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NRCS, Livestock Producers Benefit Sage Grouse

By Matt Walker and Justin Meissner

“I remember seeing a lot more sage hens on my ranch,” said Dennis Mercer, a Golden Valley County producer. “If we can do something to help their numbers and it will improve my operation it is a win-win situation for all of us.”

If you’ve made or heard similar statements then you too are a growing part of the public that has realized the steady decline in sage-grouse numbers. As sage-grouse habitat continues to decline nationwide along with sage-grouse populations, concerned citizens, local working groups, and government agencies are working together to conserve and enhance habitat for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-grassland species.

This year, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and livestock producers worked together to protect critical sage-grouse habitat in five central Montana counties. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), NRCS in Montana authorized $500,000 to fund the sage-grouse Habitat Enhancement Special Initiative. This project promoted prescribed grazing while benefiting sagebrush grasslands and sage-grouse. This funding provided incentive payments to encourage producers to implement a prescribed grazing system and cost share for infrastructure needed to develop the systems. Furthermore, NRCS personnel provided technical assistance for rangeland inventory, establishing monitoring transects, and designing grazing systems.

“It’s really great to see so many different disciplines working together toward the common goal of protecting sage-grouse numbers,” explains Bruce Waage, NRCS sage-grouse coordinator. “We’re involving the producer, the NRCS rangeland management specialist, local NRCS district conservationists and planners, and biologists from various agencies to ensure we are approaching this correctly.”

Sage-grouse are one of several wildlife species that cannot persist without sagebrush grasslands. The basis of conserving such populations is to ensure vast and healthy sagebrush grasslands. Prescribed grazing systems are crucial to maintaining healthy, productive rangeland. When carefully designed, these systems can promote both strong sage-grouse populations and increases in livestock weight. Essentially, good grazing management benefits both wildlife and livestock.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) identified critical sage-grouse habitat by mapping areas surrounding documented leks (breeding sites where male sage-grouse traditionally display to attract hens). This information was used to target funding toward high priority areas, and producers within these habitats had first dibs on funding. The sage-grouse Habitat Enhancement Special Initiative funded nine projects in five counties enhancing nearly 37,000 acres of sage-brush grassland.

“The key to successful sage-grouse conservation will be partnership efforts like this initiative,” commented MFWP bird coordinator Rick Northrup. “Sustainable native grassland management, exemplified by producers enrolled in this initiative, is essential for conserving quality sage-grouse habitat.”

To be eligible, producers must have had sagebrush grassland within four miles of a known sage-grouse lek and must have been willing to upgrade their current grazing management to a more intensive prescribed grazing system. As previously mentioned, cost share on facilitating practices was offered to assist producers with water development, cross fencing, and other developments needed to promote better grazing management. Producers are required to continue monitoring precipitation, keep utilization records, and maintain vegetation monitoring plots for the length of the contract.

“Monitoring is a key component of proper grazing management, and we really need to evaluate what impacts we are having on the land through the improved grazing system,” said Jon Siddoway, NRCS rangeland management specialist, on the monitoring requirements of the programs. “We will then review this monitoring documentation with the producer to make any needed adjustments to their prescribed grazing system.”

“It’s a great opportunity to benefit birds, the cows, and my land and it even helped me create a few new pastures and improve the water situation,” said Rick Downs, a producer pleased with the special initiative impacts on his property.

“The prescribed grazing systems we are developing with the ranchers are what they are interested in doing anyhow,” explained Justin Meissner, NRCS District Conservationist in Roundup. “This initiative has given them the opportunity to evaluate the benefits of rotational grazing and see how it fits into the rest of their operation.”

Future initiatives targeting sage-grouse are uncertain depending on how the new Farm Bill will unfold. However, NRCS currently offers cost share on facilitating practices and in some instances incentive payments for producers interested in upgrading their current grazing strategy. For more information, contact your local NRCS office.

Photo showing near-invisibility of chicks in nest. Photo of cattle grazing sage-brush grasslands.
Baby birds spotted near a monitoring
transect on lands enrolled in the Sage-Grouse
Habitat Enhancement Special Initiative.
Cows utilizing sagebrush grasslands.