Thursday, December 31, 2015
The Grouse That Roared: Will Voluntary Conservation Efforts Work in the Intermountain West?
...Over a lunch of brisket, courtesy of local grass-fed cows, each rancher’s story unfurls in much the same way: with total acreage usually in the thousands, and then, when prodded, a breakdown based on leased Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land versus their privately owned acreages. It becomes subtly evident that they view the BLM land as their own although legally it’s public land leased for the public welfare. The checkerboard pattern which intercuts private land with public land, however, makes that distinction fuzzy, except in one critical way. Here in the arid intermountain west the private land has most of the water, as much as 70 percent by some estimates.
The ranchers subjecting themselves to this odd interrogation are members of Stewardship Alliance of Northeastern Elko (SANE) which member Robin Boies says, “Uses conflict management, a facilitated collaborative process, and sustainable agriculture techniques to improve habitat health while creating a new mythology for the west based on civil dialogue and long term solutions.” It’s a refreshing perspective coming just six hours north of Cliven Bundy country. SANE isn’t here to talk land, however, they’re here to talk sage grouse. But you can’t extirpate the sage grouse from the land and expect either to do well.
...In a 2011 settlement with environmental groups, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to determine within four years whether the sage grouse warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act. If the sage grouse did not get listed, some feared the bird would go extinct. Yet listing itself offers no panacea: The northern spotted owl has been on the list since 1990 and its population continues to decline. The decision impacts at least 165 million acres across 11 states—California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming—that make up the sage grouse’s domestic range. As a result, the bird’s fate became a political football, with legislators as well as the agriculture and oil-and-gas industries, attempting to block the bird’s listing. In December 2014, Congress voted to withhold funding to implement any listing, which Western lawmakers say could limit the region’s avenues for economic development.
At the same time, states have poured millions of dollars into habitat protection, ranchers have altered ranching practices, fracking sites refrain from drilling near breeding grounds and wind sites have been redesigned—all to avoid impacting the sage grouse and avoid the need for listing.
These efforts have seemingly worked. On September 22, the FWS announced that it had determined the sage grouse did not require greater protection as a threatened or endangered species.
... It’s just after sunrise one Sunday morning in April, the air still has the bite of an early morning chill and a rancher drives me past wire fence lines marked every three to four feet with 4-inch pieces of white plastic. Sage grouse frequently fly to their death by colliding with the barbed wire fences that corral livestock. These markers make the fences visible to the sage grouse and a 2010 study funded by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found that they reduce sage grouse mortality by 83 percent.
Robin and Steve Boies work hard to ensure their ranching practices are within the ecological limits of their land. They keep the size of their herds at a level that the land can support, grazing half the ranch at a time and resting the other half. They even employ cowboys to ensure the cattle stay where they’re supposed to, with the added benefit of keeping predators like coyotes away. The goal is to keep ranching while also protecting the land.
“In the 1980’s when we started this,” says Robin Boies, “we were in an absolute war with the BLM over grazing. But it doesn’t do my soul to be in conflict.”
Despite the opposition to cattle ranching by some environmental organizations, like the Western Watersheds Project, many ecologists no longer have a problem with ranching when properly practiced. Herbivores have always existed on grasslands, and a growing body of data has shown that appropriate grazing can improve wildlife habitat and plant species diversity. On the ridgeline, dots reveal themselves to be a herd of pronghorn, the fastest land animal in North America and the second fastest animal in the world. They’re the sole surviving descendants of an ancient family dating back 20 million years. Much of their range overlaps with that of the sage grouse, and like the sage grouse its numbers too have dwindled. Two subspecies, the peninsular pronghorn which resides in Baja California, and the Sonoran pronghorn which sticks to the Arizona’s Sonoran desert, are on the endangered species list. But here, cheatgrass seems far away and the sprawl of craggy hills is stippled with sagebrush.