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Conservation Efforts for Sage Grouse Have Underground Roots

Chief Sage Grouse Lek

NRCS Chief Jason Weller watched a lek with more than a hundred male greater sage-grouse on April 21, 2016.

centennial valley

Healthy working rangelands are home to many species, including mountain big sagebrush, Idaho fescue and Indian paintbrush. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Roberts.

By Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service

We woke up at 3 a.m. this morning and made our way to a blind in the middle of the vast sagebrush sea of central Montana. Hidden near a lek site, we waited for sunrise to get a glimpse of greater sage-grouse during their springtime courtship.

We were excited to see these rare but rebounding birds and the healthy sagebrush landscape around them. Here we saw firsthand how agriculture and wildlife can co-exist and thrive. Western ranchers have played a pivotal role in restoring and protecting these working rangelands, and they’ve voluntarily conserved 5 million acres of sage grouse habitat since 2010.

This landscape, dotted with sagebrush and swaying grasses and wildflowers, is good for cattle, ranchers’ bottom line, sage grouse and more than 350 other species. We’re working with ranchers to help ensure those native plant communities continue to thrive.

From the surface, we see a beautiful, functioning ecosystem of diverse plants. But most of the productivity occurs below our feet in the vast network of underground root systems. Rangelands are like an upside-down forest. . These roots help bolster the health of our underground ecosystem, improving infiltration and water retention and essential nutrient cycling.  

Millions of species and billions of organisms — bacteria, algae, microscopic insects, earthworms, beetles, ants, mites, fungi and more — represent the greatest concentration of biomass anywhere on the planet. These critters process organic matter into rich, dark, stable humus in the soil.

Healthy soils hold more water, enabling lands to fare better during drought. They produce better forage for cattle. And they provide the foundation for native plant and wildlife communities to flourish.

When native plant communities are strong, they are better poised to out-compete invasive weeds, which disrupt the natural ecological balance. Invasive weeds, like cheatgrass, can lead to more frequent wildfires with devastating consequences for people and wildlife.

That’s why ranchers are partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Sage Grouse Initiative to make conservation improvements to their land. Ranchers understand that implementing practices designed to help their native plants, such as sustainable grazing strategies, not only benefits sage grouse but also makes their working lands better for cattle and more resistant to weeds and resilient to fire, drought and other climatic extremes.

While watching the lek this morning, I had one of those aha moments, when you’re reminded how interconnected life is. To help sage grouse, ranchers manage the health and abundance of their native plant communities, in turn helping better feed their cattle and the soil below their hooves buffering them against the unexpected challenges that Mother Nature could throw their way.

Working together, NRCS, its conservation partners and America’s private landowners are helping to ensure these working rangelands stay working for wildlife, agricultural production and rural communities.