, livestock watering facilities, range planting, mechanical treatment that breaks up compacted soil, noxious weed control, and others that improve range quality, which in turn improves sage-grouse habitat.

The effects of applied conservation practices on sage-grouse numbers are difficult to capture. NRCS and Montana’s agriculture community in counties with sage-grouse habitat have worked together to implement prescribed grazing on about 890,000 acres of rangeland since 2002.

Witt has seen an increase in the number of sage-grouse on his ranch. In 2002, he began working with NRCS to improve his rangeland by installing livestock watering facilities, fencing, and doing range chiseling through a ten-year EQIP contract. Range chiseling uses a mechanical means of breaking up the ground to allow already present grasses a chance to compete for resources.

“What I wanted to do was improve the range to get more grass for my cows and the increased sage-grouse was a side benefit,” said Witt.

Chiseling stimulates new growth in older stands of sagebrush. This is important to sage-grouse wintering conditions when 90 percent of their winter feed has been shown to come from this new growth. Historically on Witt’s land, sagebrush had an average of one to two inches of new growth per year. Where he has chiseled, sagebrush now has about six inches of new growth per year.

“In this area, chiseling dramatically increases new growth on sage brush. It might double or triple,” said John Monahan, NRCS soil conservationist in the Jordan field office. “It does the same for livestock forage by allowing every drop of moisture to actually soak into the ground, giving plants the water they need.”

Monahan said the sage-grouse are able to make it through the winter in much better shape than in the past. The increased forage production also provides better cover because grasses have gone from six inches tall to two feet tall. The plant community often goes from a two species mix to a five or six species mix. In many cases, seeds have been lying dormant in the soil waiting to get enough moisture to sprout.

With the improved range quality, the sage-grouse population has flourished. At first, Witt noticed the increased amount of sage-grouse droppings in the areas that had been chiseled. He said there were literally mountains of droppings where the chiseling had been done and new growth had provided winter feed. Where he hadn’t chiseled, there were no droppings.

“Right now, I see more baby sage hens than I ever have,” said Witt. “I know their numbers are affected by predators and other stuff too, but opening up the sagebrush helped a lot.”

Range chiseling is not the only conservation practice Witt has implemented. He has also seeded farm ground back to native grass, installed pipelines and livestock watering facilities, and more. Witt plans to continue chiseling portions of his ranch in the future because “there’s just no comparison to before and after.”