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Habitat Hero: Greg Peterson

George Peterson photoThis Habitat Hero story is by the Sage Grouse Initiative, a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands for Wildlife. View an interactive version of the story here.

Story by Jodi Stemler; Photos by Jodi Stemler and Shawn Connor

After a severe winter with heavy snowfall, the sagebrush flats in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin were greening up quickly in the spring warmth. Rancher Greg Peterson had an extra couple hundred head of elk on his ranch this past winter, pushed down to the lower elevations along Tomichi and Razor Creeks in search of food.

Luckily, after almost 20 years of sagebrush restoration, water projects, and sustainable grazing practices, these beautiful Rocky Mountain rangelands had plenty of quality forage for Peterson’s cow/calf pairs to graze through the summer.

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The lush green flats on Peterson’s ranch and across the basin also offer prime habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse. After we participated in an early morning lek count on nearby Bureau of Land Management lands, it was obvious that cooperative sage grouse conservation efforts in the Gunnison Basin were flourishing.

Ranchers like Greg Peterson are the reason why.

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Roots in Ranching

Gunnison’s ranching history is rich, evident in the community’s careful preparations for the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association’s 117th Cattlemen’s Days coming up in early July.

However, when once robust populations of the Gunnison sage-grouse started to decline in the 1950’s, some pointed fingers at livestock grazing.

As concerns grew, ranchers in the Gunnison Basin knew they would have to become engaged to protect their livelihood while also protecting the bird.

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For nearly two decades, Peterson has been the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association representative on the local sage grouse working group, now known as the Gunnison Basin Sage Grouse Strategic Committee.

“The reason that I got involved was the relationship between livestock grazing and cattle’s habitat needs and how they closely interact with the habitat sage grouse need,” Peterson commented.

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The Seeds of Partnership

The strategic committee partners — a diverse group of local, state and federal agencies and organizations — knew that the key to sage grouse conservation in the basin was to develop collaborative conservation solutions that work for everyone.

“Over the years, the partners have developed the idea that management needs to take place as a whole,” Peterson noted. “This basin has done a great job of being able to manage over fence boundaries and allow for habitat improvement on all lands.”

A key piece of the puzzle has been the recognition that keeping ranches profitable is essential to protecting the sagebrush habitat on which sage grouse and other species depend.

Peterson has led the way in the basin, implementing rangeland restoration and effective livestock management on his ranch and grazing allotments. He’s looked at the conservation measures as an opportunity to show that grouse habitat management and cattle management can work well together.

“Through our collaboration and cooperation,” he continued, “Folks that ranch see that if they do the right things for the ecosystems, it enhances their ability to graze livestock while at the same time enhancing sage grouse, and many other species’ habitat.”

Cultivating Relationships

Relationships run deep in the community and it is evident that these partnerships are built on a strong foundation of trust and credibility. One of the most critical partners in the basin has been the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative.

It’s clear that Greg and NRCS conservationist, Liz With, enjoy working together — the two share an easy banter. Like her predecessor, John Scott, With has worked closely with Peterson and ranchers across the community to develop livestock management plans that support their ranching goals as well as conservation priorities.

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SGI provides ranchers with technical support and then cost-shares the implementation of targeted projects that benefit sage grouse habitat while improving livestock grazing. Funding comes through NRCS programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

Working with NRCS, Peterson experimented with a sagebrush management project over 16 years ago that removed decadent, old sagebrush to reinvigorate the understory vegetation. This work is good for grouse and livestock.

“Greg has been an excellent partner in allowing us to experiment with ecological succession. With the removal of historic fire regimes, we’ve lost a lot of the diversity and hydrologic function in these systems resulting in older, more decadent sagebrush,” said With. “By setting back the successional clock, we can increase the grass and forb production. This helps not only the birds, but other wildlife species and cattle, as well.”

In addition, Peterson has implemented a rest/rotational grazing system that boosts grass and forb production. He has also experimented with grazing timing and duration, as well as installation of irrigation structures and using fencing to improve riparian areas on the ranch.

More importantly, all the private acres on his ranch have been placed in a conservation easement ensuring that key grouse – and livestock – habitat will never be lost. With his successes, these various conservation practices have branched out to other ranches across the basin.

“Without Greg, I don’t think that we would have had the strong partnership with ranchers that we’ve been able to develop,” Liz noted. “He’s been willing to work with us and help other ranchers see that we can all collaborate and get more done than if we work as separate pieces.”

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Keeping It Wet

Grouse may need the sagebrush rangelands for their leks, but they also depend on the “green groceries” found in wet meadows and riparian areas that are most typically found on private lands. In Gunnison, this is just as true as it is across the West.

To ensure the restoration and management of working wet meadows, With has been working closely with private landowners like Peterson.

In addition, a number of public and private partners including the Gunnison Conservation District, the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and multiple non-profit conservation organizations are teaming up to conserve these mesic areas.

With took us to a multi-level wet meadow a short distance from where we counted grouse in the morning. The project, on private land, was surrounded by sagebrush uplands managed by the BLM.

Wet meadow restoration work on private lands helps retain more water for livestock and wildlife. Sage grouse chicks in particular rely on wet, green habitat like this spot above the town of Gunnison. Photo by Shawn Conner

Water meandered slowly across berms and structures that were now blanketed in a thick carpet of grass. Willows were starting to sprout small, soft green leaves on this early May day.

As we wandered into the lower portion of the meadow, a sage grouse hen erupted from the meadow flying up into the sagebrush uplands. In the upper and lower meadows, the faint trails of what used to be deep, eroded gullies were full of water.

“The goal of these riparian wet meadow projects is to catch and hold the water for longer periods of time,” With mentioned. “When we first started this project, we had a lot of livestock trailing that captured runoff, increased erosion, and formed gullies, essentially draining the system.”

She pointed to a new fence line across the wet meadow, one that stopped in the sagebrush on either side of the marshy, green area.

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These shifts in animal behavior and use not only improve the hydrology of the wet meadow system, they help to spread nutrients out, reduce impacts to water quality, encourage upland use, and stretch the availability of grazing resources to last longer through the hot season.

These BLM-owned sagebrush flats near the Peterson Ranch are where the Gunnison sage-grouse gather each spring to perform their elaborate mating dance.

Moving Forward

These creative conservation efforts carry on even though the Gunnison sage-grouse was listed as threatened in 2014. Since the listing decision, the partners have continued their efforts working together on the ground and believe that the foundation they have built will carry forward to restoring grouse and their sagebrush habitat.

“Moving forward, the base that’s been developed in this community will continue to be strong,” Peterson concluded. “I think we’ll work through the listing of the sage grouse – and hopefully, for me, it’s de-listed – but we will make efforts toward viable agriculture and sage grouse conservation.”

With agrees wholeheartedly, and applauds Peterson for his conservation leadership in the Gunnison Basin. 

“He’s helped to translate the message that what’s good for the herd is good for the bird.”