Last dance for the sage grouse?

by Hal Clifford

Note: Two sidebar articles accompany this story: "Chick-a-boom-boom at the lek" and "Can cows and grouse coexist on the range?"

GUNNISON, Colo. - The way to see sagebrush is not as most people do, through the windshield of a vehicle speeding toward someplace else.

Slow down and get out of the car; walk in the midst of it.

Then the sagebrush in the cold, dry Gunnison Valley can have a scraggly beauty. It rolls across the valley floor and up the foothills on all sides, a textured foreground for the mountains. The bushes stand as miniature old growth, 2 to 3 feet tall, their gnarled trunks coated in a stringy silver bark. In the right light, the small leaves - most of which stay year-round - glow a silvery blue.

But to really see the sagebrush, go down on hands and knees.

Then it doesn't look good at all. Especially when one considers the needs of the sagebrush's emblematic bird, the sage grouse.

Here, on a flat near Tomichi Creek, biologist Jessica Young examines a lek - a traditional breeding ground that may have been used by grouse for thousands of years. Crawling through the sagebrush, we can see that the thin topsoil around the lek has eroded away, leaving gravel between the sage plants.

Young, who has long, graying blond hair and wears jeans and boots, has dedicated herself to studying the bird in the field. She scoops a small depression beneath a bush and places her sunglasses in it. We crouch down a yard away. The sunglasses, representing eggs in a nest, are easily visible.

"I shouldn't be able to see those from here," she says. "The grass here should be knee-high, even waist-high."

In gaps between the sage bushes, we can see for a dozen yards. The native grasses and wildflowers that once filled in this landscape are almost all absent. There is scant cover to protect the birds from predators, and hardly any diversity of food.

We walk another 30 yards, trying to find grouse anywhere in the vicinity of the lek. "When the pioneers were here," Young says, "we couldn't have walked this far without kicking some birds up."

On this autumn day, all we find is a bit of sign - a few piles of white pellets, their interiors a khaki green from the sage buds and leaves the birds have been eating.

Climbing into Young's truck, we slowly drive a rough dirt track through this portion of the sagebrush sea, an ecosystem that covers 150 million acres in the West. As huge as that number is, it has already been reduced by 45 percent, down from 270 million acres. Young points to more evidence of environmental distress, running down the list of impacts: grazing, power lines, roads, two-tracks, dumps, gas lines, oil and gas drilling, mining, fire, fences, subdivisions, weeds. For more than a century, sagebrush has been treated as worthless, an impediment to be removed, a dumping ground or a free-for-all zone.

"I cannot take you to any place on the public (sagebrush) lands that has not been impacted by our activities," Young says. "We have really undervalued and devalued it."

That explains why, from Canada to the Southwest, California to the Great Plains, sage grouse are in trouble. From a population estimated at 2 million when white settlers arrived, the grouse are down to only 140,000. In much of their historical range, they survive only in small fragmented populations of a few hundred birds.

Perhaps no other native species is so widely distributed and so widely imperiled. It's the clearest signal of the decline of the last great Western landscape.

The alarm has been sounded, but several years into a Westwide effort to conserve the grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem, there are only modest results. Major environmental groups disagree about what strategies should be pursued. To show real progress on the ground, the effort will have to involve ranchers, developers, governments across 11 states and two Canadian provinces, ORV drivers and hunters * everyone who uses the sagebrush for any purpose.

It will take a radical reorientation of how people see the sagebrush sea. And the change required is shaping up to be much larger than what happened in the Northwest, where a different bird's decline forced a revolution in the use of coastal forests. For better or worse, the sage grouse is earning a reputation as the spotted owl of the inland West.

"A landscape bird"

"My great-grandmother pulled, chopped, sawed and tore sagebrush. She built fires, heated houses and covered calf pens with it," confesses columnist Bill Studebaker in the Idaho Times-News in Twin Falls, in the heart of sagebrush country. "My grandparents did the same. They ruthlessly railed it out and planted alfalfa in its place. Mom and Dad kept an eye out for it, too. New growth didn't have a chance. ... It was in the way, and the way was farm fields and fortune.

"I know farmers who still, to this day, can't stand sagebrush. They let their herbicides drift over the fence onto Bureau of Land Management land. They encourage crop dusters to turn on the spray a little early and turn it off a little late. 'Just give the old sage a little dusting.' And I've been told there are folks who'll light a match to the desert if sagebrush gets too thick for cattle grass."

Few people today understand that a healthy patch of sagebrush is rich with plants and wildlife.

"The only ecosystem I know of that has more species than big sagebrush is riparian areas," says Bruce Welch, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Forest Service Shrub Sciences Lab in Provo, Utah. He rattles off lists of species found in healthy big sagebrush: 94 birds, 87 mammals, 71 spiders, 58 reptiles, 52 aphids, 32 gall midges, 24 lichens.

Among them are the sagebrush lizard. Sage thrasher. Sagebrush vole. Pygmy rabbit. Pronghorn antelope.

There are at least 30 varieties of sage bushes alone, ranging from basin big sagebrush to stiff sagebrush to fuzzy sagebrush to dwarf sagebrush - all native to the American West and found nowhere else.

The sage grouse is the most documented species of the ecosystem. Ironically, researchers know a lot about the birds, because they have long been popular with hunters, and hunted species get studied. (While hunting has fallen off as the population has declined, sage grouse are still hunted in most of the states, under conservative regulations and at a level not considered a threat.)

Of the two identified species of sage grouse - the Gunnison sage grouse and the greater sage grouse - the Gunnison is the most immediately at risk. Only about 4,000 of them survive, about half in the Gunnison Valley. It's generally believed they've been extirpated from Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The greater sage grouse (also called the northern sage grouse) is more widespread, with populations ranging from about 500 each in Saskatchewan and Alberta to more than 20,000 each in Montana, Wyoming and Oregon. They no longer survive in Nebraska and British Columbia.

Even in the states with thousands of sage grouse, "when you start breaking it down (into local habitats), many of the populations are very small, very fragmented," and headed toward oblivion, says Clait Braun, who recently retired after 30 years with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and now is a consultant on grouse issues.

Over the course of a year, a single population may occupy a thousand square miles of range, from critical wintering habitat to brood-rearing areas. These habits make sage grouse an ideal indicator species for the ecosystem. "This is a landscape bird," says Young, whose work led to the Gunnison sage grouse being classified as a distinct species in 2000. "It specializes in using very small pieces of a very large landscape."

Sage grouse blend in with the sagebrush, relying on camouflage and dispersion to evade predators, including coyotes and foxes, crows, ravens and raptors. When approached, grouse flush only at the last moment.

If you catch a glimpse of one, you'll see a mottled brown, black and white bird, about the size of a chicken. The males show a brilliant white breast and throat. They become more visible early in the spring, sometime between February and April, when they create a spectacle at dawn, gathering on the leks to mate. During courtship dances, the males fan the needle-like feathers in their tails, puff up bright yellow air sacs on their chests and scrape their wings across their breasts (see story page 10).

Hens generally nest in the same place every year. They seek out tall stands of sagebrush, where the sage canopy covers 15 to 30 percent of the land, and a rich understory of wildflowers and grasses provides food and cover. They lay eight or more eggs in a clutch, and their nesting success seems closely tied to how well the nests are hidden from predators.

As soon as the chicks hatch they can walk, and they may travel miles when they're only a few weeks old, as summer sets in and they look for insects to eat in wet meadows or farm fields. The trek to wetter areas is even more hazardous if the birds must cross open areas exposed to predators.

In summer and fall, the grouse move back to the drier uplands and even into the edges of aspen stands at higher elevations, where they eat grasses and wildflowers. During winter they congregate in sage stands that provide canopy cover and relatively low snow depths. In this season, their diet is restricted almost entirely to sagebrush leaves.

Sage grouse are vulnerable because of their salmon-like fidelity to place. Just as dams can wipe out salmon runs, development in areas where sage grouse mate, nest and winter seems not to displace birds so much as exterminate them.

Terrible disturbance

In simplest terms, the problem is this: Almost everything people do seems to harm the sage grouse. During our exploration of the Gunnison Valley sagebrush, Young, a biology professor at Gunnison's Western State College, recounts some of the local history.

When Blue Mesa Reservoir was created here in the 1970s, she says, it covered important leks. Rather than adapt to this change, for several winters afterward male grouse appeared on the ice above their flooded lek and futilely performed their ancient mating dance.

When a 1.1 million-ton uranium-mill tailings dump was being built from 1992 to 1995, about three miles southeast of the town of Gunnison, heavy-equipment operators noticed birds dancing just outside the thousand-foot-square pile. To the layman, such behavior might suggest the birds had adapted to the intrusion. But they weren't adapting; they were persevering ineffectively in the face of terrible disturbance. The year after the pile was completed, grouse populations in the area dropped 60 percent.

Even a basic fence line and its posts will become a perch for raptors that prey on the grouse. All the fence lines and power lines in the Gunnison Valley, like those across the sagebrush West, sterilize swaths of ground for grouse. The birds may avoid a strip of land a kilometer wide along these structures.

U.S. Highway 50, which bifurcates the valley, is another gantlet: The low-flying birds are hit by vehicles, their walking chicks run over as they migrate.

Pronghorn antelope (reintroduced to the valley in recent decades), a growing elk herd and cattle all graze the same plants the grouse need. Riparian areas, critical for raising young birds, can be trampled by livestock.

Overhead, hundreds of crows and ravens circle near the Tomichi Creek lek, attracted to the county landfill built during the 1980s on the far side of the uranium dump. These corvids prey on young grouse * a task made easier when grouse cross overgrazed ground, roads and other open spaces.

Four-wheeler tracks crisscross the sagebrush, causing further fragmentation. Chemical treatments and brush-beating, traditional efforts to kill sage in favor of grass, do the same. Ranchette developments introduce dogs, cats and human disturbance.

Around the West, such combinations of habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation are the principal causes of sage grouse declines, but they take different forms in different places. Resort-related developments are eradicating the grouse from Teton County, Wyo., and Eagle County, Colo. Ranchettes were built all through the winter range of a pocket population of Gunnisons in Dolores County, Colo., severely degrading it.

Oil and gas drilling seems to disrupt mating behavior. Coalbed methane development already occupies thousands of square miles of sagebrush in Wyoming, and is likely to expand there and in Montana.

Even fire can be a threat, especially in the Great Basin, where it works in partnership with the weed called cheatgrass. An exotic introduced by grazing cattle, cheatgrass both carries fire into sage and replaces sage ecosystems after they burn (HCN, 5/22/00: Save Our Sagebrush).

There are a few places where grouse populations are on the upswing, such as Jackson County, Colo., but even so, cyclical population peaks are consistently declining over time. "You start putting your fingers on the map," Braun says, "and almost every place you put (them), there's a local problem."

Political players

So far, attempts to reverse the decline of the grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem are a typical mishmash of politics, bureaucracies and dueling science.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the Gunnison sage grouse a candidate for the endangered species list in 2000. "Candidate" means the agency would list the bird for protection, if it had the money to deal with the problem. But it doesn't.

The greater sage grouse is expected to be nominated for federal protection later this year across all 11 states of its U.S. range. American Lands, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., that has launched a campaign to preserve the sagebrush sea, says it will file the petition. Environmental groups have already petitioned the feds for protection of small, distinct, local populations in eastern Washington and around Mono Lake, California.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service is backlogged with 252 candidate species and about 1,800 threatened and endangered species nationwide. The agency is overwhelmed, underfunded, and under political pressure not to take action, says Andy Kerr, an advisor on sagebrush issues to American Lands (formerly American Lands Alliance). "We're prepared to sue," Kerr says, to force the feds to protect sage grouse.

It makes sense, he says, because most of the sage grouse's habitat is federal land. The Bureau of Land Management controls about 85 percent of the habitat regionwide, and the U.S. Forest Service controls some of the remainder. "Federal listing is the only way to get the BLM to conserve and restore the habitat," Kerr says.

But another major environmental group active in sage grouse conservation, the National Wildlife Federation, doesn't think it's wise or necessary to wield the big stick of the Endangered Species Act.

"We don't believe the (greater sage grouse) population has reached the point where a petition to list them as threatened or endangered is justified," says Tom France, head of the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies office, in Missoula, Mont. While the bird has declined tremendously, "the core ranges are in reasonable shape. Now is the time to address the problems."

Federal intervention would alienate key political players, chiefly ranchers and farmers, who not only lease federal land for livestock grazing, but also own many lowland riparian areas, France says. "Many key grouse ranges are on private lands."

Grazing is the most contentious of the issues around grouse - and the one many biologists avoid discussing. Even environmental groups disagree on the science of how grazing affects grouse (see story page 12).

Federal intervention would also alienate the states' wildlife agencies, France says. "The state agencies have the public trust to manage wildlife, and they have much more resources than the feds do."

So the National Wildlife Federation has been working with state wildlife agencies and the two federal landlords to increase awareness, scout grouse populations and follow guidelines for managing the habitat. The goal is to have local grazing plans, for example, be more accommodating to sage grouse.

"We've been hard at this," France says. "We're trying to get the state agencies to take the lead. We've made good, if not great, progress. It varies by state."

The process is similar to the way the states are involved with other at-risk species, such as the black-tailed prairie dog. In a joint project led by the BLM, including the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, all 11 grouse states have sage grouse working groups planned or up and running. They're supposed to come up with local plans and help see that the grouse and its habitat are protected on the ground.

There are guidelines, first drafted in 1977 and redrafted last year by state and federal biologists, which in effect call for a circle to be mapped around each lek. Inside the circles, the emphasis is on managing for grouse habitat. And the circles take in large areas - nesting habitat should be preserved and restored within several miles of a lek where the birds don't migrate, and within 11 miles of a lek where the birds are more mobile.

Prescribed burns and other manipulation of plants should be limited in the grouse habitat areas, the guidelines say. So as the guidelines are applied to specific grazing allotments, ranchers' stocking levels and practices can be affected.

But there are more disagreements over guidelines, both generally and specific to each site. Is fire necessary to create a mosaic of vegetation regimes in sagebrush, or is it too destructive to nesting habitat? Is some management, which could include herbicides or brush-beating, necessary to keep sagebrush from crowding out the understory? The guidelines are not binding, and efforts to come up with local plans proceed slowly.

"The issues are very complicated," says Jim Hagenbarth, whose family has ranched on the Idaho-Montana border since the 1880s. He's neck-deep in grouse management, attending four meetings on grouse in January alone. He says he needs more flexibility in managing sagebrush than the guidelines allow: "Any time you manage a resource, you have to be site specific."

Idaho has emphasized restoration, hired "some top-notch ornithologists," and enlisted ranchers and farmers to help count grouse in leks during the mating rituals, France says.

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has assembled a governor's commission and a new network of working groups around the state, with an ambitious goal of improving 250,000 acres of habitat annually, equivalent to the amount of sage lost each year to the cheatgrass fire cycle. How this should be done is unknown; after spending so many years trying to destroy sagebrush, nobody knows how to restore it.

"The folks that started their careers trying to get rid of sagebrush," says San Stiver, a biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife, "now we're asking them to reverse their thinking and try to get it back."

Toothless process

Both American Lands and the National Wildlife Federation hope to enlist another key player - hunters, who have helped restore many game species. "The goal of the conservation community is to have a sustainable population of sage grouse, so there is a surplus" again for more hunting, says Kerr. "An organized constituency of hunters can be the first line of defense."

Just the threat of the Endangered Species Act is prodding people into conservation efforts. But it has also generated fear and hostility, especially among many ranchers and farmers. "Listing the sage grouse as a federally protected species could deliver a technical knockout to public-lands grazing," declared the Idaho Times-News in an October editorial, a typical reaction in ranching communities. The newspaper charged that environmentalists' goal "is evidently to continue the eradication of traditional land uses in the West - or what is sometimes known as rural cleansing."

If the sage grouse is federally protected, "we may meet with more resistance about doing anything on private land," says Terry Ireland, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Grand Junction, Colo. "In most cases, we aren't going to force people to change their way of doing business. ... I think we can accomplish conservation or recovery of the bird without having to list it, without having to upset some folks ... and we may get more cooperation."

But American Lands and some biologists like Braun say only federal protection will force meaningful changes, especially with grazing. "Counting sage grouse and preparing paper plans is nice, but the way to protect the sage grouse is to conserve and improve the habitat, and the primary way to do that is to remove livestock," says Kerr, who is based in Oregon and took part in the spotted owl battle.

Kerr sees similarities between the two battles: Spotted owls and sage grouse are both "charismatic species," management circles have been drawn around the nests of both birds, and the owls were threatened by "entrenched constituencies" of logging, the way grouse are threatened by livestock grazing, Kerr says.

"The result of meeting the goal of a sustainable grouse population might mean the end of grazing on public lands, but that's a result, not a goal," Kerr says.

Acknowledging that resistance from ranchers often causes the current working groups to stall, the NWF's France says that over time, more and more ranchers will come into line. "It's a 10- or 20-year process," he says, and areas with healthier grouse populations have the time.

If the working groups get tough on them, many ranchers "would walk away," says Jean Stetson, who runs cattle on 10,000 acres of BLM land in northwestern Colorado and is involved in a five-year-old working group there, which has yet to agree on a local grouse plan.

The difficulty of bringing people together is shown in the Gunnison Valley, where the first local effort began. Since 1995, representatives of state and federal agencies, academics, local government, ranchers and environmentalists have labored as the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group to restore the bird.

At the first meeting, 100 people showed up. At the second, 50 were present. By the time the group coalesced, it was composed only of representatives of a dozen interest groups or agencies - from the Black Canyon Audubon Society and High Country Citizens' Alliance to the Gunnison Stockgrowers Association, Colorado Division of Wildlife and five federal agencies, including the National Park Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"There were three or four individual (citizens) who showed up at first, but when they realized how long this was taking, they sort of dropped out," says Joe Capodice, a BLM wildlife biologist who rides herd on the working group.

Among its problems: The BLM-led group generally meets only twice a year. The group drafted its plan in June 1997 - calling for scores of individual projects, from managing noise sources near leks to regulating ORVs, to making presentations to county boards - and is now beginning a review, to be completed by early summer. Anecdotal evidence suggests that little progress has been made on the ground, and that, in fact, the political structure of such groups ultimately stymies real change.

"It is a voluntary plan, and up to this point it's been looked at very much in that light," says Michele Sewolt, a biologist who, with husband Pat Magee, founded Sisk-a-dee Environmental Organization, a nonprofit trying to carry out the plan. "I can't see where there's been a big thrust of effort put into implementing the plan, at least at the level it could be. It has to be understood that there are interest groups that are going to have to give a little bit more than others are. We can't please everybody in an equal sense, and I think our working group has tried to do that."

One person involved in the Gunnison sage grouse process, who asked not to be named, says the BLM is not getting tough enough on grazing. The BLM is responsible for 300,000 acres of grouse habitat in the valley, almost all of it leased for grazing, and the agency's staffers "don't have the real desire to make changes, to make difficult choices. They don't want to take it on because it's confrontational."

"I'm very proud of the progress that BLM has made," counters Barry Tollefson, the agency's Gunnison field manager. He points out that between 1999 and 2001, his office cut the permitted cattle-grazing animal-unit months (one cow and calf on the range for one month) by 19 percent, or 8,000 AUMs. "Sage grouse management (now) is kind of the overriding umbrella in any management decisions ... in sage grouse habitat. Whether it's grazing issues or gravel pits or road rights of ways, the first thing out of our mouths is, 'What kind of sage grouse impact are we dealing with?' and then we go from there."

Tollefson concedes the working group's voluntary nature and consensus approach may have caused some scientific compromises, but says that "in the long run, I think we will be more successful if we're working on a community-based initiative."

But local BLM ecologist Sandy Hayes says about half the BLM sagebrush "is not meeting the standard" for plant and animal community health and diversity.

Evidence like that, says Jessica Young, indicates the go-slow approach won't be enough for the few thousand remaining Gunnison sage grouse. "I recognize the enormous amount of fear around this issue," Young says. "I wish I could go to the ranchers and land agencies and say, 'It's going to be okay.' But I can't. If we're going to sustain this ecosystem, there are going to be real economic impacts. That's the choice we face. I keep trying to get people back to the table, because we don't have a lot of time."

 

Hal Clifford writes from Telluride, Colorado.

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